FAYETTEVILLE — The Arkansas coaches and players planned to be in Houston today preparing for tomorrow night’s Mercari Texas Bowl, but COVID at TCU forced the game to be canceled.
Unlike the previous two years before Sam Pittman was hired, it was more about who was leaving as the season ended, but this year it’s about who is returning.
The news wasn’t all bad last night as defensive end Dorian Gerald announced his return. He was one of three that Pittman said Monday would go public later that day. Running back T.J. Hammonds and tight end Blake Kern did on Monday, but Gerald waited until Tuesday. Previously, wide receiver De’Vion Warren, linebacker Grant Morgan and offensive linemen Ty Clary and Myron Cunningham announced their return for 2021.
That’s seven solid players and Pittman wouldn’t mind seeing a few more return.
“I think we’ve had four that’s come out and said they’re returning,” Pittman said Monday. “Obviously that makes you feel good. It makes you feel good because A) they want to come back. Obviously Grant (Morgan) had an opportunity in the NFL draft, but decided to come back. Myron (Cunningham), we felt like from the grades we got back from him that he was definitely a draft-able player, but he came back. Then De’Vion (Warren), we knew De’Vion was going to come back. I think he announced it on senior day. He didn’t, but I think his parents did on the video. Then Ty Clary, we knew was going to come back quite a while ago, so we got that out yesterday.
“We have three other guys that I believe will come out that they’re coming back today. Then, we’re still working on a guy or two, so we’ll see how good of recruiters we are. But we certainly — if you can bring, not your entire team, but if you can bring a lot of seniors back, I think that means something to the program. Obviously they’re talented and we’re excited about those guys, and we’re excited to announce the other three today, and excited about the possibility of possibly getting even more back. We’re just really happy that they think enough of the University of Arkansas and the program that they’re going to come back for their sixth year, or their double-senior year, however you want to say it.”
Some had speculated quarterback Feleipe Franks might return, but that was never the plan. Franks came to Arkansas for one year with the intent on getting the program on better footing and help his draft stock. Franks did both and much for the program.
“I think Feleipe has come in here and done what he said he would do for the University of Arkansas,” Pittman said. “I was so excited to see that he got the invite to the Senior Bowl. I believe that he belongs there. I believe that he’ll do really well there. But he came here to play well enough to be talked about in the NFL Draft. And now with the Senior Bowl, they’ll be able to see him live, see how strong his arm really is, and get to know him as a person. I think that will also up his draft stock, just getting to know him as a young man. I don’t anticipate him coming back. We’ve got KJ and Malik and those guys for our future, and we feel we’re in good shape there at quarterback. But Feleipe has done everything he can do for us.”
Cunningham feels the culture brought to Arkansas by Pittman and his staff are among the reasons seniors are opting to return.
“I think it just says the culture we’ve started to build here is a good one,” Cunningham said. “The fact everyone is deciding to come back is just a positive aspect and it’s showing.”
Cunningham talked about the feedback he got from the NFL that led to him opting to stay another season.
“It was a kinda stressful process,” Cunningham said. “But the feedback I got from NFL was probably like mid-to-late draft so i just felt like it’s in my best interest to come back and try to increase my draft stock next year.”
What was some of the things they said you needed to work on before the 2022 NFL Draft?
“One of them is just working on, obviously I put on this weight and just another year showing them I can move well and fluid with it,” Cunningham said. “Another thing I think that Pitt and Coach (Brad) Davis can help me with is just knowledge of the game. This year they came the whole O-line, not just me, more than we’ve learned in the past and I think it has just been a great aspect to us.”
Warren is recovering from an ACL injury and Pittman talked about how his recovery is coming along.
“Well De’Vion, he’s walking around doing good,” Pittman said. “I think he’ll be able to do some things in spring. I don’t think he’ll do any contact in the spring. But I think he can do some things on air. He’ll certainly be able to do walk-throughs and things of that nature. We’ll be really slow with him. ACL’s are a slow return injury anyway. So I think he’ll do something in spring. I’m positive it won’t be anything full speed getting hit.”
Running back Trelon Smith is pleased to have all seven of the seniors returning, but his eyes lit up when talking about the two offensive linemen who block for him.
“Oh man, very excited,” Smith said. “That just makes us closer. Just hear that those guys are coming back with them being seniors, that means a lot. That’s a good thing. We’ll have big bodies up front. We’ve got some guys coming who Coach recruited who are going to help those guys. I’m very excited to see how the O-line looks come next year.”
When Rakeem Boyd opted out of the season before the Missouri game, Smith was promoted to starter and Hammonds became his backup.
“Man, T.J. Hammonds has really impressed me,” Smith said. “I love T.J. Hammonds to death. He just wants to work. Just to get his opportunity and see him take full advantage of it, I was happy for him. Just to see him balling out on the field and having fun again, that means a lot. I’m glad to see T.J. back.”
Redshirt freshman safety Jalen Catalon is also elated to see this large group of seniors returning.
“That just adds the experience back to our team for one more year,” Catalon said. “I feel like Grant’s been here for 10 years, but nah. Just for him to come back on our defense, that’s going to be a huge addition for us, along with other people coming already. On the offensive side, you have Kern, De’vion Warren just announcing, a couple O-lineman with Ty and Myron. That’s just huge for our team. They’re leaders, and they’re definitely going to be a huge part of our team going into next year, for sure, so I’m excited for them to come back.”
Junior linebacker Bumper Pool is pleased to have the seniors back and is obviously very excited about Morgan returning.
“He texted me the day before Christmas and I was so excited, it was like my little early Christmas present,” Pool said. “Grant and I are really close and. Getting to have one of your closest friends come back and play with you, especially for my senior year, super exciting. I think we’re building something special. We’ve been grinding in these bowl practices, grinding like we’re practicing for next season. When you have this many guys coming back, that’s kind of what you get to experience. Love that and hopefully we get all the guys back, but I’m very excited about it.”
Morgan also talked about the culture change at Arkansas that made him and others want to come back for another year.
“We’ve had an identity change of being just hard workers now,” Morgan said. “We’re not about the glamorous, we’re not about trying to make people think we look good. We want to able to go out there and just get the work done. Every single day we put on our hard hats, as Coach Pittman likes to say. We put on our hard hats and we got to work. We’re blue-collar workers, blue-collar men. We just go out there and get the job done. We could be beat up. We could have a hurt elbow, a hurt knee. But we go out there and get the job done. That’s just what we do. That’s how it is.
“The identity of the team is we’re just going to be physical and we’re going to go get the job done. I think that’s what it’s going to be as long as Pittman’s here. I think no matter how good we get. Say one day we win a national championship. That’s still going to be the identity. If we win a national championship, the next day we’re going to come back and Coach Pittman will say, ‘I don’t care. We’re going to work.’ So that’s the identity and that’s what he’s already embodied into this program. The coaches all bought in, and when you see every coach agree with the head coach and the way they act and they’re all similar, then you know you’ve got something good going.”
One additional note on the seniors returning. It isn’t completely an optional decision for them. To be on scholarship in 2021, the senior has to be asked back by the coaches.