Day 1 of preseason camp finally marks start of Pittman era
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FAYETTEVILLE — The first official practice of the Sam Pittman era has finally arrived, almost exactly five months after it was originally scheduled.
Arkansas lost all of spring practice because of the coronavirus pandemic and the start of preseason camp was pushed back 10 days when the season was delayed, but Day 1 of camp is set to begin at 2:45 p.m. Monday.
Although they’ll be in helmets only, it will be the Razorbacks’ first time on the field with any equipment since losing to Missouri 24-14 at War Memorial Stadium on Nov. 29. Pittman was hired nine days later.
“We’ve been here a long time,” Pittman said. “There’s a lot that goes into coaching, but they name you coach so you can get players out there and try to make them better and things of that nature, so you can feel the excitement of our team, our staff, and everybody in our building. We’re really excited to go see a little bit more about our players.”
Over the last few weeks, Arkansas has been able to do walk-through practices with the coaches, but Monday will be the first time the team will get to go full speed. Pittman said these practices, even in helmets only, will be amped up compared to what the players are used to.
“Our guys are going to be able to cover, they’re going to be able to throw and catch,” Pittman said. “At least some of those things they could do on their own, but now we’re able to coach them and able to see what we can do.”
The Razorbacks will have three practices this week - Monday, Wednesday and Friday - followed by three weeks with four practices. Beginning the week of Sept. 14, they’ll go to five practices. Each week will be limited to 20 hours of practice time.
That will give Arkansas 25 total practices, which is the max allowed by the SEC this year and down from the usual 29, during the 40-day period before the season begins Sept. 26. By rule, there will still be a five-day acclimation period at the start of camp, with two days of helmets-only practices, two days in shells and finally a full-pad practice on the fifth day.
The SEC’s modified preseason rules also require two off days instead of one, but Pittman said the team can still have a two-hour meeting on one of those days.
Local media is expected to get a handful of viewing periods during the preseason, but will not be on hand Monday when the players get their first taste of camp under their new head coach. Pittman will be implementing a new atmosphere for practice, which includes music while stretching, but “not so much” after that.
“We have to be energetic as coaches,” Pittman said. “If somebody does something well, we need to be the loudest at practice at that point. If they do something wrong or make a mistake, we need to teach that.”
Instead of worrying about things like that, he said his goal is to shape the Razorbacks into a “blue-collar football team.”
“We have to go back to the grassroots of blocking, tackling, hitting, technique and playing physical and pursuing the football,” Pittman said. “When we’re off the field, we’re going to enjoy each other, but when we’re on the field, it’s a work day.”
Because Arkansas doesn’t have a lot of depth at several positions, Pittman said there won’t be as much tackling as a typical preseason camp. There will be at least one scrimmage and probably two, but it’s doubtful there will be a third.
Rather than working on tackling in scrimmage settings, the Razorbacks will get a lot of that work in through teaching technique in individual drills.
“Everything that we're trying to structure in our individual drills should look exactly like what our guys at that position would do on game day,” defensive coordinator Barry Odom said. “Then get them drilled so much that it's repetition and it becomes monotonous, but that's when you start making up positive ground, when you go out and the habits become so natural that that's how you play, and that is the DNA of your defense.”
More than anything, Pittman hopes to learn more about his team’s mental makeup over the next month.
The first-year coach has seen players go through an offseason strength and conditioning program and participate in walk-throughs, but this will be the first time to see them in real practices.
“We’re going to put them through tough practices and I want to see how we react,” Pittman said. “I feel like I know how we’re going to react - that we’re going to dig down and come roaring back the next play - but we have to test our football team in practice to see what we have. We can’t wait until Saturday to find out.”
That was echoed by both of Arkansas’ coordinators.
“It's hard to sit here and say it, but we're going to give up a touchdown sometime next week, would be my guess,” Odom said. “How are we going to react to that? What's our mental focus to be able to put that play behind us and play the next snap?”
It has been a while - close to nine months - since the Razorbacks have had contact and high-speed collisions, so offensive coordinator Kendal Briles said it may take some time to adjust to that offensively. That is the reason behind his primary concern entering camp.
“Ball protection is going to be No. 1,” Briles said. “That’s going to be the biggest thing we have to make sure we’re preaching as coaches and our players are going to have to police it themselves.”
Camp will also look different than ever before because of the ongoing pandemic. Coaches are required to wear face coverings and social distancing is practiced when possible.
Being outdoors on their two practice fields - one grass, one turf - should help the Razorbacks with that, but Pittman said there will be times they practice inside the Walker Pavilion depending on heat and whether or not there was an off day in between practices. In those instances, Arkansas will open every door to get as much air flow as possible.
So far, all of the precautions have paid off and - as of Hunter Yurachek’s interview with Paul Finebaum last Monday - the Razorbacks don’t have any players in quarantine.
That could become more challenging to maintain with students returning to campus for the start of the fall semester Aug. 24. There has already been an outbreak amongst the student population at North Carolina and photos have emerged on social media at several other schools showing students being much less diligent about protocols.
Despite those impending challenges, Pittman remains confident his football team will remain safe.
“We had a long talk about it this afternoon about (how) things are changing, you can’t,” Pittman said. “That’s hard for young guys. They want to make friends and different things, so they’re just going to have to be very, very disciplined. I expect them to be disciplined because they’re grown men and because that’s what we ask them to do.”
There has been a looming feeling that the football season is on thin ice for several weeks, especially with the Big Ten and Pac-12 already pivoting to the spring, but the SEC - and ACC and Big 12 - is pushing forward and the start of preseason camp marks an important step toward a 2020 season.
“Once you saw the Big Ten and the Pac-12 decide not to do it, then you’re going, ‘Well, are we going to follow suit?’” Pittman said. “But we were made well aware a long time ago that we felt like we were as ahead or equal with anybody in knowledge of the Covid in our testing plans.
“So I always felt like there was going to be an opportunity to play and I felt like we’d hang on as long as any conference. To this point, that’s what we’ve done.”