FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas returns to Razorback Stadium on Saturday to host Auburn in what will be the first of three games there to close the regular season.
Arkansas (3-6, 1-5) is coming off a big overtime win over Florida 39-36. However the last two times they played in Razorback Stadium have resulted in losses. BYU handed them a 38-31 loss and then Mississippi State beat them 7-3. Following the loss to the Bulldogs, Sam Pittman fired Dan Enos. Kenny Guiton took over the offensive coordinator job.
Quarterback KJ Jefferson greatly benefitted from the change in coordinators. Against Florida, Jefferson completed 20-of-31 passes for 255 yards, two touchdowns and one interception. He also rushed 17 times for 92 yards and a touchdown. Does he have more say in the game plan now?
“I think he likes what he likes and doesn’t what he doesn’t,” Pittman said. “I think there’s something to that. He never has been a huge guy in ‘Hey, I like this.’ Several things. But he certainly has his say so in about five or six concepts that he really likes, and that’s what we try to run.”
Jefferson is near the top of all the passing records at Arkansas. Pittman talked about Jefferson’s legacy with the Hogs.
“Yeah, and I think he’s played as well as he’s played Saturday,” Pittman said. “I think that’s the key there. Setting records is over longevity obviously, but when you’re playing well and you’re setting records I think it even means more. What a nice game he had Saturday.
“But for the program, obviously I think he was a big key and has been, well I know he is, as the reason for turning the program around and certainly this year has been disappointing with all the close losses but our season is not over. He’s been as valuable as anybody we’ve had in our program and I’m very happy he’s our quarterback.”
Jefferson wasn’t the only Razorback who seemed to thrive after the coordinator change. Running back Raheim “Rocket” Sanders rushed 18 times for 103 yards and caught two passes for 14 yards. It was just Sanders’ fourth game this season due to a knee injury suffered in the season opener. Pittman talked about how Sanders responded to the workload against Florida.
“We’re still watching him rep-wise in practice,” Pittman said. “I don’t want that knee swelling up. We want him ready, I thought he really ran as hard as he ever has. He made a great run on the 10-yard play there in overtime, or the 10-yard run in overtime. We’re watching him, which probably hurts him a little bit because we’re not giving him the number of reps at practice that, probably what he needs, but because he was out a lengthy period of time. It certainly seemed to work out Saturday for him, and I think he’s a little better this week than what he was going into the game last week.”
Arkansas is without its top two tight ends, Luke Hasz and Ty Washington, due to injuries. They used four wide receivers some against Florida when Washington went down with an injury. Pittman though does have Var’keyes Gumms, Nathan Bax and Francis Sherman at tight end. Hunter Talley has also moved up to work with the varsity.
“It’s certainly obviously in our game plan this week as well,” Pittman said of four wide receivers.
“We do believe in the other tight ends. I think Gumms and Bax and Sherman have all had a good week. And I think Gumms has played his most physical ball Saturday and certainly this week.
“But you want to put your best talent on the field as much as you possibly can. There are some runs you can’t run without a tight end on the field, but that doesn’t mean you can’t have a running game. But then you’re talking about going into a little bit more man schemes, and I don’t know if we’re real comfortable with that right now.”
Gumms is a transfer from North Texas and was a highly-regarded recruit in the past signing class. Since he played more physical does that give him a chance to see more action in the passing game now?
“I think that’s 100%,” Pittman said. “Great observation because he’s going to be on the field more. If you’re able to block and catch, you’re going to have opportunities for more plays on the field, so I would assume that would be a fair and accurate statement.”
The other tight ends includes four-star freshman Shamar Easter and walk-on true freshman Maddox Lassiter, who Pittman praised last week.
“Those three I talked about with it being Gumms and Bax and Sherman. You know, we moved up Hunter Talley, and he’s a guy, he knows the offense. I’m high on Maddox Lassiter. I’m high on Shamar Easter. Shamar, the only thing that’s holding him back, he’s played a lot of wide receiver. It would be the blocking aspect of his. He got here late, he wasn’t an early guy. We’re tickled to death that we have him and he’s getting so much bigger and all those things. I think once he learns the offense a little bit better and once he learns a little bit more about how to block, he is going to be a really good player for us.”
Arkansas and Auburn will kickoff at 3 p.m. Saturday and televised on the SEC Network.