WEST MEMPHIS — Arkansas is nearing critical numbers entering today’s AutoZone Liberty Bowl, but Sam Pittman is still expecting a great effort from his squad.

In 2020 during the COVID season a team had to have 53 scholarship players available before being allowed to play a game. Arkansas is just above that number for this game though that number is no longer required to play a game. While the Hogs have new faces starting at some positions it’s special teams where the depth could be tested.

“I think, yes, I think there’s going to be new faces,” Pittman said. “Guys that haven’t played in the games. We’ve always been a three- and four-deep practice special teams roster as it is. Yes, I think there’s definitely concern about special teams. Some of our starters are going to have to play a few more special teams than what they had in the past. Normally we have a starter that needs to play on one. He may need to play on two or three this particular game. That is definitely a concern for us.

“We’re going to be as aggressive as we can be on our special teams for the game as well. I don’t know if Kansas is in the same boat as we are. I don’t feel like they are. I feel like they have not lost quite as many as we have. With that comes opportunity. I’m excited for the kids to go out there and get their opportunity to play. They’re excited about it. You can feel the excitement from the team.”

When short on numbers despite it not being hot weather, fatigue could be a factor for Arkansas in the second half.

“I think when you go into a regular game, you have a certain number of DBs, a certain number of linebackers, a certain number of d-linemen that you’re going, ‘These guys are going to play,’” Pittman said. “I think we still feel good about those numbers. In other words, we might have seven d-linemen that we think we can go and win the game with, and we still have those guys.

“I think it would be different if we were sitting here in a week’s time, where we weren’t really ready and we didn’t get these guys ready…the Jaylen Lewis’, and the guys like that that probably wouldn’t quite be ready in a week’s time, where you’re looking at 10 practices and you’re feeling a lot better about them. I think we’re going to be fine. I think the fourth quarter has something to do with it, I think you’re making valid points. But I still think we have enough players that we feel can play winnable football for us that we’re feeling pretty good about the game.”

Arkansas has had 10 practices for this game including using the indoor facility at the University of Memphis on Monday.

“Practices have been outstanding,” Pittman said. “I told them the other day, this isn’t the new Arkansas team. This is just Arkansas. Everybody that’s here has been on our team has been here all year. So it’s not a new team that we’re going to run out there with. It’s our team. We’re not making any excuses, none. We’ve got enough good players on our football team that we can go out and win a football game, and that’s the expectation we have and the players have. But we’re not new. We’ve all been on the football team all year. You’re going to see a few faces that you’re not familiar with. But the practices have been lively. They have been physical.”

Much has been made about the energy Kansas expects to bring into the game. But Pittman reminds that Arkansas won one SEC game in three years prior to him arriving and wasn’t exactliy going to bowl games each season. They went to the Outback Bowl last year, but Pittman doesn’t feel that takes away from this bowl.

“So are we,” Pittman said. “Absolutely. We’re motivated. It’s not like we…now, we’ve been bowl eligible our first three years. And I’ll go back and stand on I believe we deserve that recognition our first year winning three conference games, just like we did this year. I understand Kansas…Listen, Kansas is going to be ready because they’ve got a great football coach. Coach (Lance) Leipold’s a freaking great football coach. He is. They’re excited. They’re going to be ready, but hell, two teams can be excited. I know we are. So, I know they will be. Shoot, they should be. 2008, that’s kind of like last year with us. It’d been a minute since we’d been out there. But I can promise you, we’ll be ready to play.”

While much has been said and written about who Arkansas doesn’t have, the starting running back Rocket Sanders is still there and ready to go.

“I think it’s all about confidence,” Pittman said. “Like I said before, I think Rocket was a wide receiver playing running back early in his career and now he’s a running back playing running back. I think it takes a while — the reads, to understand the offense. You didn’t do it in high school, so you don’t understand it (in college).

“I think Jimmy’s (Smith) done a great job with his back and forth with Rocket, as far as teaching techniques and all those things. But I think a confident Rocket Sanders is… He’s big, 230, can run, he’s fast. But he needed confidence. It’s amazing all the things that go into college students and what’s going on in their mind and what’s going on with their body and nutrition and all these different things. Rocket’s on top of all that stuff, so I think all that’s kind of helped him, as well, get to this point. I expect him to have a good game tomorrow.”

The kickoff is set for 4:30 today and televised on ESPN. Both teams will bring a 6-6 record into the game.