Arkansas football: 5 ways the Hogs will measure success in 2020
Sometimes even the most carefully crafted fiction can’t compare to the wacky narrative of reality.
Such was the case during Arkansas’ final game of 2019. Looking to avoid back-to-back seasons without a conference victory, the Razorbacks entered the contest against Missouri 3 weeks removed from a 45-19 loss to Western Kentucky and the firing of coach Chad Morris.
Needless to say, they could have used a break.
Instead, several coaches and players were held out following an outbreak of mumps on campus. Trotting out walk-on quarterback Jack Lindsey for his first career start, Arkansas fell 24-14. The bizarre story seemed a fitting end to an ill-fated season.
A nearly monthlong coaching search led to Sam Pittman, a former Razorbacks associate head coach and offensive line coach who held the same titles at Georgia. Although not the flashiest hire, Pittman quickly has generated optimism around the program because of his recruiting prowess and experience coaching a position group that had been a major weakness for Arkansas of late.
Expectations will likely be tempered in his inaugural season. He inherits a program that won a combined 4 games in the past 2 years and hasn’t had a winning record since 2016.
When the Razorbacks talk of success in 2020, it should be in terms of developing a culture and making small improvements that set the tone for future seasons. Here are 5 things to look for next season:
1. The defense’s identity under Barry Odom
Only 6 FBS schools allowed more points per game than the Razorbacks (36.8) in 2019: UMass, New Mexico State, Connecticut, Louisiana-Monroe, Bowling Green and New Mexico. That’s not the company Arkansas wants to find itself in if it hopes to compete in the SEC.
By far Pittman’s biggest coaching hire, Barry Odom brings more head coaching experience than the man he will work under. He amassed a 25-25 record in 4 seasons at Missouri and was just weeks removed from being the Tigers’ coach when he accepted the defensive coordinator job at Arkansas. His experience could serve to benefit not only the players but also Pittman as he makes the transition to his first head coaching job.
The hire also stands out given Odom’s defensive track record. Missouri’s defense made improvements in each of his 4 years at the helm. The Tigers ranked among the top 3 in the SEC in yards and 1st downs allowed per game last season and among the top 5 in points allowed (Arkansas was last in all categories).
He takes over a defense that loses its leader in tackles (De’Jon Harris), sacks (McTelvin Agim) and forced turnovers (Kamren Curl). But it seems a fresh start could be what this group needs.
2. O-line improvement
Hire an offensive line coach and there will be certain expectations. The Razorbacks’ line was average at best in 2019. Rakeem Boyd rushed for 1,133 yards and 8 touchdowns, and it’s crazy to think how those numbers might have looked with better blocking.
In situations where it was either 3rd or 4th down with 2 or fewer yards to go, Arkansas got a 1st down only 68 percent of the time. That ranked 10th in the SEC and 85th overall. It was also met at the line of scrimmage or for a loss on 18.8 percent of its running plays.
Pittman seems equipped to fix these issues, though change might not come immediately.
He said in his introductory press conference that he can see himself running a lot of RPO in 2020, so the Hogs should have a healthy mix of run and pass. Still, given his experience, it’d be surprising not to see Arkansas take at least a small step forward this season.
3. Building a solid 2021 recruiting class
It seems to be the consensus that Pittman is a savvy recruiter. He helped Georgia secure top 3 recruiting classes (according to 247Sports) in each of the past 4 seasons, including the top class in 2018 and 2020. Meanwhile, Arkansas’ latest class ranked 11th just among SEC teams.
Pittman will certainly find it more difficult recruiting to Arkansas than Georgia – at least in the beginning – but he seems to have charisma and is good at developing relationships with players. The type of players he recruits also will be telling of what is to come. Pittman has stated that he believes in power football — more akin to Bret Bielema than Morris — but also recognizes Arkansas’ roster might not fit that system. If he can get bigger bodies, though, that might soon change.
4. Development of young players in the passing game
Florida grad transfer Feleipe Franks appears to be the favorite to win the starting job in 2020, but let’s not dismiss K.J. Jefferson.
Jefferson only played in 3 games as a freshman in 2019, allowing him to maintain redshirt status. A 4-star from Sardis, Miss., he has the speed that would best fit an RPO offense like Pittman talked about. It’s encouraging that his best game last season came against LSU, though he only went 7-of-14 for 105 yards.
Jefferson is important because he figures to be a big part of Arkansas’ plans going forward, but he is not the only young Razorback whose development will be crucial to monitor.
Treylon Burks and Trey Knox emerged as 2 of the top 3 receiving targets last year as freshmen. The 3rd – Mike Woods – was a sophomore. The growth of all 3 will be big for either QB. If Jefferson takes a leap, the Razorbacks’ aerial attack could look dangerous in the future.
5. Staying competitive in SEC games
Arkansas kept a few SEC games close last season, but they were outscored by an average of 22.5 points. They came within single digits only twice – against Texas A&M and Kentucky. They haven’t won an SEC game since 2017, and it’s very possible that streak is extended in 2020.
To expect the Razorbacks to begin competing again right away might be a bit too generous. One conference victory seems like a reasonable goal for 2020. Missouri and Mississippi State look like the best chances as of now. If the Razorbacks can win 1 of those and at least keep themselves in some other games, it will be something to build on heading into Pittman’s second year.