FAYETTEVILLE – As part of one of three Power Five conferences determined to play football this fall, the Arkansas Razorbacks finally practice Monday for new Coach Sam Pittman.
Former Arkansas 2013-2015 offensive line coach Pittman was named Arkansas’ head coach in December, 2019 but other than walkthroughs has not coached a Razorbacks practice.
The coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic in mid-march cancelled all spring semester sports and practices before Pittman’s Hogs could take the spring practice field.
The virus so flares that the Big Ten and Pac 12 of the Power Five cancelled their football and other 2020 fall sports.Commissioners of the SEC, with Arkansas Athletic Director Hunter Yurachek and Pittman strongly supporting SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey, and the Big 12 and ACC vow for now their leagues will play though abruptly could cease operations monitoring the virus impact.
It already impacted on the SEC schedule. The 12-game schedules which originally included four nonconference games starting the Saturday week of Sept. 5 to a 10-game SEC games only schedule starting Sept. 26. Practices which were to begin Aug. 7 were moved to start Aug. 17 with strict COVID-19 testing and protocols and two mandated off days per week and limited days of full contact practices.
“They gave us the same rules,” Pittman said. “We’ll go out there and play.”
While the Hogs didn’t get their physical spring practices to execute the new offensive and defensive schemes that new offensive coordinator Kendal Briles and new defensive coordinator and ex-Missouri head coach Barry Odom install, they’ve had a summer full of Zoom meetings with staff to learn what they will practice.
“It hasn’t been spring ball because obviously you can’t hit,” Pittman said. “But the mental part of it has been probably better than even what spring ball would have been about learning the offense.”
Surmising what he inherited from a program gone 4-20 for all games the last two seasons and 0-16 in the SEC and 1-23 in the SEC dating to Bret Bielema’s 1-7 in 2017 before the Morris era’s two 0-8s, Pittman’s immediate concern was beefing up the trenches.
Pittman coached the biggest offensive line in the country including the NFL during his 2013-2015 Arkansas tenure under Bielema before moving on from 2016-2019 coaching the Georgia offensive line for Kirby Smart.
“I’m not saying a 275 pound man can’t block a 315- or 300-pound man, but I would like to have a little bit more anchor,” Pittman said. “Obviously, everybody I would assume knows that I like big offensive linemen.”Pittman also deemed vital beefing up the defensive line.
“I just felt we need a bigger football team,” Pittman said. “The D-line is probably the one that I’ve been most happy with. That group I think is doing really well.”
Who particularly impresses on the D-line?
“I think Jonathan Marshall’s done a really good job,” Pittman said. “And Isaiah Nichols and Eric Gregory, Xavier Kelly, Julius Coates… They’re big, they’re guys that understand, they can move for their size and I just feel like they can be a good group.”
Junior college transfer defensive end Coates and graduate transfer Kelly via Clemson are brand new.
One older player feels brand new. Dorian Gerald, a starting defensive end as a 2018 junior college transfer defensive end, was sidelined for 2019 after an unusual, scary bruised neck artery during the season’s first game.
“He really, really looks good,” Pittman said. “He’s got tremendous foot speed. Very vocal guy and has been working his tail off.”
Naturally focus rivets on Feleipe Franks, the former Florida Gators starting quarterback Arkansas eligible as a graduate transfer and taking Monday’s first first-team snap.
“We have a guy that’s played a lot of football and won a New Year’s Day bowl (the 2018 Gators’ Peach Bowl over Michigan) as the starting quarterback,” Pittman said. “I didn’t just say that he’s won the starting job. How can do you do that in walk-throughs? But I did say that we’re awful glad that he’s on our football team.”