For Sam Pittman and his staff to build upon the modest, but meaningful successes that emerged in 2020, they’ll need some post-COVID magic right out of the gate.
The football Hogs’ 2021 schedule is — please, stop this broken record! — roundly viewed as the most brutal in the country. Our recent, arguably welcome expansion of the SEC cements that future schedules won’t be much easier. Arkansas, being only a modest 3-7 a year ago in an all-conference slate, doesn’t project as a world-beater with road tilts at Tuscaloosa, Baton Rouge, Athens and Oxford.
And there’s this Texas game coming up awfully quick, a sudden preview of what the sudden alteration of the college athletics landscape. The Longhorns may be a regular rival and league opponent as soon as next year, and there’s no question they and ever-salty Oklahoma are going to make life harder.
Pittman, fortunately, took on a massive rebuild anyway when he accepted the reins in 2019. Despite some definite recruiting wins, Chad Morris’ truncated two-year run was indisputably damaging, and depth of talent was accordingly slim.
The transition team of 2020 had some terrific moments, and a lot of those were authored by transfer quarterback Feleipe Franks, who proved steady and unflappable in a single, highly productive senior year. K.J. Jefferson’s productive efforts in limited duty gave him the inside track to claim the starting role, and it’s clearly his position to lose now.
Jefferson is more athletic than Franks, but still a mountain of a guy. His elusiveness came into play at times last year, but when he finally started to throw the ball downfield with confidence and rhythm, he really started to command attention. Jefferson’s still only thrown 72 career passes, though, and nearly half of those came in that Missouri game where he showed off his arm strength for the first time.
Malik Hornsby saw the field only briefly, in the controversial defeat at Auburn, but he arrived with ample fanfare. He’s another dual-threat type, quicker than Jefferson but wholly untested as a thrower, and he will undoubtedly see action in situational packages. If Jefferson falters, Hornsby’s natural gifts will make him a desirable option, and Pittman and Kendal Briles don’t seem averse to making that change if the circumstances warrant it.
The running back room is quite a bit more congested, and in a fortuitous way. Trelon Smith’s hard running and versatility, combined with Rakeem Boyd’s injuries, made him a viable 1-A tailback in 2020 (869 total yards, six touchdowns). But his smallish stature dictates some change-of-pace alternatives, and Pittman and his capable recruiters found more heft and firepower on the recruiting trail. A.J. Green, Javion Hart and Raheim “Rocket” Sanders will all see action, along with Josh Oglesby and veteran T.J. Hammonds, who like Smith has great hands and elusiveness.
They’ll all get to run behind an offensive line that arguably rates as the best and most cohesive group since Bret Bielema’s bowl-winning teams. Senior Myron Cunningham was steady and competent last fall, and along with veterans Ricky Stromberg, Ty Clary, Beaux Limmer, Dalton Wagner and Brady Latham, gives the Hogs a sizable veteran unit. There’s been a clear focus on shoring up the protection with Marcus Henderson, Austin Nix and Ty’Kieast Crawford, a Charlotte transfer who originally committed to the Hogs two years ago, all waiting in the wings.
Jefferson will have his share of targets, front and center among them being the electric Treylon Burks. The Warren product excelled last season to the tune of 820 receiving yards and seven scores, and missed all of one game and portions of others due to injury. He lost dependable second option Mike Woods to an unanticipated transfer, but Trey Knox, De’Vion Warren and Tyson Morris all proved useful at one time or another last year, combining for 29 catches in spot duty. Warren’s rebuilt knee is a big x-factor; his dynamic speed and ability to improve field position in the return game are essentially irreplaceable. Newcomers Ketron Jackson and Jaquayln Crawford, along with redshirt freshman Darin Turner, all look like promising candidates to take pressure off Burks, perhaps sooner than later.
The tight end corps is strong as well with Blake Kern and Hudson Henry returning. Kern was an overachiever deluxe last fall with 20 receptions for 201 yards, showing how nimble he could be as a slot or backfield option. Henry’s pedigree is well known, and he seemed to gain confidence with each of his 16 catches last fall. There’s a chance that Koilan Jackson and Levi Draper could end up being productive here, too, as both formerly ballyhooed recruits were moved from other positions to give some support.
On the defensive side, Barry Odom’s unit made such tremendous progress through the first several weeks last year, but the likes of Jalen Catalon, Bumper Pool and Grant Morgan could realistically only carry so much weight. That trio was responsible for 311 tackles, 15 behind the line. But the lack of an effective, consistent pass rush dogged the Hogs by the time the season wrapped up: the team’s 14 sacks rated dead last in the league, and only Eric Gregory (2.5) had more than two sacks.
I hardly ever equate statistical milestones with any overall success, but Arkansas can’t afford that paucity of production from the defensive front again. That’s why Gregory, Morgan and Pool, along with veterans like Dorian Gerald, Tuarean Carter and Mataio Soli, have to play over their heads again in 2021. Two beneficial transfers (John Ridgeway and Markell Utsey) will put some more beef and gametime production on the roster, but this is the area where Arkansas can ill-afford anything resembling a backslide.
That linebacking corps, as anchored by Pool and Morgan, is in better shape than it was when Morris roamed around. Chris Paul Jr. and Marco Avant aren’t likely to redshirt, and Hayden Henry, though undersized, brings the same heart and ball instincts that he’s always had. They’ll be amply protected by a defensive backfield that, thanks to Catalon’s all-world abilities, is also in substantially better position now. Greg Brooks,= Jr., Joe Foucha, Montaric Brown and Hudson Clark totaled eight picks along with Catalon’s team-leading three, so there are ball-hawks at the ready.
Warren and Burks, and perhaps the likes of Hammonds, give Arkansas all it realistically needs in the return game; Sam Loy and Reid Bauer both bring competency and experience to the punting unit, while the highly touted Cam Little likely takes over the place-kicking duties from the jump. Here’s hoping the big-legged little ends up being more Zach Hocker and less Cole Hedlund.
We’ll delve into the imposing 2021 schedule game by game next week, and offer Pearls’ customary season prediction then. Spoiler alert: I’m gonna be an optimist again, even if it pains me and strains all semblance of logic.