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College Football Preview 2022: 9. Arkansas Razorbacks

K.J. Jefferson, Arkansas

9. Arkansas Razorbacks

The breakthrough 2021 was no fluke; the program is building towards a special season in Fayetteville

2021 Review
Heading into 2021, Arkansas football had won a combined 11 games the past four seasons. They had suffered through the frustrating late-Bret Bielema years, experienced the worst two-season stretch in school history under Chad Morris, but had showed progress in Year One of Sam Pittman. Even so, perhaps not even the most optimistic Arkansas fan would have predicted a 4-0 start from the Razorbacks, punctuated by wins over Texas and Texas A&M. October brought the 'Hogs back to Earth, beginning with a 37-0 loss to Georgia and defeats at the hands of Ole Miss and Auburn, but Pittman's team did not go away. They finished the regular season 8-4 and then went on to win a New Year's Day bowl game against Penn State, delivering the starved Arkansas fans a perfect finale to a breakthrough season. Following an offseason of wins in the transfer portal and on the recruiting trail, the Razorbacks have obvious momentum and hope to upset the Alabama status quo in the SEC West.

2022 Outlook
Offense: Offensive coordinator Kendal Briles was pursued by Miami for the same position over the offseason, but instead decided to return to Fayetteville. It was an understandable decision in many ways for Briles, who has his most talented offense yet with Arkansas.

Junior quarterback K.J. Jefferson may be the most under-appreciated signal-caller in the country entering 2022. He showed real growth as a passer last fall, totaling 2,676 yards and 21 touchdowns, and has always been dangerous with his legs. He added 664 yards and six touchdowns on the ground, leading the team in rushing. Jefferson has already established himself as one of the best in the SEC, but Arkansas is hoping he can reach another level and grow as a downfield passer. 

Expect the Razorbacks to once again lean on a committee approach at running back. Sophomore Raheim Sanders was a pleasant surprise in 2021, leading the team in attempts and yardage. He's going to be the top option once again, but Dominique Johnson and A.J. Green should also feature heavily. Johnson finished just behind Sanders in yardage and is one of the team's big-play threats, averaging nearly six yards per carry.

The most significant loss Arkansas suffered on their entire roster over the offseason was none other than Treylon Burks. Burks was a nightmare to defend for opposing defensive backs; everyone knew he was getting the ball, and he still dominated. After finishing with 66 catches for 1,104 yards, he was selected in the first round by the Tennessee Titans.

The search for a new No. 1 wide out began in the spring and should stretch into fall camp and the regular season. There are plenty of contenders, with the trio of Warren Thompson, Ketron Jackson Jr., and Oklahoma transfer Jadon Haselwood the top contenders. Thompson is the top returning receiver on the team and the veteran of the group, but Haselwood and Jackson have loads of upside. Haselwood was a former five-star prospect with the raw tools to be a superstar, but he was never able to stay healthy while in Norman.

There are several other names to watch at receiver, including youngsters Bryce Stephens and Isaiah Sategna, as well as Malik Hornsby. Hornsby will backup Jefferson at quarterback, despite a brief foray into the transfer portal this offseason, but played receiver during the spring and could be used in creative ways this fall. Sategna is one of the gems of the 2022 recruiting class and a Fayetteville native.

At tight end, the Razorbacks will lean on veterans Trey Knox and Hudson Henry, a solid tandem at the position. Knox is a bit of a wide receiver/tight end hybrid who can give defenses real troubles, while Henry is an Arkansas legacy still awaiting his breakthrough. 

With four starters back along the offensive line, Arkansas should have little trouble opening up running lanes for all the playmakers in the backfield. They're particularly strong up the middle, with guards Brady Latham and Beaux Limmer, plus center Ricky Stromberg. If there is a question it would be at left tackle, but projected starter Luke Jones played in all 13 games a season ago.

The Razorbacks are hoping for more balance offensively this fall; they had the top rushing offense in the SEC last season, but ranked 11th in passing. Doing so without Treylon Burks will be a challenge, but Jefferson's growth could push the unit forward. Even if they remain fairly one-dimensional, there's a lot to like about the offense and it should rank as a Top 25 group nationally.

Defense: Former Missouri head coach Barry Odom has proven to be a tremendous hire by Sam Pittman. Although the defensive numbers have been about average in the SEC, Odom has turned around the culture on that side of the ball. This is a tough, nasty defense that will leave you bruised for weeks after facing it.

The key for Odom and defensive staff will be finding new pieces up front, where Arkansas was hit hard by defections. The interior defensive line should remain stout, with senior Isaiah Nichols and junior Taurean Carter the likely pairing at tackle. Both saw a healthy dosage of playing time in 2021 and impressed in the spring. The 'Hogs are hopeful a pair of defensive end transfers can step up on the outside in LSU's Landon Jackson and Georgia Tech's Jordan Domineck. Jackson is very talented but hasn't seen much action at the collegiate level up to this point, while Domineck had eight starts for the Yellow Jackets a season ago.

The linebacker corps loses two big names, Grant Morgan and Hayden Henry, but could still be among the SEC's best in 2022. Program staple Bumper Pool is back in the fold after leading the team in tackles, with 125, a year ago. He not only has an excellent name for a linebacker, but he personifies the culture change this defense has experienced under Odom; tough, gritty, and he forces you to work for every inch. The likely starter next to him is Alabama transfer Drew Sanders. Sanders saw some action in 2021 with the Tide but remains fairly inexperienced. Even so, it's rare for a Razorback defense to have a player with his billing on the roster. He was one of the nation's top recruits coming out of high school and can contribute just about anywhere on the field.

