FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas has a new head coach with nine new on-field assistants.
The lone holdover is Justin Stepp, who coaches the wide receivers. Stepp was hired by Sam Pittman after coaching for Chad Morris the past two years with the Razorbacks.
Pittman, who coached the offensive line at Arkansas 2013-15 was hired by Hunter Yurachek on Dec. 8. Pittman and the Hogs are now basically a month away from starting spring drills.
“Spring ball will start on March 16,” Pittman said. “We will go Monday, Wednesday, Friday, then we’ll go to spring break. Then, we’ll come back after spring break and have four weeks of spring ball, going Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday.”
Pittman has a date he would like to see the spring game played on.
“Well, obviously, it was scheduled at Little Rock and I don’t know exactly where that’s at right now because we don’t know if the NCAA will let us have it over there,” Pittman said. “If they will, then that’s where we’re going to play it. If they won’t, we’ll play it back here at home. We’re still waiting on that right now. In fact, we want to play our (spring) game on the 25th of April.”
Whether it’s in War Memorial Stadium or Reynolds Razorback Stadium hopefully Arkansas has some answers to questions prior to the spring game. The NCAA allows 15 spring practices and many times the Red-White game is the last practice though both Bret Bielema and Morris had another one after the scrimmage.
Here’s five things to watch this spring and see if the Hogs can come up with some answers.
Backup Running Back
Arkansas got a huge boost when Rakeem Boyd opted to return for his senior season. As a junior in 2019, Boyd rushed 184 times for 1,133 yards and eight touchdowns. He also was fifth on the team with 19 receptions for 160 yards. Boyd opted to bypass the 2020 NFL Draft and return to the Hogs. Boyd will be one of the top running backs in the nation, not just SEC this season. But who will be the second and third backs in the rotation? T.J. Hammonds was fourth on the team in rushing, but only had eight carries for 65 yards in five games. He has had injury and disciplinary issues during his time with the Hogs. Arkansas needs him to step up big right now for Jimmy Smith and the Hogs. True freshman A’Montae Spivey played in two games and thus preserved his redshirt. He carried seven times for 24 yards. Arizona State transfer Trelon Smith is now in the battle and this summer Crowley (Texas) three-star Dominique Johnson will join the team. He signed on Dec. 18. Arkansas has a commitment from Canton (Ga.) Cherokee four-star Ebony Jackson, but haven’t signed him yet. Will wide receiver Treylon Burks get some snaps at running back as well? Morris had planned that for him, but Pittman and his staff may have different thoughts on that subject. Arkansas needs someone this spring to emerge as that second guy in the rotation.
Hudson Henry Emerge at Tight End
Henry is the fourth person from his family to play for the Razorbacks. The former four-star tight end from Pulaski Academy inked with the Hogs in the Class of 2019. He played in three games and caught three passes for 15 yards. Since he only played in three games he preserved his redshirt season. That is good because Arkansas is thin at the spot. They also have senior Blake Kern who was put on scholarship prior to last season. The former Lamar standout is a noted blocker. He will likely be used more as a receiver this season. Walk-on Johnson Bowman from Elkins is now with the Hogs. He considered a preferred walk-on offer out of high school in the Class of 2019, but opted to sign with Arkansas-Monticello. The 6-foot-4, 240-pound Johnson is the third tight end in the mix this spring. The Hog signed Flower Mound (Texas) Marcus three-star Collin Sutherland on Feb. 5. In addition, Bentonville West’s Jonas Higson will attend Arkansas as a preferred walk-on. Both Higson and Sutherland will be in Fayetteville this summer. Arkansas needs Henry and Kern to take a huge step forward. Pittman may have to look at moving someone from another position to tight end as well.
Offensive Line Improvement
Believe it or not, but Arkansas could have a very good offensive line in 2020. It has been a sore spot the majority of the time since Pittman left for Georgia following the 2015 season. The numbers got extremely low with Bielema. Dustin Fry worked to get the numbers back up. Arkansas has some pretty good talent on the line. They return senior Myron Cunningham and junior Dalton Wagner as the starting tackles. They have senior Ty Clary back at center and sophomore Ricky Stromberg at one of the guard spots. Sophomore Noah Gatlin returns after missing the entire 2019 season. He was injured the first day of preseason drills. Sophomore Luke Jones is now eligible after sitting out last season following a transfer from Notre Dame. Arkansas returns several other offensive linemen who have some starting and playing experience. They were able to redshirt the entire offensive line class from 2019 led by Beaux Limmer with the exception of Cunningham and Stromberg. Shane Clenin and Kirby Adcock are both juniors who have experience. Arkansas signed St. Louis (Mo.) Trinity Catholic’s Jalen St. John, Memphis (Tenn.) White Station’s Ray Curry and Memphis University School’s Marcus Henderson. Overall, the numbers are up on the offensive line and with Brad Davis and Pittman it will become a strength very soon.
Barry Odom is still installing the defense and depending on the current personnel he could use a 4-3 base or it could be a 3-4. He told this reporter recently that he will use the defense that fits the current players on this team. The defense has a lot of room to improve and lost its three best players from last year. Linebacker De’Jon Harris, defensive tackle McTelvin Agim and safety Kamren Curl will be the NFL Combine and not with the team any longer. Curl still had one year of eligibility remaining, but opted for the NFL. Arkansas went heavy on defense in the Class of 2020. They signed 15 players targeted for defense, eight for offense and one for special teams. They have one scholarship remaining and it could go to a running back, wide receiver, tight end or defensive tackle Xavier Kelly. Pittman seems to be leaning offense with the remaining spot. Odom needs players such as Jerry Jacobs and Levi Draper to come in and make an immediate impact. Bumper Pool is one of the linebackers who returns. Expect Grant Morgan and Hayden Henry as well as others to get extensive time there this spring as well. The secondary has some good candidates. The defensive line has a lot of spots open. Mataio Soli returns as a starter at end and Jonathan Marshall is expected to be a force inside. Dorian Gerald returns for his senior season after he only played in half a game in 2019. Zach Williams could be a defensive end or outside linebacker. Odom, Sam Carter, Derrick LeBlanc and Rion Rhoades should make this a much more competitive defense.
Of course one has to include quarterback in any discussion. Feleipe Franks is the newcomer and he will join redshirt freshman KJ Jefferson, senior Jack Lindsey and sophomore John Stephen Jones in the battle this spring. Franks is transferring in from Florida. He has a very strong arm and can beat you with his legs as well. Jefferson is interesting. He also has the talent to beat you with his arm and legs. He played in three games in 2019 with one start (LSU game). He completed 14 of 31 passes for 197 yards and an interception. He was fifth on the team in rushing with 30 carries for 58 yards and a pair of touchdowns. Lindsey also had one start (Missouri). He played in 11 games, but only two at quarterback. Rest were as holders for kicks. He was third on team in rushing with seven carries for 80 yards while also completing 13 of 30 passes for 126 yards and three touchdowns. Jones played in three games. He completed 13 of 26 passes for 101 yards, two touchdowns and an interception. He rushed 11 times for 10 yards. It will be interesting to watch the battle between this four before true freshman Malik Hornsby from Missouri City (Texas) Fort Bend Marshall reports.