Scouting Arkansas: Razorbacks’ new coaching staff have things looking up

Sam Pittman has instilled new confidence into Arkansas’ program.

Arkansas had not won an SEC game since 2017 — until this year, having won three so far.

They probably should have won four, if not for an officiating botch in Week 3 when Auburn quarterback Bo Nix spiked the ball backward. It should have resulted in a fumble and Arkansas winning the game, but the refs ruled the pass incomplete and couldn’t review the play.

Arkansas features an opportunistic defense headlined by an SEC Defensive Player of the Year candidate in Jalen Catalon, as well as a big-armed quarterback who’s been catching fire as of late. The Maneater spoke to Arkansas Traveler sports editor Robert Stewart for an inside look at the Razorbacks.

The Maneater: What’s changed under Sam Pittman?

Robert Stewart, sports editor of the Arkansas Traveler: To be honest with you, having a competent coaching staff. I was excited about the Chad Morris hire [in 2018], but that optimism faded very quickly and it turned into pessimism. It was probably the darkest era of Razorback football ever. Turn the page, you got Sam Pittman coming in. The one thing I noticed when he got here is that he seems like the most genuine human there is. He’s gonna be straightforward with you, he’s not gonna try to sugarcoat things, he’s gonna tell it like it is and he’s delivered results. To be honest, the roster turnover from last year is not too bad, it’s a lot of the same personnel. The changes that have happened are absolutely due to the coaching staff. The talent was there last year, but Morris couldn’t make it happen. Pittman comes in and just like that you’ve got three wins under your belt and probably should be four.

TM: Barry Odom is getting a lot of credit for that defense, and rightfully so. But what can you tell me about the players who are making it happen?

RS: [Safety] Jalen Catalon, first and foremost. He’s gonna miss the first half against Missouri because he’s had two targeting calls against him this year. I’m gonna question that second one against LSU, but that’s neither here nor there now. But Catalon has had an outstanding year. The [Arkansas] football Twitter account tweeted something [Tuesday], comparing him to Eric Berry in 2009 when he was a unanimous All-American at Tennessee. Berry played 12 games that year, had 83 tackles, two interceptions and forced a fumble. Through eight games this year, Catalon has 86 tackles, three interceptions, two forced fumbles and one of those interceptions went for six. So Catalon is a huge difference-maker in the defensive backfield. In the linebacking corps, you got Bumper Pool, who had a really strong start to the season.

TM: What a name, by the way.

RS: Yeah, he’s gotta be all-name team in the country. Bumper Pool and Grant Morgan have had outstanding seasons. Just this week, Morgan got named to the Butkus Award [best linebacker in the country] watch list. I believe he and Pool at one point were one and two in the SEC in tackles. Hudson Clark, a walk-on cornerback, actually was announced that he would be put on scholarship after a strong performance against Mississippi State and Ole Miss earlier this year. He definitely has not been quite as good since that happened, but he could be a name to watch out for as well.

TM: A lot of those players were also there last year; what difference has Odom made with scheme and play-calling?

RS: He’s made an incredible difference. The guy last year, John Chavis, is now coaching middle school football. [Odom is] not even on the field, he’s in the box, but I believe it was Grant Morgan that was saying in that one game that Pittman was out because of COVID that having him on the field was super cool. They all really can get behind him. I don’t know what it is, but he’s clearly very personable, and I think a lot of the defensive personnel are getting behind that.

TM: Let’s talk about the quarterback. Feleipe Franks transferred from Florida and has started every game this year. How do you think he’s played?

RS: Franks has been tricky. I really like the potential he’s displayed on numerous occasions. His arm strength is nearly unmatched; he can absolutely launch the ball. I think last game against LSU, there were four different 50-yard pass plays, and I would say a good chunk of those 50 yards each time came on air yards. The one thing that troubles me is decision-making. Sometimes I think he holds onto the ball too long. I think that he spends too much time in the backfield and ends up running when maybe he shouldn’t. If he’s able to pull the trigger a little more quickly, then I think he could have a big day, and he’s had some of the best games of his career [at Arkansas]. When they played Auburn back in October, he threw for four touchdowns. I think the Hogs went down 17-0 early on and they ended up losing by three. Say what you will about the backward spike at the end of the game, but if you’re talking about the quarterbacks and the coaching staff from last year, if they go down 17-0, that game is over. They fought back this year, and those intangibles have made a really huge difference.

TM: Who are some players that Missouri fans might not have heard of but who are making an impact this year?

RS: With the [running back] Rakeem Boyd news today [he declared for the draft], I’m gonna go ahead and say, Trelon Smith, the little bitty running back [5’9”, 185] who’s really good at pass-catching out of the backfield. Smith had a really good game against Auburn; I think he had at least one touchdown and probably 150 yards from scrimmage in Boyd’s absence. Obviously, Boyd coming back was huge news from this Razorback team, and people didn’t really pay any mind to Smith but he’s had a great season and I would expect that he’s going to have a really good game as a lead back. The backfield is all his and he’s averaging five yards a carry. The big difference between him and Boyd is that he’s a much better pass catcher. Obviously, Treylon Burks has had a great year out wide and he could have a great game. I also think I’m looking for [receiver] Trey Knox to bust out this week. He’s a sophomore this year, had a pretty strong freshman campaign, but he’s been sort of MIA this year. Knox checked in with a catch last game against LSU, and I think it could potentially be a breakout game for him.

TM: Arkansas hasn’t beaten Missouri since 2015 and I’m sure Odom would love to stick it to his former team. Do you see the Razorbacks playing with an extra edge on Saturday?

RS: Yeah. I think after the COVID-19 postponement last week, you add that onto Odom playing against the program that just fired him, I think the Razorbacks come out with their hair on fire this week.

TM: Final score prediction?

RS: I think it’s gonna be close. Let’s say Missouri 27, Arkansas 24.

Edited by Kyle Pinnell | kpinnell@themaneater.com

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