FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. (AP) — Arkansas coach Sam Pittman is no longer learning what it takes to win in the Southeastern Conference. He has already made significant strides in his first three years.
The next step would be turning the Razorbacks into a consistent contender. The Razorbacks are on the right track — Arkansas is seeking its fourth straight bowl trip, which would mark its longest streak since a run from 1998 to 2003. A highlight of Pittman’s tenure was last year’s triple-overtime Liberty Bowl win over Kansas.
Moving up in the ranks might be easier said than done with Oklahoma and Texas joining the already-stacked SEC in 2024.
Quarterback KJ Jefferson gives the Razorbacks hope that more momentum can be built before the league expands. He threw for 2,648 yards with 24 touchdowns and five interceptions in 2022 and he ran for another 640 yards with nine touchdowns.
He is our leader,” Pittman said. “He’s our leader both on the offense and the defense. Obviously on one side of the ball, a lot of times you’ll have leaders that are on that side of the ball. KJ is our team leader, and we are awful happy that he is.”
Raheim Sanders was the league’s No. 2 rusher with 1,443 yards last season and earned first-team all-SEC honors from the AP. The explosive back got even faster in the offseason and added 10 pounds of muscle. He teams with Jefferson to fuel what could be an elite running game. Only three power-conference teams in FBS last year averaged more than Arkansas’ 236 yards rushing per game.
The offense’s scheme will be a bit different in 2023, though, even with Sanders and Jefferson returning.
Dan Enos is in his first year as offensive coordinator in Pittman’s regime after last year’s coordinator, Kendal Briles, left to take the same job at TCU. Enos knows the program, though, having been Arkansas’ offensive coordinator from 2015 to 2017 under Bret Bielema. Pittman was Arkansas’ offensive line coach in 2015, so he knows Enos.
“I hired Dan Enos because I thought he was the best play-caller I’ve ever worked with, and I felt like that’s what we need,” Pittman said.
The Razorbacks lost their top four receivers from last year and the top three entering the fall are an FCS transfer in Andrew Armstrong, a Division II transfer in Isaac TeSlaa and a transfer from the Mid-American Conference in Tyrone Broden. Pittman feels positive about the unit, partly because of his own experience at lower levels.
“I think KJ will be able to answer that better than I do, but (Armstrong) is fast. He’s big,” Pittman said. “I was a DII player. Well, I was NAIA, but they’re DII now. It’s kind of neat to bring a couple guys from Division II ball. (TeSlaa and Armstrong) both I think had about 1,000 yards in catches. They develop later.”
Arkansas was last in FBS in 2022 in pass defense as the Razorbacks gave up 294.7 yards per game. Pittman landed four players from FBS schools out of the transfer portal in hopes of fixing the secondary issues.
Early in camp, it’s taking some time, largely because of so many new bodies.
“The problem is we have too many penalties in the secondary,” Pittman said after the team’s first fall scrimmage. “We were just giving (the offense) first downs. There had to have been maybe four, five different defensive penalties.”
Arkansas opens at home Sept. 2 against Western Carolina. The Razorbacks host new Big 12 member BYU on Sept. 16. The Razorbacks open conference play at No. 5 LSU on Sept. 23 and visit No. 4 Alabama on Oct. 14.
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