Razorbacks Utsey & Ridgeway Discuss Transfer, Pittman Gives Update On Team Vaccinations

Razorback senior defensive lineman Markell Utsey (#0) from Little Rock, AR and senior defensive lineman John Ridgeway (#99) from Bloomington, ILL rush the quarterback at practice at the Willard & Pat Walker Pavilion in Fayetteville, AR.

Nate Allen

FAYETTEVILLE – After six Razorbacks returnees were Tuesday named to the various Preseason All-SEC teams, as voted upon by the league’s head football coaches, and Arkansas Coach Sam Pittman Tuesday morning spoke to the Little Rock Touchdown Club, Razorbacks newcomer via transfer portal defensive linemen Markell Utsey and John Ridgeway met with media Tuesday evening following practice.

Junior center Ricky Stromberg, practicing again after a 2-week absence recovering from a knee injury,  junior receiver Treylon Burks, the lone Razorback media voted first team on the Associated Press Preseason All-SEC teams, and senior middle linebacker Grant Morgan, a 2020 All-American, were voted Preseason All-SEC first team by the coaches, it was announced Tuesday.

Arkansas third-year sophomore safety Jalen Catalon, named an AP Preseason Second-Team All-American on Monday was Tuesday named to the Preseason SEC Coaches second team.

Catalon last month also was voted the AP’s Preseason All-SEC second team.

Arkansas senior offensive left tackle Myron Cunningham, and senior right guard Ty Clary, also the first-team center when Stromberg ailed, were voted to the Coaches Preseason All-SEC third team.

In Little Rock Tuesday morning, Pittman said the Razorbacks roster is “91 percent vaccinated” against the Covid virus with only 11 still unvaccinated.

“I think that (achieving 91 percent)  will help us with the remaining 11, and then 100% of our employees are vaccinated,” Pittman said. “I’m proud of that. Once I talked to our team, we went over 100 (players) fully vaccinated. Our kids want to play and they want to represent the state of Arkansas.”

Last football season with no vaccine available, the SEC pared its 12-game season by eliminating nonconference games and playing a 10-game entirely SEC season with one open weekend and even the SEC Championship game weekend used to play games postponed because a team was under the active roster limit because of Covid.

All play SEC teams  a 12-game schedule this season and  any covid roster affected games will be cancelled rather than postponed, SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey declared.

 Arkansas opens Sept. 4 in a nonconference game hosting Rice of Conference USA at Reynolds Razorback Stadium.

The Razorbacks had to postpone one game  eventually played at a later date in 2020 and did not get to play their Texas Bowl game against TCU because a covid outbreak hit TCU’s program.

Utsey, a 6-4, 290, Little Rock Parkview grad figuring both at defensive end and defensive tackle at Arkansas, and defensive end Tre Williams were Missouri Tigers under Barry Odom, Mizzou’s head  coach from 2016 to 2019 and joining Pittman’s first Arkansas staff as defensive coordinator in 2020.

Utsey, Arkansas past hailing from Little Rock and Odom’s from Mizzou to Arkansas present, seemed an Arkansas natural after putting his name in the portal as a one-last-year grad transfer after playing in 2020 for Missouri Coach Eliah Drinkwitz.

“I obviously have the opportunity to play for Coach Odom again,” Utsey said. “Just being back home closer to family. I feel like it was a great opportunity for success.”

Utsey took no from the portal recruiting visits, including Arkansas.

“I knew what was here,” Utsey said. “I really didn’t have to see it. I had faith in it.”

Ridgeway, 6-6, 320 nose tackle from Bloomington, Illinois, so starred at Illinois State that Pittman’s staff had to out-recruit some of the cream of the nation’s crop to land him.

That wasn’t the case when lower division (FCS) Illinois State signed him in 2017 though Ridgeway posted a stellar high school past in football, wrestling, shot-put and discus.

His plight was all academic then though he would become all about academics upon redshirting at Illinois State as a 2017 freshman.

“ I just slacked, ”Ridgeway candidly recalled. “I didn’t really pay attention in class, so that kind of took away my chances to get recruited. ISU took a leap of faith with me an I ended up making my eligibility to go play college football. Went there, played there pretty well.”

Really well, major recruiters thought.

“When I did get in the portal it kind of felt like I was a five-star recruit you know, ”Ridgeway said. “I just had my phone blowing up every second of the day. Coaches calling me at 10:30, 11 o’clock at night and I was like, ‘Wow.’ I just wish I’d experienced it at a younger age. It was fun for sure.”

Arkansas’ SEC presence, knowing NFL scouts could best evaluate playing against the best in college football’s best league, first attracted him to Arkansas but he got hooked by Arkansas itself.

That took some hooking since he visited on his own when school-sponsored visits were Covid banned.

“I kind of just had my top three teams I was looking at, and I figured Arkansas was only an eight-hour drive so why not take it?” Ridgeway said.

Who were the other two teams?

“The Chicago Bears and the Green Bay Packers,” Ridgeway quipped.

OK, back to Fayetteville.

 “So, I took the drive, and I loved the atmosphere,” Ridgeway said.  “I looked around campus. I took my girlfriend and the dog. Let him see everything. The parents loved it. I loved it. So, I was like why not? I want to go to Arkansas.”

All three transfers have impacted instantly. They worked their way up from the third team, the starting point for newcomers, and now are in a large D-linemen rotation of large D-linemen likely needing plenty of subbing these first two potential hot weather games  in Fayetteville Sept. 4 against Rice and Sept. 11 against Texas.

Who starts in that rotation isn’t paramount, they claim.

“ I see myself doing whatever I need to do to help this team,” Utsey said. “I put the team first. So, whatever the coaches need me to do, I sacrifice to that.”

Ridgeway concurs and said he’s learning the defense from the Razorbacks returnees and Utsey and Williams who played for Odom.

“”I trust the coaches,” Ridgeway said. “I know they’re going to put me in the best position to succeed. So, it that means running with the twos, threes, whatever,  I know I’m going to get better wherever they put me.” 

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