HOGS: Pittman seeks tenacity
FAYETTEVILLE - With his Arkansas Razorbacks starting fall practices Monday, new head coach Sam Pittman evaluated his team, starting with a new quarterback.
The former Arkansas (2013-2015) offensive line coach, Pittman inherits a team that went 2-10, 2-10 overall and 0-8, 0-8 in the SEC the past two seasons under former coach Chad Morris, who was fired.
“We’ll see how good we are at quarterback,” Pittman said Friday, “at every position. But the quarterback drives your football team. I want to see (defensively) how we can run to the football. I want to see how tough we are. I want to see how disciplined we are.”
The Razorbacks didn’t practice in the spring because of the reaction to the coronavirus pandemic that closed college sports in mid March. Monday starts two days of non-contact drills without pads, followed by two days in shoulder pads and then full pads the fifth practice.
Pittman, whose Hogs will scrimmage just twice, knows his team lacks depth and cannot risk numerous preseason injuries. It faces a 10-game SEC schedule starting Sept. 26.
“We’re going to put them through tough practices, and I want to see how we react,” Pittman said. “I feel like I know how we’re going to react. That we’re going to dig down and come roaring back the next play. But we have to test our football team in practice to see what we have.”
The thirst to practice for the first time (other than late summer walkthroughs) fuels Pittman even after the SEC dealt his Hogs the toughest possible hand. They face six teams ranked in the Hooten’s Arkansas Football preseason Top 20. Four rank in the Top 10.
Already on Arkansas’ SEC West schedule are Hooten’s No. 3 Alabama, No. 7 and defending national champion LSU, No. 12 Auburn and No. 16 Texas A&M plus Ole Miss and Mississippi State with Missouri and No. 24 Tennessee scheduled from the SEC East.
The SEC, cancelling each school’s four non-conference games, added No. 4 Georgia and No. 9 Florida from the East to Arkansas’ schedule.
Whatever his private feelings, Pittman publicly plays positive.
“The reaction to Georgia-Florida is it allows us to potentially be the hottest team in the country to talk about,” Pittman said. “So they gave us more opportunities out there against really highly ranked teams. That’s how we look at it.”
Pittman knows Georgia well after coaching the Bulldogs’ offensive line from 2016-2019 for Coach Kirby Smart.
Feleipe Franks, Arkansas’ first-team QB, is a graduate transfer from Florida. He quarterbacked the 2018 Gators to a 10-3 season and Peach Bowl victory over Michigan before his active Florida tenure ended with a broken ankle three games into 2019.
New offensive coordinator Kendal Briles looks first to Franks. A year ago, Arkansas quarterbacks endured injuries, ineffectiveness and inexperience, and five of them started. Briles will evaluate returnees KJ Jefferson, the redshirt freshman opening No. 2, senior Jack Lindsey, third-year sophomore John Stephen Jones and incoming freshman Malik Hornsby.
“Hopefully Feleipe will be what we think he is,” Briles said. “There’s still going to be competition, but I would say it’s going to be his job to lose.”
“Ball protection is going to be No. 1,” Briles said. “Right now there’s no contact with the walkthroughs. Really no high-speed collisions. Right now you can run freely and know nothing’s going to happen to you. That changes.”
Even without pads, Pittman notes Monday’s first practice will operate full speed running compared to the summer mandated walkthroughs.
New defensive coordinator Barry Odom, Missouri’s 2016-2019 head coach, wants to see how quickly the defense responds after bad plays.
“We're going to give up a touchdown sometime next week, would be my guess,” Odom said. “How are we going to react to that? What's our mental focus to be able to put that play behind us and play the next snap? What's that look like? We have done a lot of talking, and they've put in a lot of work, but let's go put it into action and see how we respond.”