FAYETTEVILLE —Coach Sam Pittman doesn’t want his over-achieving Arkansas Razorbacks to ever turn into overdogs.
A perpetual chip on the shoulder mentality suits Pittman and the University of Arkansas football team just fine. Even after a 9-4 season, the best in a decade, with four trophy game victories and more time spent inside the top 25 than out of it and a final ranking of No. 21 in the College Football Playoff, the Hogs are all about that blue collar approach.
That’s heady stuff for a program that languished in the SEC West cellar for three consecutive seasons before Pittman took over in December 2019.
So Pittman was asked in his pre-spring practice press availability Thursday about the bulls eye maybe shifting onto the Razorbacks’ backs.
“Not everybody’s going to say good about you, so you still have to have that chip to prove somebody wrong,” Pittman said. “And if nobody’s talking bad about us, we’ll just make it up. … The bottom line is that’s who we are. We are a chip-on-the-shoulder underdog from the head coach all the way down to the last player on the team, and we like it that way.”
There’s the Pittman approach in a nutshell, even if the Razorbacks enter 2022 with a dark horse tag, projections in the upper tier of the SEC West and even preseason top 10 consideration.
Pittman said he knows his club has significant strides to take between now and the season opener against Cincinnati on Sept. 3. It all starts today with the first practice of 15 during spring drills.
The Razorbacks have lost an all-timer at receiver in Treylon Burks, a solid left tackle in Myron Cunningham, a significant chunk of their defensive line production, two legacy linebackers in Grant Morgan and Hayden Henry, their best cornerback in Montaric Brown and two others starting defensive backs in Greg Brooks Jr. and Joe Foucha.
Pittman touched on focus points for spring drills, beginning with a couple of areas that impact both sides of the ball.
“Offensively, we’ve got to be a better short-yardage team,” he said. “That’s going to be a big deal with us. On both sides of the ball we’ve got to do better, which we did, but we’ve go to be better on third down. … Big emphasis on first down on offense, what we’re doing.”
Pittman admitted he’s intrigued by modern day advanced analytics, the kind which led Ole Miss Coach Lane Kiffin to go on fourth down 49 times last season.
The Rebels converted 31 of 49 (63.3%) to rank 26th in the FBS, just a fraction higher than the Razorbacks’ 63.2%, but Arkansas tried it 30 fewer times while going 12 of 19. So Ole Miss wound up with 19 extra sets of downs than Arkansas with gambles that often paid off.
“I’m trying to do some analytical stuff myself,” Pittman said. “I don’t know if it’ll work. I don’t know if I’ll ever go for it on my own 18-yard line on fourth down. But I’m at least looking at why and things of that nature.”
On the other side of the ball, Pittman said coordinator Barry Odom is trying to scheme up more ways to add pressure, a trend the Razorbacks got going with decent success late last season.
“Defensively, we believe we’ve got to put more pressure,” he said. “We believed that last year. On first down we’ve got to get the opposing offense behind the sticks. We did a better job last year than we did the year before.”
“But we’ve got to bring singles [blitzers] a little more, kind of what we were doing in the bowl game and the latter part of last year, where we were blitzing a little more.”
The second component to additional pressure is holding up in coverage, which is also an area of focus.
“We certainly have to be better at corner,” Pittman said.
Additionally, he said, there is room for improvement on special teams, which improved dramatically in Year 2 under coordinator Scott Fountain, but still allowed blocked punts in two of the first five games, including one in the end zone for a touchdown during eventual national champion Georgia’s 21-point first quarter blitz.
“We’ve got to figure it out We’ve talked about it, We have to be better on the punt team,” Pittman said. “I think we did a fine job on the punt team, but we had to learn too many lessons. We want to fix that before Georgia blocks a punt on us, and certainly Rice did as well.”
On offense, quarterback KJ Jefferson, a strong group of running backs and four starters on the line return. However, it’s highly unlikely any single receiver can match the production of Burks, a potential first-round NFL Draft pick who had a flair for the dramatic while racking up 66 receptions for 1,104 yards and 11 touchdowns in 12 games.
Pittman admitted it’ll be hard to find one player to approach Burks’ numbers, but Oklahoma transfer and former 5-star signee Jaden Haselwood should have a chance.
“We’ve got to find one, at least one, and you would like to find more, but we’ve got to find that Burks-type guy,” Pittman said. “I don’t know if we can find him. Maybe we can find two that we can go to because we have to make KJ comfortable in who he has.
“Certainly we believe it will be Haselwood. He’s basically playing the same position which Burks played. He’s very athletic and can do a lot of things we asked Burks to do. Certainly not trying to compare him to Treylon Burks. It’s not fair to him. We believe he can be that guy.”
Pittman said Warren Thompson and Ketron Jackson Jr. also have the potential for go-to status.
“Ketron Jackson has looked super,” Pittman said. “Bigger, stronger and mature. Hopefully we can be better at all the positions and that way we can replace some of those yards at the other two positions and replace the yards Burks had for us. It’s hard to replace Burks.”
The left tackle job is a critical spot, and veteran Luke Jones and redshirt freshman Devon Manuel look like the top two candidates, with Dalton Wagner likely remaining at the right tackle.
Pittman touted the versatility of Jones, who joins Marcus Henderson and others on the backup center roster behind Ricky Stromberg, and the improved fitness levels of Manuel and Ty’Kieast Crawford.
“Devon Manuel has lost a lot of weight,” he said. “Devon Manuel can be a really good player for us. And Ty’Kieast Crawford has changed — changed his body, changed his work ethic, changed everything. So I think he’s going to be a really good player.”
Pittman added offensive line coach Cody Kennedy has a “really strong” group to lead.
The running back corps, which helped produce four 500-yard rushers for the first time at Arkansas since 1974, will have a little different look to open spring. Senior Trelon Smith has transferred and late-season starter Dominique Johnson will be sidelined for at least the early part of spring work following offseason leg surgery.
Therefore, sophomores Raheim Sanders and AJ Green will be at the forefront in the room, along with redshirt freshman Javion Hunt and early enrollee Rashod Dubinion.