FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas has won four of its last five bowl games including a victory over Penn State in the Outback Bowl last year.
They will get a chance to win their third-straight Liberty Bowl on Wednesday when they face Kansas. Arkansas will enter the game with just 54 healthy scholarship players remaining. In the COVID season in 2020, teams had to have 53 to be allowed to play. Even among the 54 a couple are battling injuries and questionable for the game.
Some have questioned if Arkansas will have the energy to match a Kansas squad playing its first bowl game since 2008 and much fewer opt outs than the Hogs. Quarterback KJ Jefferson isn’t one of them.
“Well, yeah, of course,” Jefferson said. “It’s a bowl game. So I mean, we’re both treating it like a Super Bowl game. So, I mean each and every day we’re coming out with a chip on our shoulder. We want to send the seniors out the right way, guys that are not going to play anymore. So, send those guys out on a positive note, and they can always reflect back and tell the story that we won two bowl games and just being able to have that momentum and that drive going into the offseason for this program.”
Sam Pittman agrees with Jefferson and feels the Hogs will be ready to play.
“I think we’ll be fine,” Pittman said. “We talked about this, that this is starting ’23 now. Obviously you have a different team than what you had at the end of the year as we did — not as many — last year with (Treylon) Burks and (Tre) Williams and some of the guys that decided not to play in the game for good reasons. I’m not saying that with Burks.
“But oh yeah, I think the ones that we have out there are fired up and ready to go. Again, at some point, you want guys that want to be a Hog. The ones that want to that are out there at practice, they’re excited to be that way. I think we have enough talent to go and compete. And I believe that we’ll do that with all my heart. If you come to practice, I think you’ll see that.”
Last year, it was Arkansas with few opt outs than Penn State and seemingly much more excited to play in the Outback Bowl. Dalton Wagner was asked if Kansas is in the position Arkansas was last year?
“Yeah, absolutely,” Wagner said. “You know, it’s kind of like you said. It’s a reverse of last year, but although I think that we’re not going to have an issue with the juice. With [Ben] Sowders coming in here, he’s brought a lot of energy. Along with the way we’ve been practicing, it’s been very energetic practices. It’s been very flying around, getting after each other.
“And it’s a unique opportunity with these opt outs for young and hungry guys to step up, step in, fill role and become an impact player to set their standard for the spring and set their standard for the fall to come. So, it’s going to be a lot of preview, a lot of young guys trying to gain confidence and do what they’re doing out there. But I don’t think energy is going to be an issue. I think it’s just going to be about our execution.”
Linebacker Pooh Paul also agrees that Arkansas will bring the energy for Wednesday’s game.
“Oh definitely,” Paul said. “Like I said, we’re all excited for this game. This is a huge game for us. This game right here is basically really our statement game to end out the season right here, so like I said, everybody’s confident, everybody’s excited. I feel like we’re going to match their energy.”
While much of the news for Arkansas since the Missouri game has been players leaving the program. One big, positive announcement was Jefferson opting to return for 2023.
“That was a huge announcement for us,” Paul said. “I think KJ… KJ does have a big role in the Arkansas football team and in the community, so I think that was huge.”
Beaux Limmer will switch from right guard to center for this game. He has been impressed with what he’s seen from the Kansas defense.
“Up front they’re definitely a solid D-Line,” Limmer said. “They’ve got a really good defensive end. He’s got about seven sacks or something. He’ll be playing in the bowl game.
“On the interior they’ve got some big boys up front that are solid players, too. It’ll be a good challenge for the O-Line. Their linebackers as well. They’re solid dudes back there, too. It’ll be a good challenge for us, and we’re excited for it.
Lonnie Phelps is the defensive end Limmer referred to. He has 54 tackles and seven sacks. As far as Arkansas’ defense, Cam Ball will replace Isaiah Nichols at defensive tackle. Ball is a redshirt freshman and talked about where he feels his most growth and progress has been.
“I would say, me, personally, studying the playbook, getting inside my plays day in and day out,” Ball said. “My freshman year, I didn’t get a chance to see the fields much, so I really not really cared about plays, but I wasn’t as focused and as in-depth and to the point where I can help the young guys and even sometimes older guys with certain plays. I would say being more into my playbook.”
Safety Simeon Blair talked about some the younger players that have impressed him during the practices leading up to Wednesday’s game.
“Man, they got a lot of energy,” Blair said. “They be running around the field. Like he said, Cam, (Jordan) Crook, Pooh Paul, Jaylen Lewis. There’s a lot of guys out there. And you can feel how hungry they are. They really want to go out there and impress and do their best for this school. I’m glad to be out there playing beside them because I know they’re going to push me to go even harder than I go, and I can push them to do the same.”
Blair also talked about Arkansas missing several starters for this game due to various reasons.
“The only thing in our head is to win, and that’s by any means necessary, that’s with guys out,” Blair said. “We’re not really worried about that. We’re practicing hard as we can each and every single day, making sure we do our jobs, making sure we gonna go out there and dominate on the 28th like we’re supposed to.”
The Jayhawks have two experienced quarterbacks. Jalon Daniels has completed 115 of 175 passes for 1,470 yards, 13 touchdowns and two interceptions. He also has rushed 63 times for 398 yards and six touchdowns. Jason Bean has completed 87 of 135 passes for 1,280 yards, 14 touchdowns and four interceptions. Bean has rushed 38 times for 222 yards and four touchdowns.
“Right, and when it comes to the quarterbacks, in my opinion, they’re very mobile,” Ball said. “I love playing against mobile quarterbacks because I get to showcase my speed chasing them down. They have some very good, athletic quarterbacks. And when it comes to their offensive line, they have an SEC-caliber offensive line. 300 all across the board, 6-4 and up. So, we’re really preparing how we would for an SEC opponent, just not going to take them lightly in anything.”
The kickoff for the AutoZone Liberty Bowl is set for 4:30 p.m. and televised on ESPN.