Arkansas football: Sam Pittman's first SEC Media Days shows why Hogs are on the rise
Arkansas football coach Sam Pittman realized the fight was back after his first game.
Much to the shock of the college football world, the Razorbacks led Georgia 7-5 at halftime in Week 1 last season. The Bulldogs eventually came back to win, but a message was sent. This wasn’t an Arkansas team that was simply going to give up. You might be more talented, but they would match or exceed your effort every time.
Arkansas had its first SEC victory in more than 2 seasons by the next week and finished the year 3-7. Pittman believed his team could win every game, or at least convinced his players to believe it.
“Even though we lost the Georgia game, being ahead at halftime really empowered us as coaches,” Pittman told the SEC Network at SEC Media Days.
Thursday marked the second-year coach’s first trip to the annual affair. He admitted to being a bit “nervous about the unknown,” but ultimately won reporters and fans over with his matter-of-fact way of stating things.
He talked a lot about Arkansas’ 19 returning starters, 2 of whom he brought with him to Hoover, Ala.
Linebacker Grant Morgan and offensive lineman Myron Cunningham raved about their coach. They talked about the culture Pittman has instilled and what it felt like to be a part of a team that ended a historic losing streak. And finally, they talked about where they want to go from here.
“As a player, you want to leave a legacy,” Morgan said. “I’ll be able to tell everybody that we went into Mississippi State after they beat the defending national champions. That’s something I want to be able to tell my kids and family. We’re sitting here saying we won 3 games last year, but we have a chance to win more. To be able to say I played for Sam Pittman, who knows? He could end up being a really great coach at Arkansas.”
That’s what fans in Fayetteville are banking on as well. Pittman proved himself worthy of those kinds of predictions by turning around Arkansas so quickly last year. Who knows what Year 2 has in store?
The Razorbacks lose Feleipe Franks, Mike Woods and Jonathan Marshall from 2020, leaving Treylon Burks, a legitimate candidate for the Biletnikoff Award, to highlight the offense. Pittman wasn’t shy about showering praise on his star receiver, who it was revealed wears special-ordered size 5XL gloves.
“What he needed to do to become a standout unbelievable player is get in better shape,” Pittman said. “We talked to him about that. Going out there and huntin’ them Hogs wasn’t really getting him in the greatest shape in the world. He had to do more and he has. He’s lost some weight. He looks good. He’s more confident. He’s just a tremendous person. An Arkansas kid.”
Although the Hogs return a great number of starters, they must replace their quarterback.
KJ Jefferson is expected to step in as the starter and has potential to be the first multi-year QB of the Pittman era. I believe the Razorbacks will be better this season, but how much better they get will depend on how good Jefferson can be.
He started 1 game for Franks in 2020 and tossed 3 touchdowns while running in a fourth during a loss to Missouri. Although the sample size is small, that’s a good sign that he’ll be able to produce well for Arkansas.
But the topic of Jefferson was hardly addressed at SEC Media Days except for when Pittman confirmed him No. 1 on the depth chart. Instead, the focus was on the coach, the improvement of the program and the brutal conference schedule.
Arkansas has road games against Alabama, Georgia, LSU and Ole Miss as well as a home matchup with Texas A&M. They also face Texas in the nonconference.
“We just have to take it one game at a time,” Pittman said. “We have 8 games in a row to start and we’re very conscious of that. Then we have a bye. For us to have a successful season we’re going to have to stay healthy. Depth is much better than a year ago, but it’s certainly not where we want it to be.”
The loss of Woods really makes this season interesting. Before he transferred, I was more confident in the Razorbacks’ ability to improve. Now that Burks has less talent around him, it’s a bit more murky.
So what will Arkansas have to do to make another jump under Pittman? His answer to that question shows why many believe the Razorbacks are one of the SEC’s teams on the rise.
“I wish I knew that,” the coach said. “We’d jump all over the place. Here’s what I do know: It’ll be hard work. The weight room. The process of the program. The belief in the program. You can’t beat anybody if you don’t believe you can beat anybody. I think that has changed over the last year.”