FAYETTEVILLE — The 2023 football season is finally here and Arkansas will get to show off its new team on Saturday against Western Carolina.
“Very excited to go to LR and play Western Carolina,” Pittman said. “They have a really fine team. I have a lot of respect for Coach (Kerwin) Bell. Certainly they’ve set some offensive records there in total yards and touchdown passes a year ago. They play an aggressive style. They’ve got some really good players. They’ve got a good offensive line, good defensive line. It’s going to be a very hard-fought game and we’re excited to go over and take our team to the central part of the state and play at War Memorial Stadium.”
It will be the first season opener for Pittman in his four years with the Razorbacks. The other three were all in Fayetteville. Pittman was asked if he has done anything different to prepare for this one away from Fayetteville?
“We really haven’t, except for the fact that we flipped, when we play on artificial turf we flip practice fields.” Pittman said. “One day the offense will be on the grass and the opposite the next day. All our good-on-good, all our kicking, all of that has been on our practice turf. So we have done that, but other than that we haven’t really talked about it.
“On my Friday talk to the team, I will talk about the history of War Memorial and the history of the team going to Little Rock so the kids will know it’s a big deal. They need to know it’s a big deal to me, and they need to know it’s a huge deal to the state of Arkansas.”
Western Carolina likes to throw bubble passes. That is a big part of their offense. Pittman was asked about defending it.
“I don’t know if it was part of our practices whenever… Yeah, I’m sure it was, but we started a lot of our practices this year with the bubble drill,” Pittman said. “Obviously, we want to get better at it offensively, but we’re going to have to defend it a lot. I think Western Carolina does as good a job as anybody we’ll play throwing the bubble screens, the intermediate shorter passes. Not to say they don’t do the deep ball well, I’m just saying they do a great job with that bubble, intermediate-range.
“So, we put it as an emphasis right at… We’re trying to start fast. We’re trying to do something physical at the beginning of practice as much as we can in the team-oriented thing. Now, the bubble necessarily wouldn’t be, but fastball starts would, so we try to do both those things because we’re trying to do something right out of the gate to say that we want fastball starts. We want to start fast. But to answer your question, they are good at the bubble screen, and we’ve gotten a lot of good-on-good reps trying to defend it.”
One surprising aspect of Western Carolina football is the size of its offensive line. Of the five starters, only one weighs less than 300 pounds and he is 6-foot-2, 295-pound center Blake Whitmore. Left tackle Tyler Smith is 6-8, 310. It’s unusual for a FBS team to have this kind of size on the offensive line.
“Yeah, they’re really good, too,” Pittman said. “I think they probably average about 305, 307 pounds across. I listed to a little bit of what Coach Bell said about it. He’s very, very excited about his line and I believe he said maybe two or three of those guys could have a chance to play on an NFL (team). So yeah, I was… Everybody seems to be bigger nowadays and all that, but they certainly have a line that could match up size wise with a lot of teams that we play this year.”
Defensive end Zach Williams will be among the Arkansas defenders going against the Western Carolina offense and its line.
“Yeah, I was surprised,” Williams said. “Like the first time they put up the scouting report and the roster and stuff like that, I was like, ‘Dang, like…’ I was like, ‘What? 6-8? 300-something pounds?’ I said, “Hmm, okay.” But yeah, I mean, you got to make it do what it do and play them like you play Alabama, LSU, stuff like that.”
Pittman was asked if having quarterback KJ Jefferson and running back Raheim “Rocket” Sanders has helped make him feel better about the opener?
“I think, to be honest with you, I think it’s helped us since January simply because we’ve had so many new guys,” Pittman said. “You know, you had 38 new guys. You have to have somebody inside your program that believes in you and believes in what you’re doing and believes in how you’re treating or respecting the team, when those guys come in. Because if you don’t, it could be a madhouse. You know, it could be going everywhere.
“So, with KJ and Rocket and you could go on and on about the returner guys. They certainly had a great importance. They got better. Now whether that’s strength-wise or in the mind, they fit our system better, whatever it may be. They’ve gotten better and, you know, Jayden Johnson and Jaedon Wilson — those two guys are guys that I thought were pretty good last year, and now I think they’re really good. So, they’ve obviously changed as well with what their mind is telling them. But to be honest with you, the core of our team was the guys that we have as you mentioned, and we’ll go rock with those guys and the new guys are certainly going to help us.”
Bell respects the Arkansas duo of Jackson and Sanders, both at least 240 pounds and a pair that combined for over 5,000 total yards offensively last season.
“We hope them two sprained their ankles, not too bad, but they are outstanding,” Bell said. “I mean…the number one tandem in the nation, and if not they are close. They are really good and do outstanding things. The quarterback can throw and run, a very talented kid, a big kid.
“And Rocket, I actually know his head coach from down in Florida. He is big back, 240 pounds and I think he had 1,400 yards in SEC football and that’s pretty impressive. You can’t get any better than that. So they are going to be two keys for us – how can we slow them down, how can we keep them from creating huge plays on that side of the ball. We have got to get them on the ground. We have got to find ways to tackle them.”
Arkansas started slowly on offense in some non-conference games last year such as Missouri State and Liberty. That is something Pittman wants to avoid this season with Dan Enos.
“One of the things we do is we’ve started doing physical activity right after stretch,” Pittman said. “It could be bubble-type drills, it could be a team drill in fastball starts. Some of those things we did maybe every other day last year, we’re doing them every day this year. We are concerned, obviously, about starting fast against Western Carolina, but we need to start fast against everybody. Again, it’s part of the emphasis that we’ve done. Hopefully it’ll pay off for us. I think it’s something physical other than just indy. Before you go to indy, is what our idea has been and hopefully it pays off for us.”
Pittman is also expecting the offense to be more efficient on third down and red zone offense this season.
“Yes, as you well know that’s been a huge emphasis for us,” Pittman said. “Not just third down, but fourth down, goal line, coming out, all those situations as well. It’s defense, getting off the field on third down. All those things. Pass defense we certainly had to get a lot better. We had to get a lot better at everything but those were the key emphasis, along with some special teams. We’ve got to get some big plays in special teams and play more consistent. So yes, they all have been emphasized for us and hopefully it pays off for us. Obviously if you emphasize something it usually does.”
Jefferson has watched the Western Carolina defense on film.
“They play very hard,” Jefferson said. “They play as a unit. They’re real tough. Tough guys on that side of the ball. Skilled athletes. They like to pressure a lot, but I mean, hey, it’s football, so I mean we’ve just got to come up schematically wise and outsmart them and be more disciplined than then. They’re a disciplined football team, as well, on the defensive side of the ball. So, I mean, just coming in, I mean, it’s all going to be about us. We’ve got to focus on us and go out there and execute our game plan at a very high level.”
Jefferson explained what he meant when he said all doing to be about us.
“I mean, just coming out and, I mean, just starting fast,” Jefferson said. “I mean, that’s the main thing is starting fast, getting out, jump on them early, kill their hope early. Don’t kill all that momentum. Try not to let them gain momentum or build confidence or let them know that they can play around with us or be in the game. So, try to kill their hope early, jump on them quick. When we say focus on ourself, the main thing is doing the little details right, lining up, executing the plays, understanding what’s going on, understanding the down and distance. Different intangibles that’s within the game that we’ve got to be able to focus on and worry about us. So, that’s what we mean when we say we’ve got to worry about Arkansas football.”
Arkansas and Western Carolina will be on ESPN+ and SEC Network+ with kickoff set for noon in Little Rock’s War Memorial Stadium.