As another school year dawns, another Razorback football team is set to run the gauntlet that is the Southeastern Conference West Division. With a year of experience under head coach Sam Pittman, the Hogs are brimming with confidence, even as they prepare to take on what ESPN’s Football Power Index calls the toughest schedule in the nation.
Coming off a 38-17 win in their season opener against the Rice Owls, the Razorbacks have dates with five Associated Press Preseason Top 25 opponents, including three in the next four weeks of the season. Arkansas has spent the past four seasons in the cellar of the SEC West, but that has not stopped the radiant enthusiasm surrounding Pittman and the Hogs.
“I’m probably the most well liked 3-7 coach in the history of football,” Pittman said July 22 at the SEC Media Days in Birmingham, Alabama. “I’m very grateful and thankful for that.”
Though the Razorbacks are coming off an ugly record, their roster is filled with seasoned veterans. If they are going to build on what Pittman and company started last season, experience must propel them to new heights.
Of the 22 offensive and defensive starters listed on the initial depth chart, 14 are seniors. The least experienced starters are redshirt sophomores. The only freshman to come in at the top of his position on the depth chart is kicker Cam Little, the No. 1 kicker in the class of 2021 according to 247Sports.
The standout veterans include AP preseason second-team All-American Jalen Catalon and first-team All-SECers — as voted by the coaches — Grant Morgan and Treylon Burks.
Burks, who is No. 88 on ESPN’s Top 100 college football players list, will be an offensive catalyst on a team that placed eighth in the SEC in points and yards per game last season. Seniors De’Vion Warren and Tyson Morris join him atop the wide receiver depth chart, and redshirt senior tight end Blake Kern rounds out the group of pass catchers who will see routine looks from redshirt sophomore quarterback KJ Jefferson.
Jefferson transitions to the starting role after serving as the understudy to Feleipe Franks last season. Jefferson recorded his first career win Saturday against Rice, in which he threw for 128 yards and a touchdown, adding 89 yards and two touchdowns on the ground.
Jefferson’s rushing ability gives the Hogs another viable option in the ground game besides running back Trelon Smith. The redshirt junior emerged as a threat in 2020, and opened the 2021 campaign with a 102-yard rushing effort against Rice.
Jefferson and Smith will have the protection of an offensive line that retained all five starters from 2020. Redshirt senior tackles Myron Cunningham and Dalton Wagner and guards Brady Latham, a redshirt sophomore, and Ty Clary, a senior, will flank junior center Ricky Stromberg. Cunningham and Clary earned spots on the coaches’ preseason All-SEC third team and Stromberg received the first-team nod at center.
The Razorbacks boast even more experience on the defensive side of the ball. Eight seniors, two juniors and one sophomore are listed at the top of the depth chart.
All four starting defensive linemen are redshirt seniors. Dorian Gerald is the only returning Razorback, while Pittman brought in transfers John Ridgeway, Markell Utsey and Tre Williams to fill out the line.
Behind them are senior linebackers Morgan, Hayden Henry and Bumper Pool. Morgan, the No. 68 player in college football according to ESPN, led the SEC in tackles last season. Henry played in all 10 games last season, including three starts, and will rotate with Pool, who trailed only Morgan on the SEC tackling leaderboard.
Leading the secondary is Jalen Catalon, who began the 2021 campaign with two interceptions and 11 tackles Saturday. Catalon’s surrounding cast includes cornerbacks LaDarrius Bishop, a redshirt junior, and Montaric Brown, a redshirt senior, junior nickelback Greg Brooks Jr. and senior safety Joe Foucha.
While the Hogs’ energy and confidence are at highs not seen since the Bret Bielema days, the team needs to be prepared for a harsh reality to set in. After a season-opening win against Rice, the No. 21 Texas Longhorns will arrive in Fayetteville for a renewal of their old Southwest Conference rivalry. The Georgia Southern Eagles are third on the slate, followed by the Southwest Classic in Arlington, Texas, against the No. 6 Texas A&M Aggies and a road battle with the No. 5 Georgia Bulldogs.
The Hogs will get four games in the middle of the season against currently unranked opponents, but they will have to visit both of the past two national champions — the No. 16 LSU Tigers and top-ranked Alabama Crimson Tide — in consecutive weeks in November. Arkansas is set to wrap up the regular season at home with the Missouri Tigers, a relatively new rival that the Razorbacks have not defeated since 2015.
There is optimism on the Hill, and for the first time in a while, it is justified. It is realistic to say Arkansas could play in its first bowl game in five years, but the Razorbacks have their work cut out for them. The difference, Wagner said, is Sam Pittman.
“Coming out of (halftime), I think you look at it two years ago, guys would have rolled over,” Wagner said Saturday of the 10-7 halftime deficit during the Rice game. “Coach Pittman, playing for him, playing for the seniors that came back, playing for everybody on this team, fans, the state of Arkansas, guys are bought in. No one wanted to roll over.”