First and 10: Arkansas is ready to play real football again, and that's the Hogs' only hope
1. I don’t want to get on a soapbox, but …
It’s not like he hasn’t seen this dance before. He’s been around the SEC long enough to know when it does and doesn’t look good.
And when it doesn’t, it can go bad quickly.
“I do think winning the bowl had something to do with a little bit of life back in the program,” Arkansas coach Sam Pittman said.
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Now the Hogs are trying to find their mojo again.
Days after the win over Kansas in the Liberty Bowl, the exodus of players leaving Fayetteville began, and soon grew to 25 — or nearly 30% of the 85 scholarship limit. Arkansas also lost its offensive and defensive coordinators, 5 total assistant coaches and the entire strength and conditioning staff.
Now think about how important the 3 OT win over Kansas was for a program that was running on fumes by the end of the season.
Yet here they are, 4 months removed from a season of 4 brutal losses by a combined 9 points and too much locker room drama, centering and refocusing on what’s good and what works: physical lines of scrimmage.
Because if you win on the line of scrimmage in the SEC, you’re not staring into disbelief when a potential game-wining kick hits on top of the upright.
Or you look up in a meaningless November nonconference game, and the next thing you know, you’ve given away a game to Liberty.
Or you can’t run the ball against overmatched Missouri, commit a couple of turnovers and give up 138 yards rushing to the Tigers’ quarterback.
It should come as no surprise then, that after 25 players left Fayetteville and Arkansas hit the portal to replace many (they still have 8 scholarships available), Saturday’s Red-White game wrapped up 15 spring practices that were all about setting a tone at the point of attack.
Or as Pittman says, “full-speed tackle football.”
And you know what? There will be more of it in fall camp. They’ll scrimmage, and they’ll bang and they’ll move toward what they were in 2021 — and far away from what they were in 2022.
“Our kids are in a really good frame of mind,” Pittman said.
Which is 180 degrees from what it was at the end of the 2022 regular season.
Like it or not, this is the new era of college football, where the transfer portal and free player movement have changed the way you build and develop rosters. And it isn’t always positive.
For every TCU or USC that uses the transfer portal to make near championship runs, there’s an Arkansas that nearly lost 2 years of momentum with the perfect fit of a coach.
And lost its mojo in the process.
2. The cyclical nature
More than 1,000 players entered the winter portal at the end of last season, and more will enter the spring portal — which opened last Saturday for 15 days.
And that brings us to this undeniable reality: Once you dip into the portal, it’s difficult to get out.
Arkansas jumped right back into the portal in January in an effort to replace the 25 who left (or were encouraged to leave). The Hogs will likely sign more players from the spring portal, and could still lose more players.
“Y’all don’t have any news that I don’t know, do you?” Pittman quipped after the spring game.
The Hogs added 5 impact players on defense — edges John Morgan (Pitt) and Trajan Jeffcoat (Missouri), CBs Jaheim Singletary (Georgia) and Lorando Johnson (Baylor) and S Al Walcott (Baylor). They added 2 other line of scrimmage impact players in G Josh Braun (Florida) and DT Anthony Booker (Maryland).
Any additions from the spring portal will likely be on the lines of scrimmage — and, like the others of the previous 2 seasons, aren’t guarantees.
There’s a reason the portal is overflowing with players, a reason they’ve left their previous school and have gone looking for another home. A second chance, a new beginning.
Some aren’t good enough to play where they were, some didn’t get along with the staff. Some wanted 1 final shot playing at the highest level of college football, others needed 1 more chance to get to the NFL.
If Arkansas adds 8 more from the portal, that will be a total of 20 players from the portal and 20 potential hits or misses — on the field and in the locker room.
Want to know just how unstable it really is? The Hogs last year added edge rusher Jordan Domineck from the portal. He finished 2nd on the team with 7.5 sacks (he had 9 the previous 4 seasons at Georgia Tech) and gave the Hogs an athletic, disruptive presence on the edge.
He announced at the end of the season that he was returning to Arkansas for his 6th super senior season. Then he entered the portal.
He will play in 2023 at Colorado.
3. Back to basics, The Epilogue
Remember, this isn’t Pittman’s first rodeo in the SEC. He knows what works.
