FAYETTEVILLE – Of new Arkansas Coach Sam Pittman’s 10 fulltime Arkansas assistants, only one was hired without some prior association with Pittman or new defensive coordinator/former Missouri Coach Barry Odom before officially named to the Razorbacks staff. Offensive coordinator Kendal Briles is the exception. Receivers coach Justin Stepp, the lone fulltime holdover from the previous Chad Morris regime, would be, too, but gets an asterisk.
For while Pittman was forming a staff, Stepp stayed put, helping with the frantic, December signing date catch-up effort earning Pittman’s respect, especially upon review of 2019 receivers Treylon Burks, Trey Knox, Mike Woods and Tyson Morris’ productivity even as the the Hogs wallowed 2-10. “Stepp volunteered to go on the road with me, which meant something to me,” Pittman said. “And I saw how coaches looked at him and recruits looked at him. A couple of coaches talked to me personally about him. They felt adamant that he was a good man and good football coach. Obviously I had seen what he recruited in the room before I got here, and he has strong ties in east Texas, which I think we need. Because he was so good in the 3-4 days I was with him before I offered him the job.”
The rest of the staff, other than Briles, includes offensive line coach Brad Davis, a double Pittman-Odom associate recruited to play offensive line for Pittman when Pittman coached the Oklahoma Sooners O-line, and a former North Carolina graduate assistant when Pittman coached the Tar Heels O-line who then coached Odom’s Mizzou offensive lines in 2018 and 2019; running backs coach Jimmy Smith, a former high school coach in Atlanta that Pittman knew well in recruiting while coaching the Georgia Bulldogs offensive line coach; tight ends coach Jon Cooper, a 2016 and 2017 offensive analyst for Odom at Mizzou, cornerbacks coach Sam Carter who had assisted Odom at Mizzou, linebackers coach Rion Rhoades, playing for Pittman during Pittman’s head coaching stint at Hutchinson (Kan.) Junior College; special teams coach Scott Fountain who coached with Pittman at Georgia; and defensive line coach Derrick LeBlanc whose defensive lines he coached at Kentucky from 2017-2019 annually impressed Pittman and Odom in SEC East Kentucky vs. Georgia and Kentucky vs. Missouri clashes.
Only Briles arrived totally without previous contact, other than his work coordinating high-powered offenses at Baylor, Florida Atlantic, Houston, and Florida State.Pittman knew well of Briles without knowing him and vice-versa. “Really the people that I talked to about him love the man for what he stands for as a person and how he treats his players,” Briles said.
It did not take long for Briles to feel the same about the former Arkansas offensive line coach whose Razorbacks linemen he coached from 2013-2015 lobbied Athletic Athletic Director Hunter Yurachek clamoring for his return to Fayetteville elevated to head coach. “After being around him and talking to him at length, I just really, really respect him as a person, as a coach,” Briles said.
Pittman was impressed initially by Briles’ offensive stats and pace and became even more impressed with what statistics can’t measure. “What I have learned about Kendal he’s a winner,” Pittman said. “He wants to win so bad. Those are things you don’t necessarily think about when you think about Kendal. You think of those fast-paced go to the attack offenses which is probably one of the top reasons that I hired him. But his desire to win and him being an excellent recruiter with a desire to go out and get and coach quarterbacks…”
On Arkansas’ staff Briles had coached with none but he knew one and brought in two for offensive quality control. Michael Anthony and Mark Calla, assist Briles in offensive quality control now after previously assisting him. Calla was in quality control at Florida Atlantic, Houston and Florida State.Anthony was in quality control at Baylor, FAU, Houston and Florida State. Though Cooper had coached for Odom, he was a Briles suggested hire to Pittman. “Jon Cooper was kind of the one hire that Coach Pittman allowed me to make,” Briles said, noting the rest of the offensive staff was set. “I’ve known Coop. We ran a very similar offense when he was at Central Florida the last couple of years. My brother-in-law Jeff Lebby was there and is now the offensive coordinator at Ole Miss. So I’ve known Coop through my brother-in-law. I knew was a great coach.”