The pass defense was solid in 2021 and should be again. At corner, the 'Hogs are likely to lean on returnees Hudson Clark and LaDarrius Bishop, although transfer Dwight McGlothern could feature in. A former walk-on, Clark was a major surprise during the COVID-shortened 2020 campaign, but he wasn't quite able to build on that a season ago. Bishop has proven to be capable, but McGlothern may be the most talented piece at the position. He made six starts for LSU a year ago and has the size and length to be a source of frustration for opposing offenses.

Both safety and nickelback appear to be in good hands, even after losing Joe Foucha and Greg Brooks Jr. to LSU as transfers. Junior Jalen Catalon is a star, a major help in run support who can also create turnovers. He's an All-SEC talent whose services should be leaned on even more now that Foucha and Brooks are elsewhere in the division. Nickel Myles Slusher has improved every year he's been in Fayetteville and should continue his growth in 2022, while senior Simeon Blair also settles into a starting safety role.

Even though the Arkansas defense loses several big names, there's more than enough back to feel good about, and Pittman and staff did some great work adding talent through the portal. After ranking 39th in scoring defense last fall, I wouldn't be surprised if the Razorbacks are able to crack the Top 30 in 2022.

Special Teams: The Hog special teams appear to be in good hands, with kicker Cam Little and punter Reid Bauer both returning. Little was tremendous as a true freshman, hitting 20 of 24 field goals, and is hoping to build on that this fall. Bauer was solid in 2021, but there are some that wonder if newcomer Max Fletcher, a Melbourne, Australia product, could challenge him.

Bottom Line: Sam Pittman is all the evidence you need that great head coaching hires can make all the difference in the world of college football. It's not just the on-field product that has improved, but the entire energy and feeling around the program. There's significant momentum here and I don't think there's any question Arkansas can build on the 2021 success. The schedule is the tricky part; aside from the always-loaded SEC West slate, the Razorbacks have to play Cincinnati and BYU in the non-conference, two of the top Group of Five programs in the nation. In particular, going on the road to unfamiliar territory in Provo during the meat of the SEC schedule? The coaching staff didn't receive help from the administration on that front. Even so, Arkansas hasn't shied away from a challenge under Pittman and they have enough pieces in place to win double-digit games and play in another New Year's Day bowl. Don't be shocked if this is the team, not Texas A&M, that ends up being the greatest challenge to another Alabama SEC West Title in 2022.

Program Profile
Coaching Staff
Sam Pittman wasn't considered a "home run hire" by the vast majority of the college football public, but there's no denying what in excellent job he has done entering Year Three at Arkansas. After a 3-7 debut during the wacky COVID season, Pittman delivered a nine-win campaign, the most the Razorbacks have won since the 2011 campaign. He has kept the staff extremely stable, with OC Kendal Briles and DC Barry Odom both entering their third seasons on staff. Briles got his start under his controversial father, Art, but has built his resume during stints with Florida Atlantic, Houston, Florida State, and now Arkansas. Odom is a Missouri alum who coached at his alma mater from 2015-2019, first as defensive coordinator then as head coach. Much like Briles, he's become hot on the coordinator market, but has remained loyal to Pittman and Arkansas.

Recruiting Breakdown
Arkansas did most of their work this offseason in the transfer portal but also did a job on the recruiting trail, bringing in the 28th-rated group in the 247Sports Composite. The class is led by three Arkansas natives, most notably wide out Isaiah Sategna, a Fayetteville native. He has a chance to emerge quickly with the lack of proven targets on the perimeter. Offensive linemen E'Marion Harris and Andrew Chamblee bring plenty of beef to the O-Line, both standing at 6'7" and over 300 pounds. It's unlikely they'll see much playing time in 2022, but Pittman's expertise is on the line, so the future is bright for the pair. Keep an eye on three-star athlete Anthony Brown, who could play either side of the ball and at multiple spots. He's most likely a safety at the next level, but could see snaps at either tailback or receiver depending on how he develops.

2022 X-Factor: Trey Knox, TE
It's been a fascinating collegiate journey for Trey Knox. He was Arkansas' top receiver back in 2020, outplaying Treylon Burks, before battling constant adversity over the next few years. He fell down the depth chart, eventually moved to tight end, and battled nagging injury. However, after finishing 2022 strong, Arkansas is hoping he can be a top weapon in the passing attack, which desperately needs a veteran or two to step up. Knox has bulked up; he's listed at 233 on the official Arkansas website, but claims he's even larger, somewhere in the 240 range. Despite the added size, he's still a tremendous athlete with wide out skills. He has a chance to be a real pain for opposing defenses and is talented enough to emerge as one of the top tight ends in the SEC. If he can, the Razorback offense becomes significantly more dangerous, particularly as they try to develop balance.

Five-Year Trend

2022 Projections
Projected Record: 9-3 (5-3 SEC)
Offensive MVP: QB K.J. Jefferson
Defensive MVP: LB Bumper Pool
Breakout Player of the Year: WR Ketron Jackson Jr.
Impact Freshman: WR Isaiah Sategna


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