FAYETTEVILLE — As Arkansas’ second-year head coach starting spring football practice Tuesday, Sam Pittman can discern all his players without a program with photos.
He couldn’t have done that last spring when covid-19 protocol terminated spring drills before they ever began and him extensively on the recruiting road from his December hiring.
“I know everybody on the team,” Pittman said Monday to media. “That’s a positive. My biggest fear last year is you guys were going to ask me about somebody I have no clue who he was, but you were very kind and didn’t do that. You know more about them… In other words, let’s say this: A year ago, we were guessing about what position to put a kid.”
For the most part they know, though part of spring ball is moving different people to determine if they can help at different places.
And with two available practice fields, there’s ample opportunity in the 14 practices before the April 17 Red-White spring intrasquad game for all to get plenty of work.
“I think we’ve learned that last year, because of covid, injuries, opt outs, we ended up using different kids a lot,” Pittman said. “We were ready for that because of the way we practiced and we two-spotted and we moved kids.”
COVID remains a concern. All practices, starting with this week’s opening drills Tuesday and Thursday NCAA mandated to be noncontact without pads, are closed prior to the spring game.
With via University of Florida grad transfer become 2020 Arkansas quarterback Feleipe Franks auditioning for NFL scouts at Wednesday’s Arkansas Pro Day, KJ Jefferson, starting in the 50-48 loss at Missouri when third-year Franks was injury sidelined, opens at quarterback with second-year freshman Malik Hornsby contesting after used in some goal-line situations last season.
John Stephen Jones, starting a game two years ago under former Arkansas Coach Chad Morris, December signee freshman Lucas Coley and Ole Miss transfer Kade Renfro also will be evaluated.
“Right now K.J.’s our starter and we certainly anticipate a really nice battle,” Pittman said. All that’s going to do is make you better. And the kids understand it. It’ll make K.J. better, it’ll make Malik better. It’ll make Coley, Renfro, John Stephen, it’ll make everybody better.”
Franks’ tangibles and intangibles he brought to Arkansas going 3-7 that was a blown official’s call from being 4-6 in the SEC under Pittman last year after successive 0-9 SEC seasons in the Morris regime, cannot be discounted.
But as far as the run-pass dual threat quarterback that offensive coordinator Kendal Briles would recruit for his offense, Jefferson and Hornsby better fit the mobility specifications, Pittman implied.
“Kendal’s offense – and I’ve watched it on tape before he was hired, I think who we have at quarterback right now is probably tailored to his offense a little bit more even than what Feleipe was.” Pittman said. “Because Feleipe was what I’m going to call a surprising runner. He ran better than what I thought he would. These other guys are certainly capable of being a running back as well. They can all throw or they wouldn’t be here. So I think it will be more of Kendal putting in everything in his offense that he can vs. some of the the things he may not have had because of Feleipe and our depth chart.”
The instant credibility that Franks brought as Florida’s starting quarterback, Jefferson now has in part after his 18 for 33 passing for 274 yards and three touchdowns against Mizzou plus a rushing touchdown.
“The team believes in him,” Pittman said. “Heck, I believe in him. He’s done a nice job. His work ethic has been leadership in itself, and he’s becoming more vocal. He’s vocal as he needs to be to be. Feleipe, he wasn’t a very vocal guy, either but his work ethic was, and that’s the same way with KJ.”
As a group, the raft of returning receivers led by junior Treylon Burks, (51 catches, 820 yards and 7 touchdowns) leads the offense, Pittman said.
Especially since repeated concussions and knee injuries have compelled promising offensive tackle Noah Gatlin to retire, much of the offensive line’s focus rivets on via University of Charlotte transfer Ty’Kieast Crawford, 6-3, 335, expected to compete with incumbent Dalton Wagner at right tackle while extra year because of covid senior Myron Cunningham returns at left tackle.
“I like Crawford,” longtime former offensive line coach Pittman said. “A big, ole kid that can move.”
Starting center Ricky Stromberg, starting guards Brady Latham and extra year senior Ty Clary and top tight ends Blake Kern, another extra year senior, and Hudson Henry return.
Pittman prefers Clary, the starting center in 2019 doubling as starting guard and backup center last year, concentrate strictly on guard.
“Our plan is to play (senior) Shane Clenin a little bit more at center and try to take a little bit of pressure of the combination of Ty Clary playing guard and center and maybe let him develop a little bit better at guard for us,” Pittman said.
Arkansas’ best running backs Trelon Smith (26 carries for 172 yards against Missouri) and extra year senior T.J. Hammonds are smallish scatbacks. So large framed true freshman 6-2,, 210 receiver Raheim “Rocket” Sanders has moved to running back to complement them.
“Obviously Smith (Arkansas’ leading rusher with 710 yards last season) has earned that spot to this point, and we’re going to let him go and see if he can continue to improve on what he has done this far.” Pittman said.
The defense returns a veteran secondary led by safety Jalen Catalon last year’s only collegian with both 95+ tackles and three interceptions, and veteran linebacking corps led by extra senior year All-SEC linebacker Grant Morgan/.
However the pass rush must improve, Pittman said.
Dropping eight back helped the Hogs early against passing teams, especially stifling Coach Mike Leach’s “Air Raid” attack against Mississippi State, but paid a late-season price vs. quarterbacks allowed too much time to throw.
“I think we’re going to have to bring five at times,” Pittman said. “We sat back and rushed three. I think we’re going to have change up what we do on first down at times. We’ve got to put a team in the hole and we didn’t do that on a consistent basis last year. We’ve got to find a pass rush.”
Pittman only listed four, all coming off surgeries, as unable to practice this spring. They are receiver/kick returner De’vion Warren, Koilan Jackson, moving from receiver to tight end, Collin Sutherland and linebacker Levi Draper.