BY DUDLEY E. DAWSON

While the Arkansas defense may have gotten the better of its counterpart in Saturday’s scrimmage, the Razorback offense has brought head coach Sam Pittman happiness so far in preseason camp.

He was confident in his offensive line, quarterbacks and running backs, but needed some wide receivers to step up and make plays in the camp and that’s been accomplished over the last two weeks and 13 practices.

Pittman admits that he didn’t expect such excellence and consistency from a group that includes two transfer portal additions in Jadon Haselwood (Oklahoma) and Matt Landers (Toledo) and three freshmen in Isaiah Sategna, Sam Mbake and Quincy McAdoo.

Adding those five newcomers to the improvement of returnees Warren Thompson, Ketron Jackson, Bryce Stephens and Jaedon Wilson has soften the blow of  losing superstar Treylon Burks to the NFL and veterans Tyson Morris and Davion Warren to graduation.

“That has a lot to do with coaching with Coach (Kenny) Guiton, but also has a lot to do with them, too,” Pittman said. “You can’t just say ‘well, we went in the portal and got Landers and Haselwood’ because Jaedon Wilson’s better — he’s beat up right now, too — but Jaedon Wilson’s better, Warren Thompson is a lot better than what he was last year, and Ketron Jackson. 

“So, the strength coach, the way that they’ve prepared and just the kids, who they are. But I never would have thought Warren Thompson would be the player that he is right now from a year ago. It’s a credit to him.”

That group is performing so well that redshirt senior Jaqualyn Crawford, who transferred in from Oklahoma in 2020, chose to enter the NCAA transfer portal on Saturday.

The wideouts are doing such a great job that Arkansas is dialing it back on having two backs on the field at the same time such as Rocket Sanders and true freshman Rashod Dubinion.

“Well, we like the set,” Pittman said. “Obviously it depends on who we put out there with that and more importantly, who we take off the field. If you have two backs you have to take somebody off the field. And right now with what we feel our wideouts are doing, it’s hard to take them off the field. 

“You’re either taking Knox off the field, or Haselwood, or Landers or somebody that’s, you know, Warren, that’s pretty good. But we do like that set and I’m sure we’ll use it at some point.”

Sanders has established himself as the Razorbacks’ lead back with AJ Green and Dubinion running second and third team, respectively, with injured Dominique Johnson unable to practice yet.

“AJ and Dubinion probably about equal in there with how many reps they’re getting,” Pittman said. “Rocket is the feature back. That’s who he is. Of course that’s without Dominique back and we’re going to have two feature backs at that point. We’ve got three good running backs. I believe in every one of them. Rocket has just proved it a little bit more and he’s proven he needs some more reps than those other guys.”

It was Arkansas’ second and final scrimmage in as many Saturdays.

“I’m not rooting for the offense or defense, but I thought the defense played a lot better today than they did last week,” Pittman said. “Which a lot of times you say that and think the offense didn’t play very well. That’s not the case. I just thought the defense made more plays, made the close plays more this week than they did last week.”

Still the offense generated some big plays with Sanders rushing for some 75 yards on the first drive alone and later catching a 30-yard toss from starting quarterback KJ Jefferson.

Jefferson also dropped in a 25-yard touchdown pass to Thompson, a a 15-yard scoring strike Landers and also connected with  Haselwood and tight end They Knox.

Backup quarterback Malik Hornsby threw a touchdown pass to  Jackson (65 yards), a pair to McAdoo (15 and 25 yards) and an 18-yard one to tight end Nathan Bax.

South Florida transfer quarterback Cade Fortin, working with the third team, also had a 5-yard TD toss to M’Bake.

All three freshman wide receivers have flourish in the last two weeks with McAdoo maybe having the best week and almost now being assured of not being kept off the field per Pittman.

“Yeah, I mean, we don’t plan on keeping him off,” Pittman said. “It’s just where do you put him? He’s definitely going to travel and he’s on special teams now. He’s certainly working his way up the depth chart. I think he’s a really good freshman. 

“As a matter of fact, I think Mbake, him and Sategna are all three (recruiting) hits. Part of it is they’re tough. I call them the ‘short-wire gang’ — all three of them — because there’s something a little screwed up up here, but I like it.”

Offensive lineman Dalton Wagner was happy with a cleaner second scrimmage.

“The offense has come a long ways since last year,” Wagner said. “I think we’re light years ahead of where we were last season at this time. The second scrimmage today, a little bit more polished than it was last week. 

“Last week we had a lot more penalties. This week we cleaned them up a lot. The receivers are looking great, the running backs are hitting holes… Overall, good cohesion on the offensive line. And the defense really pushed us today.”

Jefferson continued to shine and is getting the ball out quicker according to Pittman.

“Yeah, you know, he’s done that all fall,” Pittman said. “I think getting the ball out of your hands quicker has everything to do with knowing where to go with the ball pre-snap. Going with the ball, where his reads are much faster if one is covered, ‘I’m going there.’ 

“I don’t know, you’d have to ask him, but I think a lot of times it was ‘I’m going to go with one read, and if it’s not open I’m going to find Burks.’ Which worked out pretty good, you know, but this year I think he understands coverages and looks and all that. He’s got a quicker release, but I think that’s why he’s throwing the ball faster.

“Fortin had the play of the day today when he threw one kind of side-arm for a little 5-yard touchdown. Now, he’s got a quick, quick release, but KJ is doing a good job with that. I think he’s just more comfortable.”

Pittman noted that tailback  Green and Landers join Sategna as likely kickoff returners while Stephens will likely open as the punt returner and Sategna is also still being considered.

Cam Little is solidified as the field goal kicker while Texas State transfer Jacob Bates continues to push to win the kickoff job under special team coordinator Scott Fountain.

 “Probably Cam has been the more consistent of the two, but it’s definitely a competition,” Pittman said. “ For some reason Scott wants Bates to win it — he’s got to earn it — so Cam can concentrate on field goals. They’re really, really close in there. Bates just had some unfortunate kicks last week kicking off. He didn’t today, by the way.’”

Arkansas starts classes on Monday with the start of practice moving to 4:10 p.m. after working out in the mornings this past week.

The Razorbacks will begin game planning for Sept. 3 opening foe  Cincinnati on Thursday.

“ Friday we will be in full pads, Saturday is a mock game,” Pittman said. “Basically what we’re trying to do at that point is take the anxiety out of the guys that have never done it and show them where the locker room is, what we do, how we stretch and play a little bit of a mock game with situations — backed up, four minute, things of that nature. “Sunday they’ll be off.”

Phioto by John D. James