The 2021 season had to feel like emerging from a dark abyss and into the world of the living for Arkansas football fans.
The Razorbacks sputtered for most of four years before finally regaining their footing in the treacherous SEC West and shrugging off long losing streaks in trophy games against Texas A&M, LSU and Missouri. Add in a 40–21 blasting of Texas and a win over Penn State in the Outback Bowl, the Razorbacks’ first bowl victory over a Big Ten team, and happy days were here again under Sam Pittman, who was negotiating a big raise and extension throughout the spring to start his third season.
Arkansas spent time in the top 10 and even gave Alabama a run for its money in Tuscaloosa for the first time in 14 years. The Razorbacks showed signs of becoming a contender.
Multiple key parts from that team have departed, including ace receiver Treylon Burks, left tackle Myron Cunningham and top defenders Montaric Brown, Grant Morgan, John Ridgeway and Tre Williams. However, quarterback KJ Jefferson is back to operate the run-pass option attack, and Pittman managed to retain coordinators Kendal Briles, Barry Odom and Scott Fountain, giving the Razorbacks much-needed continuity and the makings of a tough-to-beat club.
Previewing Arkansas' Offense for 2022
Briles suggested Jefferson might complete 65 percent of his passes in 2021, and the sophomore did better than that, hitting 198 of 294 (67.3 percent) for 2,676 yards, with 21 touchdowns and four interceptions.
Jefferson also led the team with 664 rushing yards. Three tailbacks joined Jefferson with 500-plus rushing yards, giving Arkansas four 500-yard rushers in a season for the first time since 1975.
The Razorbacks also averaged 200-plus yards passing (213.9) and rushing (an SEC-best 227.8) for the first time since 1971.
Tailbacks Raheim Sanders (578 yards, five TDs), Dominque Johnson (575, seven) and AJ Green (227, one) are back, running behind a line that returns four starters in RT Dalton Wagner, C Ricky Stromberg, LG Brady Latham and RG Beaux Limmer and is growing in size to fit the big Pittman mold.
Finding a trusty go-to receiver was an emphasis in spring, with transfer Jadon Haselwood, Warren Thompson and Ketron Jackson Jr. giving Jefferson tall, fast targets. Additionally, backup quarterback Malik Hornsby made a splash in the wideout corps during spring and might work both spots this season. Toledo transfer Matt Landers is also slated to join the mix this fall.
Tight end Trey Knox incurred a concussion from a car wreck early in spring drills. His premier speed for the position, solid hands and improving blocking make him a natural to pair with Hudson Henry at that spot.
Previewing Arkansas' Defense for 2022
The Razorbacks lost their top run-clogger in Ridgeway and their top pass-rush specialist in Williams but got off to a great start in camp with tackles Isaiah Nichols and Taurean Carter showing big improvement. Ends Eric Gregory, Zach Williams and Jashaud Stewart continue to improve as veterans. The Arkansas coaches are ready to mine the transfer portal following spring drills to add to the defensive line depth after landing Landon Jackson (LSU) and Jordan Domineck (Georgia Tech) over the winter.
Bumper Pool has assumed the leadership role filled by Morgan and Hayden Henry last year in the linebacker room, and the young talent at the spot is evident. Redshirt freshman Chris “Pooh” Paul Jr. has emerged as a potential starter, along with transfer Drew Sanders, a former five-star signee by Alabama, and the coaching staff likes freshmen Jordan Crook and Kaden Henley, along with redshirt sophomore Jackson Woodard. The Hogs are finally showing depth at linebacker.
The coaching staff was determined to give their cornerbacks tough man-coverage tests in spring by scheming a lot of blitzes to put on tape for post-spring teaching sessions. Hudson Clark remained with the top unit at corner, while Khari Johnson, transfer Dwight McGlothern and junior Malik Chavis spent time there. Johnson switched to the safety spot, where depth is improving behind Jalen Catalon, Simeon Blair and Jayden Johnson. Myles Slusher appears to have emerged as the top nickel back with other players cross-training throughout the back end.
Previewing Arkansas' Specialists for 2022
Cam Little is back as the primary placekicker after turning in one of the finest freshman seasons for the program. Little, who made 20-of-24 field goals, has range to 55 yards or longer. Trusty kickoff man Vito Calvaruso transferred out. Returning punter Reid Bauer, the defending Mortell Award winner as the nation’s best holder, could be pushed for the starting job by Aussie freshman Max Fletcher.
Bryce Stephens looks to be the leading candidate to return punts, while Green, Slusher and others are involved on kickoff returns.
Strong recruiting has added taller, bigger players on both sides of the line and at receiver and defensive back as Pittman shapes the roster into a team that looks the part in the SEC West. Jefferson’s presence at quarterback is a huge starting point. The run game would seemingly be in fine shape, but assembling a threatening receiving corps is essential for growth. The Razorbacks seem determined to improve their pass rush, even if it means bringing a fifth or sixth player into the pressure packages. All in all, this is a team that won its share of toss-up games in 2021 and seems prepared to do that for a long time to come.
National Ranking: 22
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