HOOVER, Ala. — University of Arkansas Coach Sam Pittman was happy to tout the combination of 23 super seniors and seniors he’ll have on his roster to open training camp on Aug. 6.
But will that vast level of experience, including a whopping 19 returning starters, equate to a move up the standings in the SEC West this fall?
Pittman, making his first appearance at SEC media days on Thursday, was asked what it will take to make a jump in the SEC West standings.
“I wish I knew that,” Pittman said. “We’d jump all over the place. Here’s what I do know: It will be hard work.
“The weight room, the process of the program, the belief in the program. I mean, you can’t beat anybody if you don’t start out thinking you’re going to or believing you’re going to. I think that has changed over the last year.”
Pittman and the Razorbacks went 3-7 against an All-SEC schedule last season, winning one one-score game at No. 16 Mississippi State and losing three one-score games: At No. 13 Auburn, against LSU and at Missouri. Reverse those results and the Razorbacks were in position for a winning season in Pittman’s debut.
“I think it’s just building on what we’ve done and getting better and getting a few additions to help our football team,” Pittman said. “We’ve got enough players … to have a good football team as long as we buy in and we work hard and we execute.”
Offensive tackle Myron Cunningham and linebacker Grant Morgan, both “super” seniors who took advantage of bonus years offered by the NCAA due to the coronavirus pandemic, think the extra levels of experience will only help.
“I feel like it will benefit us, especially because we have all the super seniors,” Cunningham said. “It’s only bringing back knowledge of the game and experience through what we’ve played. The only thing we can do is pass it down to the young guys as we keep going throughout the year.”
Said Morgan, “The way our players are attacking it, we’re going to win games.”
Later, speaking to local reporters, Morgan said the Razorbacks are going to be improved.
“The only way with us is up and we’ve got to to be able to grow on and off the field as players,” Morgan said. “It’s not just, ‘We’ve got to win more games than we did last year,’ I think it’s more of we’ve got to get better at certain aspects of our game.
“We’ve got to have better depth. We’ve got to have better defensive efficiency. We’ve got to get better at running the ball just as we are passing the ball. We have to be able to take strides in our player development from young guys.”
Cunningham said the potential to make a substantial move is available for the Hogs.
“It’s definitely great, especially coming off of what we did last year, no one expected us to win those SEC games that we did,” Cunningham said. “Especially with no non-conference games. That’s just going to add to what we can do this upcoming season.”
The Razorbacks have been anointed as the team with the toughest schedule in the nation by some analysts this fall after earning that distinction during last year’s 10-game all-SEC schedule.
“We are the defending national champions of the hardest football schedule in college,” Pittman said. “I looked towards next year, and I think we’re going to three-peat in that area. However, we’re the University of Arkansas, in the [SEC] West, exactly where we belong, and we’re excited about those challenges.”
Pittman noted an appearance at media days was the last major item to cross off his to-do list after a year and a half as head coach of the Razorbacks.
Otherwise, he said, some parts of being a head coach are starting to come a little easier.
“Well, we have 19 starters coming back and I know who the 19 are,” Pittman pointed out. “Not just that, our own coaches, what we expect from our own coaches with all three coordinators coming back.”
Defensive coordinator Barry Odom, offensive coordinator Kendal Briles and special teams coordinator Scott Fountain are all returning, and the Razorbacks also retained strength and conditioning coach Jamil Walker after other programs made runs at him in the winter.
“Certainly our strength coach being back with us going through year 2 of the summer, even though last year was cut short [is a plus],” Pittman said. “Then I think another big thing for us is we still have covid concerns, but we’re doing pretty well in that regard on our football team as well. We’re not where we want to be but certainly doing well in our percentage.”
Pittman said the Razorback football team is at 89% vaccinations and the people who work in the Smith Football Center have been vaccinated at a 92% rate.
Pittman imparted a combination of football-related commentary with program-enhancing, recruiting talk during his opening remarks in the main media ballroom.
He talked up Arkansas as a “proud damn state. It’s a beautiful state, hard-working, loyal, honest people.”
Pittman added that 100% of football players who had exhausted their eligibility had earned their degrees, and the same held true for all seniors in the athletic department.
“We have the best city in the SEC voted by U.S. News and World Report for the sixth year in a row,” Pittman added.
Pittman looked comfortable in his initial appearance at the mega-event, which attracted close to 800 media credentials.
He said he was aiming for the middle ground for his opening statement — somewhere between Mississippi State Coach Mike Leach’s 31 words and the 20 minutes employed by Georgia Coach Kirby Smart, his former boss.
Pittman hit that mark at 10 minutes, 30 seconds.
Arkansas is still on the fringes of the SEC West radar, but its blip might be gaining in size and strength. Still, the Razorbacks are not likely to be projected higher than sixth or seventh in the SEC West after tying for sixth with Mississippi State last year.
Pittman kept advancing his core beliefs at media days.
“Lastly, I want to tell you we love this football team,” he said. “They believe in being blue collar, hardworking, a tough, physical group of men. We’ll be better. I don’t know what that means in wins and losses, but excited to get started and get back into Don W. Reynolds Stadium, full of fans calling the Hogs.”
Last season 3-7 (t6th in SEC West)
Coach Sam Pittman (3-7 in 2nd season at Arkansas and overall)
Returning starters 19: Offense 8, Defense 9, Specialty 2
Key players CB Montaric Brown, WR Treylon Burks, S Jalen Catalon, OL Myron Cunningham, LB Grant Morgan, RB Trelon Smith
Offensive coordinator Kendal Briles (2nd year)
Defensive coordinator Barry Odom (2nd year)
Special teams coordinator Scott Fountain (2nd year)
SEC West title scenario
The Razorbacks will need its supporting players to help quarterback KJ Jefferson get comfortable with the reins of the offense, and most importantly the defense has to come up with ways to impact opposing quarterbacks and force negative plays.