FAYETTEVILLE – With his New Orleans based family ahead of time escaped from Hurricane Ida, senior safety and first-time Razorbacks captain Joe Foucha rivets on Rice for Arkansas’ 1 p.m. Saturday season-opener against the Owls at Reynolds Razorback Stadium.
“ Yeah, everyone is OK,” Foucha said on Tuesday’s post practice Zoom shared with senior captain/linebacker Grant Morgan and senior captain/left offensive tackle Myron Cunningham. “I made sure my family left just in time. My Mom it was hard for me to get her to leave because we did stay down there (16 years ago) for (Hurricane) Katrina. I’m not there and most of my brothers don’t live in the house anymore. So that was one of my priorities was making sure she left New Orleans.”
Now it’s on to the Owls, old Arkansas Southwest Conference rivals until Arkansas left the moribund league for the SEC in 1992. Rice returns to Fayetteville representing Conference USA.
Conference USA isn’t among the Power Five leagues but was powerfully tough on the Chad Morris era Hogs with North Texas and Western Kentucky routing the Razorbacks in Fayetteville.
So after being an underdog every game in last season’s entirely SEC rescheduled by covid 3-7 campaign under Sam Pittman, the Hogs haven’t seemed to allow being a 19-point favorite go to their heads starting Pittman’s second season.
“You know we respect those guys and we’re not taking any game lightly,” Foucha said. “We know they’re going to come in and play. They’re the underdogs and every game going into last year we were the underdogs and came at every game playing hard so I feel like they’re gonna do the same thing. We have to be ready, and we will be.”
With Pittman eradicating the Morris era’s successive 0-8 SEC campaigns with a 3-7 that without an SEC admitted egregious officiating error would have been 4-6, these Hogs don’t feel haunted by the Conference USA ghosts of 2018 and 2019 past.
“We honestly don’t look in the past at all,” Morgan said. “Those games were a different football team. We might have the same players from that but we’re a different brand of football now. We’re focusing on ourselves right now and we’re focused on Rice.”
Foucha and Morgan say the defense must prepare for a methodical, clock-consuming Rice offense featuring two quarterbacks, returnee Wiley Green and transfer from Nebraska Luke McCaffrey.
Both will play, Rice Coach Mike Bloomgren said Tuesday without designating a starter.
“So you’ve got to be able to be ready for the quarterback run game, no matter who it is” Morgan said. “With McCaffrey, he’s shown that he can run really well. They can both run the ball, they can both throw the ball. They’re both sound quarterbacks. They can manage the game really well.”
Both quarterbacks, Foucha said, “hide the ball really well.”
“That’s what we’ve been focused in on the back end,” Foucha said. “Just making sure our eyes are in the right spot.”
Their minds are, Foucha said.
“ We’re happy what we did last year but we want more,” Foucha said. “ I felt covid messed the timing up (last year) but with the time we had with Coach Pittman I felt we had to have more time to get to know him and get to learn our defense more and just to get to hang around Coach Pittman. We love him and we want to run through a wall for him.”
Foucha feels the love from his teammates.
Bonus seniors Morgan and Cunningham, all 2020 seniors were granted2021 eligibility because of the covid disruptions, were captains last year.
Traditional fourth-year senior Foucha is a first-time captain and proud of it.
“It was a blessing for my teammates to select me as a captain,” Foucha said. “I feel like I earned the right for them to and it just shows how much respect the guys on the team have for me.”
The respect abounds, Morgan, actually a sixth-year senior redshirted in 2016, and Cunningham assert.
“He was the first person I texted whenever team captains came out,” Morgan said, “ I know no one else deserved it more than he did. He was the last name that got introduced, and every single person’s like ear-to-ear smiling.”
Cunningham approved, too.
“Joe brings a lot to the team,” Cunningham said. “He brings energy, excitement. He’s always jumping around and talking. He definitely brings that leadership factor. I’m personally very glad he got voted to be a captain.”
Third-year sophomores, Jalen Catalon, a Preseason All-American safety, and starting quarterback KJ Jefferson also were voted captains.
With a start each year as a 2019 and 2020 backup, Jefferson apparently has seized offensive command with both humor and authority.
“In the locker room, he’s funny and always joking and playing around,” Cunningham said. “When we get on that field, it’s all business. I think that’s kind of why people are so behind him because when it’s business time, he handles his business like a professional and when it’s not, we can cut it up with him and joke around and have a good time.”
With Pittman admitting the Hogs are preseason practice “beat up,” (Catalon and Preseason All-SEC receiver Treylon Burks were among those not practicing Tuesday), Pittman shortened Tuesday’s practice.
Catalon is expected to play but Pittman has said Burks’ status is indefinite.
Who would be Jefferson’s main target Saturday if Burks can’t play?
Cunningham Tuesday mentioned several beyond likely starters De’Vion Warren, Tyson Morris, and listed Burks backup Jaquayln Crawford.
“I think KJ has a lot of options,” Cunningham said. “We’ve got a lot of depth at receiver. We’ve got Trey Knox, Warren Thompson, JD White. A young guy, (true freshman0 Ketron Jackson. I think he’s got a lot of options when it comes to wide receivers. So I don’t think it’ll be a problem.”
Photos courtesy of Craven Whitlow, CW3 Sports Action