by Nate Allen
FAYETTEVILLE – So many focus on Arkansas All-American All-SEC receiver Treylon Burks and All-SEC cornerback Montaric Brown turning pro early, but overlook the tasks facing Coach Sam Pittman’s Razorbacks of replacing departed senior defensive nose tackle John Ridgeway and departed senior left offensive tackle Myron Cunningham.
Defensive coordinator Barry Odom and offensive coordinator Kendal Briles addressed those issues Saturday after Arkansas ‘ ninth of 15 NCAA allowed spring practices.
Odom brought up the task of replacing Ridgeway, the 2021 powerful, 6-6, 320 grad transfer via Illinois State, when asked about the progress of senior three-year letterman defensive tackle Isaiah Nichols of Springdale, fourth-year junior Taurean Carter and redshirt freshman defensive tackle Cameron Ball.
“So we’ve got to continue to work at that,” Odom said. “Because if you’re not good inside up front, then I don’t care how good you are on the back end or linebacker or whatever. That’s why Ridgeway was so important last year. Because he’s just a beast inside. He took up, a lot of times, two guys and filled up space. Those guys inside, Taurean and Cam and Isaiah, it’s so important that we get some things solidified there with those three guys that we feel comfortable on how we’re playing everywhere else. They’ve done a nice job, and they’ve got to keep coming, keep pressing.”
Pittman praised all three earlier in the week.
“Isaiah has probably [been] the most productive, he and Taurean Carter, of any interior defensive linemen so far this spring,” Odom said, “He [Nichols] is playing with great on snap footwork, great eye discipline, great hand placement. And he’s playing at a high level. Both of them have upped their game . . . since we started compared to where they left off last season and where they are today. And just like every player in the program should, you’d better be better today than after we beat Penn State (in the Outback Bowl).”
Odom said new defensive line coach Deke Adams “has done a great job with that group,” also citing the improved play of defensive ends Zach Williams and Jashaud Stewart and versatile end-tackle Eric Gregory.
Ball, the 6-5, 313 redshirt freshman from Atlanta, has definitely progressed along the depth chart.
“Cam Ball has really come on doing a lot of good things,” Odom said. “Jamil Walker [the head strength coach] and his staff in the weightroom, he has transformed our guys. He has transformed them into bigger, faster, quicker, meaner, tougher. Anything you can look at. And Cam has been a guy that has stood in there, and he kept his head down and he’s learned and he’s been able to go play fast. Isaiah, the same thing. He’s running with the ones, the twos, the threes, we’re rotating so many guys in there.”
Briles was asked about Cunningham being among the underrated of last year’s departures that these Hogs are bound to miss.
“He wasn’t underrated for us,” Briles said. “You look past him until they make a mistake and then you look right at them. He limited a lot of the mistakes that we had protecting KJ’s backside last year and did a really nice job in the run game. “
Fifth-year senior Luke Jones, previously a reserve guard and center, has run first-team left tackle this spring.
Starting guard Brady Latham has worked some left tackle, too.
“Luke Jones has been playing that position,” Briles said. “He’s done a nice job. Luke knows it and we’ve told him, physicality has got to be the biggest thing for him and he’s done a nice job of that this spring. Luke’s had a really good spring. There’s some good competition with that group. I really like where our O-line is right now. Hopefully Luke can continue to progress and stay healthy.”
Former Missouri Head Coach Odom and young up and comer offensive coordinator Briles have turned down opportunities from other places to start their season under third-year Arkansas Coach Pittman.
“The culture that Sam Pittman has every day in our working environment, you can’t beat it,” Odom said. “I had opportunities . . . to be a head coach again I’m not gonna go take a head coaching position again just to say I did it. I don’t need that. My ego doesn’t need it. I don’t need it. I’m having as much fun as I’ve ever had coaching being here. I think we can have great success here.”
Briles cited loyalty and the development of fourth-year quarterback/second year starter KJ Jefferson.
“I’m not going to say there’s not a ton of loyalty in college football as far as coaching,” Briles said, “I’ve felt loyal to Coach Pittman giving me the opportunity to be here. Obviously, you’ve got to look at everything from a career standpoint and what you think is best. I feel like I made the right move staying here and being with the guys and the coaches and the coaching staff. Being able to keep all that intact is pretty unique. Having KJ back, it would have been really, really hard to look at KJ and tell him I wasn’t going to be here, just because I love the kid and respect him so much and want him to be able to achieve his goals. Being here for the players and the state and raising a family here, there’s not a better place to do that. So I absolutely love it here and hope I can stay for a long time.”
The Razorbacks didn’t scrimmage Saturday and are saving their last two scrimmage dates for these next two Saturdays closing spring drills.