Arkansas athletic brass went an unconventional route with its hire of Sam Pittman, a career-long offensive line coach, to head up the long-struggling program. So far, the move has paid off.
The Razorbacks won nine games in 2021, peaked at No. 8 in the AP Top 25, and closed the campaign with an emphatic Outback Bowl win over Penn State.
After defying expectations in Pittman's first two seasons, Arkansas opens spring 2022 with the next challenge ahead: competing at the top of the SEC West.
5 Storylines to Watch During Arkansas' Spring Practice
1. KJ Jefferson taking the next step
Central to Arkansas' breakthrough 2021 campaign was the savvy play of Jefferson. The dual-threat quarterback completed almost 68 percent of his pass attempts, threw 21 touchdowns against just four interceptions, and rushed for six touchdowns.
Last season was Jefferson's first full campaign captaining the Arkansas offense. Going into an offseason with full reign and a bevy of experience lays the foundation for a monster year — a Heisman-contending year.
2. Fill in LeBlanc
Sam Pittman retained key coaches on his staff amid buzz of other opportunities, namely coordinators Kendal Briles and Barry Odom. One significant change among the Razorbacks coaches, however, was the hiring of Derrick LeBlanc to oversee the defensive line.
LeBlanc replaces Jermial Ashley in a role that's been a bit of a revolving door in Fayetteville. LeBlanc headed up a solid front at Kentucky for three seasons, including the 2019 campaign that saw the rise of Josh Paschal at defensive end. LeBlanc is taking over a new-look unit from a season ago. LSU transfer Landon Jackson could be an invaluable addition, but the group begins spring with plenty of uncertainty up and down the roster.
3. Replacing Burks
There's abundant reason to be excited about the Razorbacks' offense, but one critical question mark to be addressed in the offseason is the loss of Treylon Burks. Burks went for 1,104 yards and 11 touchdowns a season ago, producing a per-game clip good for third in the SEC behind only Jameson Williams and Wan'Dale Robinson.
Oklahoma transfer Jadon Haselwood could be a candidate to fill Burks' production, at least in part. Haselwood had a three-touchdown game against TCU last season, and was a 5-star recruit coming out of high school.
4. Next man up in the secondary
Arkansas boasted one of the nation's best pass defenses a season ago — no easy feat in the SEC West, a division that flipped from being one of college football's most traditional in style of play to being among the most offensively dynamic.
The Razorbacks held opponents to a completion rate below 59 percent and garnered nearly as many interceptions (13) as it allowed touchdown passes (16). Much of the secondary that contributed to the outstanding play returns, including Jalen Catalon and Myles Slusher, but loses Montaric Brown. Brown's five interceptions last season will be tough to replicate.
5. Evolution of the run game
Behind Jefferson's more-than-capable playmaking, Arkansas boasted the nation's seventh-most productive rushing offense. Even greater production may be on the horizon in 2022 with Jefferson back, along with running backs Raheim Sanders and Dominique Johnson. Both Sanders and Johnson flirted with 600 yards a season ago.
Dalton Wagner leads an offensive line that's young but certainly not lacking for size.
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