FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas is coming off a 7-6 season and had several returning would-be starters head to the transfer portal and three key players who had eligibility remaining enter the 2023 NFL Draft, but they can be a better football team in 2023.
Please read the remainder of this story before calling for the men in white jackets to lead me away or asking Lanny Beavers to talk me into retirement. I’m going to explain why I think the Hogs not only could be, but likely will be, better in 2023 than they were this past season.
Under Sam Pittman, who inherited a program that was 8-28 (1-23 in SEC) in the three previous seasons before his arrival, the Razorbacks have gone 3-7 (COVID season against all SEC schedule), 9-4 and as noted 7-6 in 2022. The Hogs are 19-17 under Pittman and of the losses nine have been by seven points or less. The Hogs are 2-0 in bowl games with wins over Penn State and Kansas (almost worth two wins since they had to beat the officials as well and win the AutoZone Liberty Bowl three times).
Despite all the losses of several players who had big roles in 2022 and previous seasons here’s five reasons for optimism in 2023.
The quarterback room is much better in 2023. This isn’t a shot at anyone on the team in 2022 and only my opinion, but Arkansas suffered dramatically when KJ Jefferson was injured even missing two games completely. Jefferson is back and should be even better than ever following a very good showing in the bowl game. Jefferson and the Hogs rolled up 681 yards of total offense against Kansas which is a postseason record for Arkansas. Jefferson rushed 14 times for 130 yards and two touchdowns. He completed 19 of 29 passes for 287 yards, two touchdowns and one interception. But Jefferson didn’t play against Mississippi State and LSU and the offense, particularly against LSU, suffered dramatically. Arkansas’ passing game just wasn’t very good when Jefferson wasn’t available. On paper, it appears that North Carolina transfer Jacolby Criswell and true freshman Malachi Singleton will join with Jefferson to form an outstanding quarterback room. If Jefferson is hurt there’s obviously very likely to be a drop-off, but not nearly to the degree that was there in 2022. Criswell has a strong arm as does Singleton. Everyone is obviously hoping for Jefferson to have a healthy 2023, but it does appear the Hogs are better off behind him if needed.
New Attitude, Energy On Defense
The defense will have three new coaches in 2023 and while the staff that left was a very good one, new people bring fresh ideas and energy. Arkansas’ defense slipped to No. 90 in the nation this past season and that’s not a recipe for success in the SEC. Travis Williams and Marcus Woodson will serve as co-defensive coordinators. Deron Wilson will help with the secondary. While no official announcement has been made, it appears almost certainly Williams will coach the linebackers and Woodson join Wilson in the secondary. Deke Adams becomes the first defensive line coach to return for a second season under Pittman. While Woodson hasn’t been introduced to the media at this time with recruiting in a full-go mode, Williams was earlier. It appears Arkansas will have a much more aggressive defense than in the past. That should excite Arkansas fans. Obviously, how the defense does on the field will be the thing the coaches are judged on, but the thought of maybe more four-man fronts and aggressive tendencies on defense sounds promising. New coaches bring returning players fresh starts. So spring ball should be very interesting.
Arkansas’ Non-Conference Schedule Easier
Last year, the Razorbacks faced Cincinnati, Missouri State, BYU and Liberty in games outside the SEC. Combined with the SEC schedule it basically was a bowl game each week for Arkansas. This year Western Carolina, Kent State, Florida International and BYU make up the non-conference schedule. The Hogs get all four of them at home. Last season, Arkansas had to go to BYU. Arkansas will open the season in Little Rock’s War Memorial Stadium against Western Carolina and the other three games will be played in Fayetteville. The Hogs went 3-1 last year outside the SEC and if they can do as they did in 2021 and go 4-0 in non-conference games then that is good momentum for conference games. Western Carolina (Sept. 2), Kent State (Sept. 9) and BYU (Sept. 16) are the first three games and if Arkansas could be 3-0 heading into SEC action that would give the younger players a chance to gel.
Running Game Is Strength
The key players from Jimmy Smith’s running back room is set to return in 2023. That includes Rocket Sanders, AJ Green and Rashod Dubinion. They will be joined by a very talented freshman in Isaiah Augustave from Naples (Fla.) High School. Sanders, who left the bowl game early with an injury, carried 222 times for 1,443 yards and 10 touchdowns in 2022. He also caught 28 passes for 271 yards and a pair of touchdowns. Jefferson was second on the team in rushing. AJ Green was next with 87 carries for 414 yards and three touchdowns. He caught six passes for 75 yards. Dubinion added 71 carries for 293 yards and five touchdowns. He also grabbed 12 passes for 108 yards and a touchdown. Dubinion was Arkansas’ Offensive Player of the Game in the AutoZone Liberty Bowl. He and Green were both outstanding. Dubinion was second to Jefferson in rushing against the Jayhawks. Dubinion had 20 carries for 112 yards and two touchdowns. He caught three passes for 19 yards. Green had 13 carries for 99 yards and a touchdown. The speedy sophomore had four receptions for 30 yards. Augustave is a four-star recruit who should see action even in a stacked running back room this fall. The status of Dominique Johnson is also to be determined. Johnson has suffered ACL injuries twice and his health puts his status up in the air. If healthy, Johnson has shown he’s a very talented running back.
Good Young Nucleus On Defense Year Older
The Hogs have some youngsters on defense who now will have a year behind them and ready to show what they can do. Among the group is redshirt freshman linebacker Pooh Paul, true freshman linebacker Jordan Crook, true freshman cornerback Quincey McAdoo and redshirt freshman defensive tackle Cameron Ball. There’s others, but that’s four players who own tremendous talent and will get additional opportunities to show what they can do. Paul stepped in for Bumper Pool and held his own this season. He can be one of the better linebackers in the SEC. Crook had a good showing in the bowl game. Ball led all interior defensive linemen in tackles in 2022 despite being buried on the depth chart. McAdoo spent much of his time at wide receiver before moving over to cornerback where he was outstanding. Now McAdoo will get a full spring and preseason to work at cornerback and the future is very bright there. That’s four young players that Williams and Woodson inherit who should have an instant impact.