By Otis Kirk

FAYETTEVILLE — No. 19 Arkansas will take on No. 23 Cincinnati on Saturday in the season opener for both teams.

Sam Pittman discussed some players on Monday who have been battling injuries. Running back Dominique Johnson was injured in the Outback Bowl and has only practiced for just over a week with a green protective jersey. The junior played in all 13 games in 2021 with six starts. He carried 97 times for 575 yards and seven touchdowns while also grabbing seven passes for 71 yards and a touchdown. Pittman was asked about the running back depth.

“Well, you know we have the three right now with Dominique getting some indy reps,” Pittman said. “We’re going to try to add to his reps today. I think we need to do some cutting with him where we’re not telling him. In other words, go to that cone and take a right, go to this cone and take a left. I think we’ve got to do some things where he’s catching a ball out of the backfield. I don’t want him involved in the possibility where there’s guys on the ground. Not the first day. We’ll try to progress that. Somewhere he can catch the ball and has to make a move where we’re not telling him which way to go pre-snap or pre-rep, whatever that may be, and see how he does there. I don’t know if he’ll be ready this week but I sure would hope he’d be ready by South Carolina. I don’t know that. We’ll know a little bit more after we see him in practice.”

The Hogs will start Raheim “Rocket” Sanders, a sophomore, and also have AJ Green and Rashod Dubinion. Green is also a sophomore and Dubinion is a true freshman. Sanders is expected to get the majority of the carries though others will get touches.

At punter, redshirt senior Reid Bauer is still in a battle with true freshman Max Fletcher. Bauer punted 58 times in 2021. He averaged 43.3 yards per punt and is a very accomplished holder for Cam Little’s placements. Special teams coordinator Scott Fountain prefers the punter hold for placements. But Fletcher, who will be facing his brother on Saturday since he’s the Cincinnati punter, is making a push.

“I trust Bauer you know,” Pittman said. “Fletcher can boom that sucker. I mean he can kick it forever … or punt it forever. But Bauer, I trust him. He’s been good at that, so … He’s been good at getting the ball out of there. Cincinnati is going to try to block punts the whole game. I mean our past has shown that we were not very good early in the year. Both years we’ve had a punt blocked early. We’re very aware of that. We’ve got to get the ball out of there as well as protect it. So I don’t know what we’re going to do per se right there yet.”

Former Alabama edge Drew Sanders will start at linebacker next to senior Bumper Pool on Saturday. Sanders has been very impressive from the day he stepped on the football field at Arkansas. He is a former five-star recruit from Denton (Texas) Ryan.

“He’s ready,” Sanders said. “He’s just never really played inside the box much. In college, he’s been an edge guy. So obviously he’s taken a lot of reps inside. We feel like he’s ready. I’m sure he is ready. I look for him to have a really good game. But it’s a different position and anybody who’s ever played linebacker, it’s much different where they can block you from either direction than when you’re out on the edge and everything’s funneling inside out to you. A lot of difference. Those are things he hadn’t done in at least a year and I think he’s certainly ready for that.”

Quarterback KJ Jefferson got banged up some last season, but still managed to play in all 13 games. Pittman is hoping for that repeated success. Jefferson at times will try to run over a would-be tackler instead of stepping out of bounds. Pittman talked about that.

“It’s hard to coach that out of a kid,” Pittman said. “I mean, it really is, because in practice, he can veer around and do all this stuff, but you can tell him you know, ‘We got to have you healthy,’ you know, this, that and the other, and he’s gonna do whatever he wants to do, to be honest with you. I think it just depends on the moment in the game. If he thinks that he needs to set the tone, then he’s gonna go do it, whatever we tell him, to be honest with you. But he’s a big guy. You know, he can handle physical tackles and things of that nature, but we’re gonna run him. We’re not gonna change our offense, you know, from what we did before. I would like him to get on the ground a little bit more, get out of bounds some. He says all the right things, but then Saturday comes, and he goes right over somebody. I’m not gonna coach him out of being aggressive, but I am gonna ask him to take care of himself.”

Jefferson was the team’s leading rusher last season. He carried 146 times for 644 yards and six touchdowns. Jefferson also completed 198 of 294 passes for 2,676 yards, 21 touchdowns and only four interceptions.

Pittman was also asked how excited he is to have redshirt junior safety Jalen Catalon back. Catalon is considered among the best safeties in the nation. He only played in the first six games last season due to a shoulder injury that required surgery.

“Very,” Pittman said. “I’m excited for him, too. I’m excited for the team, but that’s hard on the guy that’s played a lot of ball and he’s sitting out there while we’re having one of our better-well, our best year since he’s been here-and he wasn’t an on-the-field participant in seven of the games. I’m sure that’s very, very hard for him. So I think anytime you lose something, it even becomes more special when you get it back or you have a chance to earn it back or whatever may be the case. I think he’s really excited to play. He’s played extremely well, and we’ll see what happens.”

Saturday’s game will kickoff at 2:30 p.m. and be televised on ESPN.