FAYETTEVILLE – With the question answered that his Arkansas Razorbacks as part of the SEC will have the opportunity to practice for this coronavirus menaced football season they hope to play, new Coach Sam Pittman was asked what questions he wants answered about his team in the preseason practices starting Monday.
Former Arkansas (2013-2015) offensive line coach Pittman now as head coach inherits a team that went 2-10, 2-10 overall and 0-8, 0-8 in the SEC the past two seasons under since fired Coach Chad Morris. The Razorbacks didn’t practice last spring because of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic that closed college sports in mid March. Monday starts two days of noncontact drills without pads then two days in shoulder pads before donning full pads the fifth practice.
“We’ll see how good we are at quarterback,” Pittman said on a Friday Zoom press conference. “At every position. But the quarterback drives your football team. I want to see (defensively) how we can run to the football. I want to see how tough of a program we are. I want to see how disciplined we are.”
He has a plan to determine that even with likely only two full scale scrimmages. Pittman knows this not a deep squad can’t risk numerous preseason injuries facing a 10-game entirely SEC schedule starting Sept. 26.
“We’re going to put them through tough practices, and I want to see how we react,” Pittman said. “I feel like I know how we’re going to react. That we’re going to dig down and come roaring back the next play. But we have to test our football team in practice to see what we have.”
The thirst to practice for the first time other than late summer walkthroughs just knowing their league plans on a football season that two Power Five conferences, the Big Ten and the Pac 12 plus three of the Group of Five have cancelled because of coronavirus concerns, fuels Pittman even as the SEC dealt his Hogs the toughest possible hand. They face six ranked in the Preseason Coaches Poll top 13. Four rank top eight.
Already on Arkansas’ SEC West slate are nationally No. 3 Alabama, No. 5 defending national champion LSU, No. 11 Auburn and No. 13 Texas A&M plus Ole Miss and Mississippi State with Missouri and Tennessee scheduled from the SEC East.
The SEC, cancelling each school’s four nonconference games, added No. 4 Georgia and No. 8 Florida from the East to Arkansas’ schedule.
Whatever his private feelings might vex, Pittman publicly plays positive.
“The reaction to Georgia-Florida is it allows us to potentially be the hottest team in the country to talk about,” Pittman said. “So they gave us more opportunities out there against really highly ranked teams. That’s how we look at it.”
Pittman knows Georgia well coaching the Bulldogs’ offensive line from 2016-2019 for Coach Kirby Smart.
Feleipe Franks, taking Monday’s first snap as the first-team quarterback, is a graduate transfer via the University of Florida. He quarterbacked the 2018 Gators to a 10-3 season and Peach Bowl victory over Michigan before his active Florida tenure ended with a broken ankle three games into 2019.
New offensive coordinator Kendal Briles looks first to Franks. He obviously would like to avoid last year’s Arkansas quarterbacks various injuries/ineffectiveness/inexperience starting five different quarterbacks. But he will evaluate all he has including returnees KJ Jefferson, the redshirt freshman opening No. 2, senior Jack Lindsey and third-year sophomore John Stephen Jones and incoming freshman Malik Hornsby.
“Hopefully Feleipe will be what we think he is,” Briles said Friday. “There’s still going to be competition, but I would say it’s going to be his job to lose.”
Briles was asked what questions he most wants answered.
“Ball protection is going to be No. 1,” Briles said. “Right now there’s really no contact with the walkthroughs. Really no high-speed collisions. Right now you can run freely and know nothing’s going to happen to you. That changes.”
Even without pads, Pittman notes Monday’s first practice will operate full speed running compared to the summer mandated walkthroughs.
New defensive coordinator Barry Odom, Missouri’s 2016-2019 head coach, said a big question he wants answered is how quickly the defense responds to look good when they’ve looked bad.
“We’re going to give up a touchdown sometime next week, would be my guess,” Odom said. “How are we going to react to that? What’s our mental focus to be able to put that play behind us and play the next snap? What’s that look like? We have done a lot of talking, and they’ve put in a lot of work, but let’s go put it into action and see how we respond.”