FAYETTEVILLE — Dalton Wagner missed the LSU game, but he will return for No. 14 Ole Miss on Saturday night.
It’s only appropriate the talented Wagner returns since it’s also Senior Night at Razorback Stadium. This is his sixth season for the Razorbacks after signing with them in the Class of 2017. Sam Pittman is his third head football coach at Arkansas and Wagner said Tuesday things have changed since he signed out of Spring Grove (Ill.) Richmond Burton High School.
“You know I’m not going to lie,” Wagner said. “I didn’t see my career going out like this, but it’s been a lot of fun still regardless. I’ve met some great coaches. I’ve met some awesome players. And I wouldn’t trade it in for the world still regardless. There’s one thing I want to get Saturday and that’s one more win in Razorback Stadium.”
With COVID allowing players such as Wagner an extra year plus the transfer portal Senior Night has changed dramatically since Wagner arrived in 2017.
“It’s been a little weird,” Wagner said. “Especially after last year was over and a lot of guys from my class moved on and didn’t elect to take their sixth-year option. It’s definitely been odd, especially with how tumultuous the transfer portal’s been. I think that it brings a new level of trust and communication between the locker room. Because you’ve got new people coming in. You have to learn what their background is. You build bigger friendships with them. Because if you’re going to communicate out on the field, you have to know the guy you’re working with. Some guys respond differently to what you’re going to do. So I think it forces you to get closer with guys when they come in, and I think this senior class is close class.”
Wagner also provided a health update for himself after missing his first game of the season last Saturday.
“I feel really good,” Wagner said. “I couldn’t go last week. I didn’t think I gave my team the best shot to win. So I think that I’m feeling really good right now. Made it through practice today, made it through practice yesterday. Feeling great. Back 100 percent.”
In the 13-10 loss to LSU, Wagner admitted it was hard watching from the sidelines, but he talked about how he made the most of the situation.
“Yeah, obviously personally it was frustrating to be on the sidelines,” Wagner said. “Like I said, I didn’t think I gave my team the best chance to … Or I gave the team the best chance to win if I played hurt. I was able to get back behind the O-line for a lot of the game and really be able to help out coach (Cody) Kennedy with what he can see, blitzes, pressures and stuff, and more importantly help out the O-line with it.
“Every time they came off the field I talked to Luke (Jones) or Ricky (Stromberg), Brady (Latham), Beaux (Limmer), all of them, Ty’Kieast (Crawford) too and tried to give them tips on what I’m seeing and what they’re struggling with and what they can try to fix with it too. And I think that helped out a little bit. Obviously I’d much rather be out there.”
Arkansas is also hoping to have quarterback KJ Jefferson back for the Ole Miss game. With Jefferson also out against LSU and beat up against Liberty teams have stacked the line of scrimmage daring the Hogs to pass. Wagner admits that is tough for an offensive lineman.
“Yeah, and making sure we’ve got support players on the right guys, too, through our communication, through our effort as well, too,” Wagner said. “When we’re communicating calls, we need to make sure receivers know it, running back knows it and quarterback knows it. So we can step up our communication a lot these last two games.”
Ole Miss’ defensive line has been able to get to opposing quarterbacks at a very good rate. Wagner talked about what he feels is allowing them to have success getting to the other team’s quarterback.
“On the edge they’re very sound rushers,” Wagner said. ‘Between both of them, I think that their strength lies in their ability on the interior to push the pocket back. That nose guard in there, he’s a big dude. He’s really strong, too.
“And where they create problems is they try to mess with your mike points, and they try to push the pocket back so it shortens the edges for the tackles. Because as you push the pocket back, the tackles have to try to keep the width of it. And if the edge rushers are as good as they are, they’re able to bend that edge and collapse it on top of the quarterback that’s in there. But, I think it’s going to be key this week that the interior holds up and that the tackles can keep the width of the pocket, as well too. And we all just read out the same book.”
Arkansas and Ole Miss have played some wild games in recent years. Maybe none bigger than last year’s 52-51 victory in Oxford when the Hogs two-point conversion to win failed.
“Yeah, last year’s game was a good old fashioned shootout,” Wagner said. “It kind of felt like we were in the Big 12 at that point. Just airing it out, running the ball. It was just an offensive game. Year before that, lot of interceptions. But this is a series that you never know what’s going to happen in it. It’s kind of like the LSU series that we have, too. It’s a game where no matter what, it’s going to be a great game. And I know the guys in the locker room right now really, really want to win, and they’re preparing like that too.”
In 2017 when Wagner was a freshman the game was wild too. Wagner and some of his friends weren’t on the travel squad that season and was watching the game in their home. Arkansas trailed 31-7 to the Rebels before mounting a comeback to take a 38-37 win.
“Yeah, I remember,” Wagner said. “I think it was three times they iced, I want to say it was Connor Limpert I think was a kicker at that time. Three times they iced him, and every time he was able to kick the field goal still with it. And there was one he missed, and then one he made, and then on the third one when he actually got to go and kick it. He made it, too. I remember we were all in the dorm room, and like Shane (Clenin) was kind of like coming in and out of the thing during timeouts and stuff. And when Shane was in, he missed it. So we kicked him out and made him stay in his room, and he couldn’t watch it. And then he made the field goal.”
Saturday night’s game will kickoff at 6:30 p.m. and televised on the SEC Network. Wagner is hoping there’s Illinois-type weather for the game. It is being speculated Saturday night’s game could be the coldest ever played at Razorback Stadium and that suits Wagner.
” I’d love it to get as cold as it possibly can,” Wagner said. “I hate it so much when it’s hot out. My jersey is a different color when it’s hot out from everyone else’s. I love the cold and I think it brings an advantage definitely to the home team that’s been practicing in it all week that the colder it gets the better off we can get.”
Arkansas (5-5, 2-4) needs one more win to become bowl eligible. They will play at Missouri on Nov. 25 to close out the regular season.