He was an offensive line coach at Tennessee, Arkansas and Georgia before returning to The Hill as a head coach.
He wants to run the ball and stop the run and be aggressive on both sides of the ball. That means the addition of Dan Enos as OC (replacing Kendal Briles who left for TCU) translates to more pro-style sets, more 2- and 3-tight end personnel and dual-threat QB KJ Jefferson at times under center.
The Hogs want to dictate and control tempo. Too often last season, Arkansas couldn’t simply line up and get key first downs late by blowing the other guy off the line of scrimmage.
The idea is to keep Jefferson healthy all season, and prevent him from absorbing big hits in the zone read and QB power run game. He’ll still be a factor in the run game, but if Arkansas is doing it right and controlling the line of scrimmage, RBs Raheim Sanders and AJ Green will be getting a majority of the carries.
Last season, Arkansas lost by 3 points to LSU, and by 2 points to Texas A&M, Liberty and Missouri. In those 4 losses, the Hogs’ running backs ran for 401 yards (100 yards a game).
You want to find your mojo again? It’s right there on the line of scrimmage.
4. Taking control
He was playing with the 1st team offense against the 2nd- and 3rd-team defense. It was a spring game.
Forget about those disclaimers. Carson Beck last weekend looked like the quarterback who won the top backup job in 2021 before Georgia coach Kirby Smart went with experience over fall camp competition and played Stetson Bennett when JT Daniels was injured.
That’s what has been lost in the remarkable 2-year run from Bennett. Who knows what would’ve happened if Beck simply moved into the starter’s role as the top backup?
Much like Bennett, Beck could be preparing for the NFL Draft. Instead, he’s the clear winner of the spring competition with Brock Vandagriff and Gunner Stockton.
Beck looked a whole lot like Jake Fromm and Aaron Murray and David Greene — and, yep, Bennett — in the G-Day spring game. He threw confidently, fluidly and managed the game near perfectly.
He showed arm talent and touch, and he’s not a statue in the pocket. The only question remaining is will Vandagriff or Stockton transfer during the spring transfer portal period?
Beck was that good in the G-Day game, and has been that good in the 15 spring practices — and left zero doubt about Georgia’s starting quarterback in 2023.
“We have 3 really good quarterbacks who can make the throws and do a really good job,” Smart said after the G-Day game.
That, everyone, is the sound of a coach who doesn’t want to lose an experienced backup (Vandagriff) to the portal, and wants Beck to keep pushing in the summer.
5. The Weekly 5
The top 5 odds for which teams will draft Kentucky QB Will Levis:
1. Indianapolis Colts (+125): If Bryce Young and CJ Stroud go No. 1 and 2 (either order), Levis is next up for a Colts franchise that can’t keep spending big money on fading QB stars.
2. Houston Texans (+300): Texans likely aren’t taking Levis at No. 2, and would likely pick him if trading down.
3. Las Vegas Raiders (+600): Levis’ tough playing style and strong arm fit perfectly with the Raiders’ historic philosophy.
4. Tennessee Titans (+1000): Ryan Tannehill is likely gone after the 2023 season, and Levis — a similar type player — can sit early this season before taking over for rebuilding Titans.
5. Seattle Seahawks (+1100): QB Geno Smith’s new contract is front-loaded, and 9-year veteran would be solid mentor.
6. Your tape is your resume
An NFL scout analyzes a draft-eligible SEC player. This week: Tennessee WR Cedric Tillman.
“He’s at an intriguing spot right now. A lot of teams are scared off by the current wide receiver group. Jaxon Smith-Njigba has the hamstring, Quentin Johnston is too inconsistent, and Jordan Addison is more of a slot guy. Teams are starting to look at Tillman’s junior season, and how impactful he was. The senior season was lost with injuries, and now the question is are the injuries an anomaly? He’s a talent, no question. And that junior season is impressive. He has size and he’s long and he can highpoint better than anyone in this draft. Great game speed. I like him a lot, maybe even a late Day 1 pick.”
7. Powered Up
This week’s Power Poll, and 1 big thing: biggest draft bust of the Super Bowl era.
