Arkansas Razorbacks confident about turning around the football program in 2020
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Hogs confident about turning things around in 2020

Coming off back-to-back 2-10 seasons, Arkansas is aiming to turn around the program in 2020.
Coming off back-to-back 2-10 seasons, Arkansas is aiming to turn around the program in 2020. (Arkansas Athletics)

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FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas has hit historic lows for its football program the last few years.

After firing Bret Bielema following a 4-8 season in 2017, Chad Morris managed to drive the team further into the ground with consecutive 2-10 seasons that featured too many embarrassing moments to count.

Riding a 19-game SEC losing streak, the Razorbacks are considered one of the worst Power Five programs in the country and don’t have a whole lot of outside expectations for the modified 2020 season.

Those inside the locker room, though, have seen reasons for optimism under new head coach Sam Pittman. They point to the various ways the first-year coach has already made noticeable changes just halfway through camp.

“I feel we can be successful because we’re surrounded by coaches who are pushing us in practice, to thud up, to go hard, to do this and do that,” safety Joe Foucha said. “All of our practices are game-like situations. They put us in a lot of game-like situations, so I feel like everything we’re seeing at practice, we’re going to get in a game and we’re even more physical in practice.”

Even before fall camp, a majority of the team transformed their bodies over the offseason. Led by strength and conditioning coach Jamil Walker, several players have seen huge weight gains.

No where is that more apparent than in the trenches, especially on the offensive line. Returning players on the unit gained an average of 14 pounds and the Razorbacks now have 11 offensive linemen on the roster who weigh at least 300 pounds, compared to just six last year.

“This team is a stronger, faster more physical team and Coach Pittman…is really branding that physical and mental toughness,” offensive lineman Dalton Wagner said. “He's turned this team into a blue collar team for sure. The only way he knows how to fix things is to go out and work at it, and I 100 percent believe in that.”

Perhaps the biggest difference, though, is on the mental side of things.

Facing a 10-game, SEC-only schedule that features all seven SEC teams in the preseason AP poll, Pittman has shown he’s a “fearless leader,” according to wide receiver Trey Knox.

“He said this is the best year, the best chance, we have to go make a name for ourselves,” Knox said. “We have some of the best competition in the country to play against and if we beat them, we're the man, we’re standing on top of the hill. I love that approach.”

Not only does Pittman face what’s widely considered the toughest schedule in the country, but he’s also had to deal with an unprecedented amount of off-field issues completely outside of his control.

The coronavirus pandemic completely wiped out spring ball, cost him critical face-to-face time with his players while they were in quarantine, forced him to adapt with virtual meetings and eventually led to the aforementioned schedule change, all while reigniting the topic of player safety.

On top of that, social justice issues have been brought to the forefront in our country and some coaches have faced criticism for their handling of the situation, but Pittman has seemingly dealt with it all with grace and his players appreciate how genuine he’s been throughout everything.

“I'm glad he's my head coach because he's real,” safety Jalen Catalon said. “What you see is what you get and I think he's handled the situation as well as any head coach can, and (I’m) just blessed that he's our head coach."

No one on Arkansas’ roster has experienced the level of team success in college that defensive tackle Xavier Kelly was around at Clemson before becoming a graduate transfer.

In four years with the Tigers, he made it to the College Football Playoff every year and was part of two national championship teams. Kelly was not here for Arkansas’ struggles, but he’s been encouraged by what he’s seen since arriving in Fayetteville.

“I wasn’t around that team, I don’t know why they didn’t win some games,” Kelly said. “But this team right here has a lot of energy and enthusiasm and guys that want it, so I feel that this team is really going to turn it around.”

It’s still an ongoing process as Pittman tries to right the ship, but defensive coordinator Barry Odom - a former head coach himself - has been impressed with what he’s done so far.

Odom said he feels like the players have bought in and added that those who don’t will be exposed quickly.

“Everything hasn’t been sunshine and rainbows - it never is,” Odom said. “But also Coach Pittman has done such an amazing job on laying out the plan and just being honest and transparent and showing them that this is the way we’re going to do things.”

Considering the challenge awaiting them beginning Sept. 26 against Georgia, it remains to be seen if all of these changes will actually result in more wins for the Razorbacks.

What is evident, though, is a new confidence heading into 2020 and the players’ desire not to repeat the past.

“Nobody likes going 2-10 - fans don't like it, I know you guys don't like it, we sure as heck don't like it, either,” Wagner said. “This team has turned itself around, I truly believe that.

“We've had strong leadership coming from all positions. I think accountability and guys pushing each other in practice more so than we've ever had before."