Arkansas football players didn’t believe in Coach Chad Morris. But maybe they didn’t believe in themselves, either. What resulted was the worst two-year period in Arkansas football history.
Morris was finally run out of Fayetteville, and Sam Pittman, a career assistant coach with no prior head-coaching experience, was left to pick up the pieces. Not only that, but he had to try clean up the mess in the middle of a pandemic.
What resulted was the beginning of something — a foundation. The Hogs only won three games, but they were competitive. There was structure, a plan and improvement. The opening game against heavily favored Georgia featured more encouraging developments than the entire two years of the Morris era combined. The Razorbacks actually led 7-5 at halftime before losing 37-10.
As the year wore on, it was evident that the charismatic but down-to-earth Pittman had won over his team and had rid the group of the bad vibes that may have hung around after Morris left town.
“I love them. I love the team. I think they’re hungry,” Pittman said at Arkansas media day Thursday. “We’re a chip on the shoulder, tough, proud. We love the state of Arkansas. That’s not for recruiting, that’s just the truth. I think they’re a confident group. You have to do something to continue to stay confident. You have to have success in whatever way that may be. I’ve said it before, going in at halftime against Georgia last year, even though we didn’t win the game, built confidence in this program.
“The bottom line is, if you put two halves together, what may happen? I love the demeanor of the team. I like the new guys we brought in, the transfers and freshmen. I’m very proud of the new coaches we’ve brought in. I don’t know if it’s fairy tale land in there, but it’s pretty nice right now.”
So, with the odds stacked against them during a pandemic in a 10-game SEC-only slate, progress was made. Pittman knows rebuilding Arkansas to prominence won’t happen overnight, but this year Arkansas can take another step and maybe a bigger step than many think.
The Hogs’ overall schedule is a tough one, but the nonconference schedule is very manageable. Home games with Rice, Texas, Georgia Southern and UAPB should yield at least three wins. That puts the Hogs halfway to a bowl game, which would be big. With Texas, which seems very overrated in the Top 20 in most polls and coming to Fayetteville week 2, that could be 4-0. If that happens, Arkansas could win more than two games in the SEC. The more success this team enjoys early, the better it could be late.
Hogs fans should be encouraged by a couple of things. The defense could be very dominant. Defensive coordinator Barry Odom took a lifeless squad and made them tenacious. Senior Grant Morgan blossomed to become one of the better linebackers in the country, and fellow linebacker Bumper Pool also realized his potential. Freshman Jalen Catalon surprised by making big plays in the secondary. With Morgan returning for an extra season, the defense should be even better. A strong defense can definitely help a team exceed expectations.
Offensively, the line is solid. We knew it would be with Pittman, a longtime offensive line coach, at the helm. The unit has improved, and that will be important this year with first-year starting quarterback K.J. Jefferson under center. The athletic Jackson took notes as Florida graduate transfer Feleipe Franks guided the improving unit and first-year offensive coordinator Kendel Briles installed his up-tempo system.
It appeared that Briles didn’t always pull the right strings at the right times in his debut. That will be important with Jefferson this season. Jefferson is more athletic than Franks, so Briles can take advantage of that. It also helps that Jefferson has junior wide receiver Treylon Burks at his disposal. Jefferson should hook up with the potent Burks, one of the top receivers in the country, a lot this season.
While Arkansas may be a few seasons away from fielding a contending SEC team, it is apparent Pittman has brought that culture to The Hill, and this season will only add to the confidence and good feelings that are in evident in the locker room.
“We’ll certainly have our expectations, but you’d like for the expectations to be met by the players,” he said. “That’s when you have a pretty good football team, and they feel like they own the team. That’s probably the number one deal because coming out of the spring and coming out of the summer, you felt like the team was about to take ownership of themselves. Then that becomes belief and certainly confidence comes out of that.”