By Otis Kirk
FAYETTEVILLE — It’s now less than two weeks until Arkansas opens the 2022 football season against Cincinnati.
The Hogs are coming off a 9-4 season and have picked to finished third in the SEC West at the Media Days in Atlanta earlier this summer. Some various outlets have even picked them as high as second in the West. Sam Pittman likes the underdog role, but he is recruiting him team into a position they may not be the underdogs much long.
“I think we’ve got a pretty good football team,” Pittman said Saturday following the second scrimmage. “When you have problems on a football team, it’s when they won’t run to the ball, when they won’t strain on their blocks, when you don’t have talent to throw or catch it, when you don’t have talent to cover somebody. Those are when you have problems. When you have guys that don’t want to be on the team and are problems in the locker room. That’s when you have problems on a team. We don’t have that. Everything we are doing, we can fix. It’s just the little details.”
With that said, here’s a look at each position seen through my eyes and what has been said by the coaches.
KJ Jefferson is one of the best quarterbacks in the SEC and thus in the nation. He is back after having an outstanding redshirt sophomore season. Jefferson stayed healthy enough to play in all 13 games last season and it’s important that happens again. It would seem that Malik Hornsby is the No. 2 quarterback and he almost certainly is, but I find it interesting when the coaches are asked if there is competition for No. 2 with Hornsby and Cade Fortin no one completely shuts that down. Fortin is a walk-on quarterback at Arkansas, but was a four-star recruit coming out of high school. He spent two years at North Carolina and another couple at South Florida. I personally still think Hornsby, who has improved his passing, is the clear No. 2 and would get first shot if Jefferson went down.
Raheim “Rocket” Sanders is the top running back heading into 2022. When Dominique Johnson gets back from injury he will be the No. 2 and will likely get more carries than either AJ Green or Rashod Dubinion get until he comes back. Green has a lot of speed and will likely be the kickoff returner. Dubinion has made a strong impression on Jimmy Smith and the coaches. These will be the four running backs getting the carries at this time.
No coach on the staff at Arkansas has done a better job evaluating than Kenny Guiton. In the past two recruiting classes Arkansas has brought in nine wide receivers. They have hit on all nine. That is unheard of. In 2021, the Hogs had Warren Thompson transfer in from Florida State and they signed Ketron Jackson, Jaedon Wilson and Bryce Stephens from high school. Prior to this season, Arkansas brought in Jadon Haselwood from Oklahoma and Matt Landers from Toledo. The high school wide receivers are Isaiah Sategna, Sam Mbake and Quincey McAdoo. It appears the Razorbacks that all nine are players. Obviously nine wide receivers probably won’t get reps in the games, but if anyone gets hurt all nine of these players appear capable of helping right now. Harper Cole plays on special teams and will likely travel as well.
Trey Knox is set to start after making the full-time transition to tight end from wide receiver in 2021. Knox caught 20 passes last season and is almost certain to top that mark in 2022. Hudson Henry has battled injuries, but if he can remain healthy gives the Hogs a very good option backing up and playing alongside Knox. Nathan Bax caught a touchdown pass Saturday and is the No. 3 tight end. He will almost certainly redshirt this season, but true freshman Tyrus Washington has shown very good hands in the drills the media is allowed to watch each day. Washington should have a very good future.
The Hogs returned four starters from 2021. They are Dalton Wagner at right tackle, Brady Latham (left) and Beaux Limmer at the guards and Ricky Stromberg at center. Luke Jones is the starter at left tackle replacing Myron Cunningham. Coaches love a top eight. I think we’ve got a pretty good football team. When you have problems on a football team, it’s when they won’t run to the ball, when they won’t strain on their blocks, when you don’t have talent to throw or catch it, when you don’t have talent to cover somebody. Those are when you have problems. When you have guys that don’t want to be on the team and are problems in the locker room. That’s when you have problems on a team. We don’t have that. Everything we are doing, we can fix. It’s just the little details.. Obviously the top reserve is junior Ty’kieast Crawford at right tackle. Crawford is still contending for a starting role. He has a very bright future. Pittman said if not for injuries Marcus Henderson at center and Devon Manuel at left tackle would be in that group. Three true freshmen, Andrew Chamblee at left tackle and E’Marion Harris and Patrick Kutas are contending for spots there. Harris playing right guard, but can also move out to tackle. Kutas is playing guard and even some center. Redshirt sophomore Jalen St. John at left guard and redshirt freshman Josh Street at center are also getting plenty of reps and in mix to play.
Senior Zach Williams and junior Jashaud Stewart are certainly in good positions to start the Cincinnati game. Sophomore Landon Jackson from LSU and redshirt senior Jordan Domineck from Georgia Tech join junior Eric Thomas Jr. in fight to start or play a lot. It also depends on if redshirt junior Eric Gregory plays inside or at end, but either way he will see plenty of action if he starts or not.
Defensive Interior Line
Losing redshirt junior Taurean Carter was a blow, but the Hogs have recovered from that about as well as possible. Redshirt senior Isaiah Nichols is solid player and providing leadership. Arkansas State transfer Terry Hampton is playing very well next to Nichols when in four-man front. Hampton played end at Arkansas State last season, but is inside at Arkansas. Gregory and Cam Ball are also contending for starting spots. True freshman Nico Davillier is much like Gregory in that he play end or inside. He has a very bright future. Marcus Miller and Taylor Lewis will contend for reps if healthy.
Senior Bumper Pool and junior Drew Sanders will start and few schools have a better pair of starting linebackers. But the talent doesn’t end there. Redshirt sophomore Jackson Woodard, redshirt freshman Chris Paul Jr. and true freshmen Jordan Crook, Mani Powell and Kaden Henley are all capable of getting quality snaps.
It appears by all accounts the top four are redshirt junior Hudson Clark, redshirt junior Malik Chavis, junior LSU transfer Dwight McGlothern and redshirt senior LaDarrius Bishop. All four are still in the running to start. Immediately behind them are redshirt freshman Keuan Parker and junior Khari Johnson. Clark and Bishop went out with the first unit on Saturday according to Pittman.
Redshirt junior Jalen Catalon will start. He is among the best in America. Junior Myles Slusher appears to have the nickel position as his. Redshirt senior Simeon Blair could be in line to get the other safety spot. Barry Odom and the staff will use players at both nickel and safety. Some others in contention for playing time or possibly start are Georgia transfer senior Latavious Brini, sophomore Jayden Johnson and redshirt sophomore Jacorrei Turner. Redshirt senior Trent Gordon is also a nickel who could see action.
Sophomore Cam Little will handle the place kicking duties. Redshirt senior Reid Bauer and true freshman Max Fletcher are in a battle for the punting job. Since Bauer is an accomplished holder for field goals and point after touchdowns if the battle remains close he could get the edge. Little and Jake Bates are still battling for kickoff duties to replace Vito Calvaruso. Still fighting to replace Jordan Silver at snapper is freshman Eli Stein, redshirt freshman Francisco Castro and redshirt junior John Oehrlein.