1. Georgia: WR Lindsay Scott. The No. 13 overall pick in 1982 played 49 games in 4 seasons and had 864 yards and 1 TD.
2. Alabama: RB Trent Richardson. The No. 3 overall selection in 2012 played 3 seasons and averaged 3.3 yards per carry.
3. Tennessee: QB Heath Shuler. The No. 3 overall selection in 1994 played 4 seasons in the league, completing less than 50% of his passes.
4. LSU: QB JaMarcus Russell. No. 1 overall pick in 2007 spent 3 seasons in the league and played in 25 games.
5. Texas A&M: QB Johnny Manziel. No. 22 overall pick in 2014 was overwhelmed from Day 1, and was out of the league after 2 seasons and 14 games.
6. Kentucky: QB Tim Couch. The No. 1 overall pick in 1999 had as many INTs (67) as TDs, and began a string of QB misses for the miserable Browns franchise.
7. Ole Miss: RB John Avery: The No. 29 overall pick in 1998 played 4 years in the league and had 524 career yards.
8. Mississippi State: LB Johnie Cooks: The No. 2 overall pick in 1982 played 11 seasons in the league and had 32 sacks.
9. Arkansas: WR Matt Jones. The No. 21 overall pick in 2005 had 15 career TDs, but off-field drug and behavior problems led to a quick end to his career.
10. South Carolina: WR Troy Williamson. The No. 7 overall pick in 2005 had 24 starts in 5 seasons.
11. Florida: DE Derrick Harvey. Jaguars moved up to take him No. 8 overall in 2008, and he had 8 sacks in 32 career starts.
12. Auburn: DE Aundray Bruce. No. 1 overall pick in 1998 played 10 full seasons in the league and had 32 sacks.
13. Missouri: RB Joe Moore. The No. 11 overall pick in 1971 played 2 seasons in the league and had 281 yards before injuries ended his career.
14. Vanderbilt: WR Jordan Matthews. The 42nd overall pick in 2014 played 5 full seasons in the league and had 22 TDs.
8. Ask and you shall receive
Matt: Why would the SEC have a transfer portal rule that no other conference has? The rule protects the elite of the league at the expense of those trying to get better. — Cliff Porter, Miami.
The rule you’re talking about is transferring within the conference after the end of the winter portal. In 2021, the conference added the rule prohibiting players not in the portal at the end of the winter opening from gaining immediate eligibility if they transfer to another SEC school.
Any SEC player who enters the spring portal can transfer anywhere else in college football and play immediately but must sit out a season if he transfers to another SEC school.
Frankly, it’s a bad rule, and limits player movement — which is exactly what coaches wanted. This was all about roster management.
Coaches wanted the ability to protect their rosters any way possible, and since they couldn’t do it with current NCAA rules, they needed the conference to pass a league-specific rule.
The rule, though, goes against the NCAA player-friendly philosophy of recent years. If players compete in spring practice and don’t win starting jobs, they should be able to move within the conference with immediate eligibility. One team’s backup is another team’s starter.
This is essentially a quarterback rule. Coaches didn’t want to invest time in preparing multiple quarterbacks, only to have 1 leave if he don’t win the starting job — and leave the program lingering with no experienced backup.
It’s the most important position on the field, and only 1 plays. But the rule also prevents other talented backups at other positions who can’t get on the field for whatever reason, to find a place to play.
34/5. Joe Milton III is the Tennessee quarterback. He’d have to take a significant step back in fall camp, or play poorly — nothing in the last year of his development points to that — to be replaced by 5-star freshman Nico Iamaleava.
So what can we expect from Milton’s last season of college football? Quarterbacks playing for Josh Heupel in the past 5 seasons (3 at UCF, 2 at Tennessee) have thrown 168 TD passes against just 25 INTs. They’ve also thrown for 18,619 yards.
The average over those 5 seasons: 34 TDs, 5 INTs, 3,724 yards passing. If Milton stays true to the Heupel quarterback trend, the Vols will again be playing significant games in November.
10. Quote to note
Mississippi State coach Zach Arnett on QB Will Rogers: “He’s a real accurate passer when he pushes the ball downfield, and we’re encouraging him to be aggressive and not reckless.”