FAYETTEVILLE – For starters, Sam Pittman told Thursday’s SEC Media Days gathering in Hoover, Ala. that he likes his Arkansas Razorbacks’ prospects.
It’s the depth behind those starters most concerning Arkansas’ second-year coach about the Razorbacks in 2021 improving their 3-7 SEC 2020, a breakthrough given the Razorbacks 1-7 SEC season in Bret Bielema’s 2017 farewell followed by consecutive 0-8, 0-8 SEC campaigns under the Chad Morris regime in 2018 and 2019.
“ We have 19 returning starters, nine on offense. We will return the entire offensive line, tight ends, running back position and the majority of our wideouts and certainly we lost our quarterback Feleipe Franks to free agency to the Atlanta Falcons.
On defense we have ten returning starters. The one that is not returning is John Marshall, who was a sixth-round draft pick to the New York Jets. We have our entire secondary coming back, our entire linebacker group, and all but John Marshall coming back on the D-line, along with we did enhance our football team, we believe, with some transfer portal kids there.”
Pittman said the depth behind and challenging the starters ultimately will determine whether the Hogs can improve against what he deems again the “toughest schedule in the country, which
Arkansas was acknowledged to bear last year with eight of its 10 All-SEC opponents ranked in the Preseason Top 25 headed by eventual national champion Alabama.
“For us to have a successful season we’re going to have to stay healthy,” Pittman said. “Our depth is much better than it was a year ago, but it’s certainly not where we want it to be. We’ve got to be very conscious of that eight-game stretch. Of course, you’re right, we have three (SEC) games right there in a row where we’re on the road (Texas A&M at the Dallas Cowboys’ AT&T Stadium) and at SEC East favorite Georgia and at Ole Miss.).”
Pittman lauds the team’s attitude from its preseason work ethic to reporting that 89 percent of his squad vaccinated against the covid-19 virus.
“They bought into what I’m selling and I’m extremely proud of them,” Pittman said.
Pittman said “if it was up to me, “I’d bring the whole damn team,” to Media Days in Hoover but with the limit of two players brought “super seniors” Grant Morgan and Myron Cunningham.
Linebacker Morgan of Greenwood and left offensive tackle Cunningham are among 11 Razorbacks “super seniors” in Pittman’s view because as 2020 seniors they took advantage of the NCAA allowing 2021 players their 2020 eligibility because covid so nationally disrupted the 2020 season.
“Grant Morgan has his Masters degree completed,” Pittman said.” He was a finalist for the Burlsworth Award (named for the season’s best player who began his career as a walk-on). He also was first-team all SEC player, and he’ll be one of our 11 super seniors coming back. I’m excited for you guys to talk to him because he’s really, really a great young man.”
And third-year junior college transfer Cunningham?
“Myron Cunningham is also a super senior,” Pittman said. “Turned down several hundreds of thousands of dollars, in my opinion. We have a process, and it looked like he was going to go high in the middle rounds of the NFL Draft last year. He elected to come back. That tells you something about our coaching staff. Not myself, about our assistant coaching staff.”
Arkansas safety Jalen Catalon is among the SEC’s most heralded defensive backs but it was junior receiver Treylon Burks of Warren of whom media most asked Pittman during the coach’s time on the Media Days main podium.
Burks excelled as a 2020 sophomore (51 catches, 820 yards and 7 touchdowns) but in Pittman’s view do even better as a better focused and better conditioned junior.
“ What he needed to do to become a standout, an unbelievable player, is get in better shape,” Pittman said. “We talked to him about that. Just going out there (as a South Arkansas outdoorsman) and hunting them hogs wasn’t really getting him in the greatest shape in the world, so he had to do more than just that.
He has done that. He’s lost some weight. He looks good.”
And finally believes he good he can be.
“You know how you have really good players and you don’t know if they know they are?” Pittman said. “At some point you have to make them really believe that so they can reach their highest potential. He’s finally turned that corner.”
“He’d been very passive,” Pittman said. “Like, ‘This is my friend. He can have my reps here on this play.’ No, we don’t do it that way. Junior year when you start thinking, ‘If I do well, I can set things up for the rest of my life, that’s where he is right now.”
Burks was named Thursday to the watch list of the Biletnikoff Award which in December honors the nation’s best receiver.