Arkansas head football coach Sam Pittman is well aware of the perception that Kansas’ football team and its fans are more excited about a matchup of 6-6 programs in the 64th AutoZone Liberty Bowl Dec. 28 in Memphis
But Pittman is also of the belief that his team will be ready to play against the Jayhawks, who earned their first bowl berth in 13 years and are thriving under second-year head coach Lance Liepold.
The Razorbacks have seen 18 players enter the transfer portal and a few starters opting out such as first-team All-American linebacker Drew Sanders, center Ricky Stromberg and wide receiver Jadon Haselwood, who have all declared for the 2023 NFL draft.
Kansas, who was 5-0 at one point before losing six of seven to close the regular season, has seven lightly-used players either enter the transfer portal or exit the team and thus are not scheduled to play in the bowl game.
“I think we’ll be fine,” Pittman said. “We talked about this, that this is starting ’23 now. Obviously you have a different team than what you had at the end of the year as we did — not as many — last year with (Treylon) Burks and (Tre) Williams and some of the guys that decided not to play in the game for good reasons.
“…I think the ones that we have out there are fired up and ready to go. Again, at some point, you want guys that want to be a Hog. The ones that want to that are out there at practice, they’re excited to be that way. I think we have enough talent to go and compete. And I believe that we’ll do that with all my heart. If you come to practice, I think you’ll see that…We’re excited to play Kansas.
Arkansas, which started the regular season 3-0 before losing six of its last nine, picked up its bowl preparations over the weekend.
“We’ve had Friday (and) Saturday of very good padded practices,” Pittman said. “We will go Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, and Thursday will be a.m. (practice)…The 22nd, we’ll practice in the morning and come back on the 25th, have a Wednesday-type practice on the 25th. Thursday we’ll practice on the 26th, we’ll walk (through) on the 27th, then we’ll play the AutoZone Liberty Bowl on the 28th. We’re excited about that. Practices have gone well.”
Pittman was asked his thoughts on Kansas’ offense, especially quarterback junior quarterback Jadon Daniels (6-0, 215),
Daniels played in eight games, missing four weeks due to injury, but still managing to throw for 1,470 yards and 12 touchdowns and rushing for 404 yards and six more scores.
Kansas has outscored its foes 410-406 while passing for an average of 230.3 yards per game and rushing for 194.7 yards per outing.
Those numbers were higher when Daniels was healthy.
“Scary,” Pittman said. “I tell you what, Kansas has some really unique runs. Really unique, some of the things they’re doing with their offensive line. They have an option off of a lot of their runs, which is a little — we have to be prepared for that. He’s, earlier in the year, running the ball a lot.
“Aggressiveness, I would assume they’re going to go back to that because he would have been probably healthier than he’s been in a long time. I know he played the last couple of games, but can throw it and can run. To me, he’s what drives Kansas University and we certainly are aware of him and all the great things that he does. He’s a really good runner and an exceptional thrower.”
The Kansas defense, which gives up 451.6 yards of total offense per game this season, is led by redshirt junior defensive end Lonnie Phelps (53 tackles, 7 sacks), senior linebacker Kenny Logan (96 tackles), sophomore cornerback Cobee Bryant (34 tackles and 3 interceptions) and senior linebacker Rich Miller (83 tackles).
“They’ve got a defensive end, 47, Lonnie Phelps is a player, now,” Pittman said. “I mean, really good player. Logan, their safety, is really good. And then Bryant, they got a corner that’s a big-time corner as well. So they’ve got a guy or more on each level. Miller is the linebacker that’s making all kinds of tackles. So they have a guy, a really good player on each level of their defense.
“They play extremely hard. They’re not overly aggressive. They’re going to be a quarters team, a two-shell type team, things of that nature but what they do, they do it well. I told Coach Leipold, you can just see him.
“You can see his handprint all over the place. He’s had so much success everywhere he’s been, and you can feel it in his team. I don’t know if Trey asked me the question about Kansas being kind of how we were last year, but I’m sure they’ll be ready big-time. They’re playing an SEC team, all that kind of stuff. But they tackle extremely well and they run the ball, and I think they’ve got a really good player at each level. More than just one, but a really good player at each level of their defense.”
Pittman noted with the opt out of Stromberg that guard Beaux Limmer will play center in the bowl and Marcus Henderson is working there as well.
He is hoping to talk Limner into returning next season.
“We were talking to Beaux about coming back and all those type things,” Pittman said. “I think he needs a year, you know. They keep about eight (on an active roster) in the NFL, and if you can’t play center and guard your value is going to go down. If you can, it’s going to go up.
“Beaux’s done a really nice job. We put him in there along with Marcus Henderson, but we’ve moved Beaux in there. And then (Ty’Kiest) Crawford has gone to guard in there. And then the rest of guys are the same.”
Pittman was asked about the differences in his team’s 8-4 regular season in 2021 and 6-6 in 2022.
“I think, to be honest, our red zone offense,” Pittman said. “You can look at those (numbers) in two of the games. We didn’t get the ball in from the 2 twice — obviously Missouri and LSU. I think that you look at our secondary play, certainly it needs to improve a lot. I think we can do that. It was injury-wise and consistency both that we’ve got to get better there. But those are the two things there, and to be honest with you, obviously, I didn’t think that we maintained our strength or we were strong enough.
“Nutrition has something to do with that, as well. If you look at our players at the end of the year versus when it started in fall camp, we don’t look like the same team. That is nobody’s fault but my own, but I did not feel like we had maintained or improved in those areas, and we’ve got to improve on the field.
“But we at times got physically beat and I didn’t feel like we were having those problems in the second year here. Obviously we played some really fine teams my first year here. I felt like we got whipped physically some and we certainly have to change that, too. There’s several offensive and defensive reasons where I think we lost four games by nine points. We don’t want to be saying that again, so it’s my job to fix it. I think we’re headed in that direction.”