Arkansas, Rice to Open 2021 Football Season on Saturday With Contrasting Styles

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Photos Courtesy: University of Arkansas Athletics

FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas and Rice will meet on Saturday with each having a different style of offense.

The Hogs and Owls were both members of the Southwest Conference. The last time they met was in 1991 when Arkansas took a 20-0 victory in Little Rock. Sam Pittman has an experienced team in Year 2 and hopes that translates to wins on the field.

“We’re really, really excited to play a good Rice team,” Pittman said. “Coach (Mike) Bloomgren is an old offensive line coach and they play what I call, what Kirby Smart calls Bully Ball. They want to be a possession team. We have a big challenge. You know they beat Marshall when Marshall was undefeated. Beat them 20-0.

“We have a lot of respect for them. They play extremely hard. Very, very very well coached and they’re a veteran football team coming in here. We’re excited to get out in front of our fans, but we know we have a very, very tough challenge this Saturday.”

Preparing for Rice means getting ready for two quarterbacks. Rice could start Wiley Green or Luke McCaffrey, who is a transfer who went from Nebraska to Louisville to Rice.

“Both of them can throw the ball, but obviously (Luke) McCaffrey … we cut up every run that he had from Nebraska, we cut up every pass that he threw from Nebraska and it’s impressive,” Pittman said. “He’s a really good player. You’ve got to watch him when he runs a draw and things of that nature. Obviously he played some tailback for them as well, so the guy is a good player. He can run over you, fast enough to run around you. Then the other kid, he’s a passer, not quite as mobile, but obviously they went with him a year ago. I think there’s two different styles.”

Bloomgren certainly didn’t plan to tip Arkansas about which quarterback will start.

“I think I’ll tell you at like 1:02 if you text me,” Bloomgren joked. “I’ll try to do it walking out the tunnel. We’re going to keep it under wraps as long as we can because I do think those guys present some different skill sets. We also have JoVoni Johnson who started our Marshall game. He’s healthy and he’s doing some good things. There’s so many things that we want to be flexible with and again, a lot of it truly will come down to how things go this week in practice. Like, ‘Hey, which plays is so-and-so doing better, which ones are he most comfortable in and getting the ball out on time and throwing that thing with confidence?’ Those are the plays that will be assigned to certain people. In terms of starting the game, I just think that’s overvalued at any position, like who a starter is, any more when you’re in a West Coast offense that’s going to put people in the right positions to be successful. Aside from the offensive line, if you’re a starter it just means what package we were in that down, and I guess the quarterback position normally.”

No matter who starts, Bloomgren made it clear he’s comfortable with both.

“Really comfortable with both of them,” Bloomgren said. “Really comfortable. I knew from the film and from studying Luke when he was in high school, I knew he had a good arm. I didn’t know he had this kind of arm. I didn’t know he had a howitzer for a right arm, which is really cool. And the ability to keep plays alive. The difference in them right now is Wiley, this is Year 4 for Wiley Green in this system. Luke has been with us for a month and a half, two months. Luke has just closed the gap knowledge-wise so well. He’s just doing so many good things. They’re both so exciting. But the leadership of Wiley and the time with his teammates and the factor, that’s something we’re still just trying to iron out.

“You watched the second scrimmage, I believe, and you saw both of them have opportunities to maybe separate. If they had just hit a few more passes each, it probably would have been more clear one way or the other. As it is, they both hit some passes where we’re like, ‘Holy cow, that’s amazing,’ and they both missed a few that I think they’d want back. Right now, I think the best chance for us to win this game and going forward is for both of them to utilize their talents for our football team.”

Linebacker Grant Morgan is impressed with what he has seen on film of the Rice offense.

“Yeah, their offense, they’re very sound in what they want to do,” Morgan said. “The players they have, they like to play tough. Coach Pittman told y’all they like to play bully ball. Which is something that we haven’t seen the type of offense. But the smash-mouth stuff, we play hard and we try to play smash mouth as well. It’s going to be two bullies going out there to fight each other and that’s what we want it to be. We want it to be smash mouth. We’re excited to play Rice. We know they’re excited to play us and they’re going to give us their best shot, just like we should give them. We’re excited to play them. They’ve got two tight ends that are gonna be playing a lot in 12 personnel, which we don’t see a lot. But we’re excited. We’ve had really good practices leading up to this. So if we can get a couple more to tighten this up and get ready to play.”

The Rice quarterbacks have caught safety Joe Foucha’s attention as well.

“I feel like their quarterback does a good job of hiding the ball, so going into the game on the back end we’re going to have to have good eyes,” Foucha said. “Everyone’s going to have to do their jobs. We know it’s going to be a fundamental game from the first quarter to the fourth quarter. That’s what we’ve been focused in on the back end, just making sure our eyes are in the right spot.”

Morgan talked about what all the defenders have to do against the Rice quarterbacks.

“With the quarterbacks they’ve got, you’ve got to be able to play the quarterback run,” Morgan said. “The equalizer as a team that will come in here as an underdog, they’ve got to be able to make an equalizer and the equalizer is the quarterback run. So you’ve got to be able to be ready for the quarterback run game, no matter who it is. With McCaffrey, he’s shown that he can run really well. The way they both play is how, like they can run the offense to the way they want it to be done. They can both run the ball, they can both throw the ball. They’re both sound quarterbacks. They can manage the game really well. We have to prepare for both of them. Whoever they throw out we’ve got to be able to change and adjust and be ready to win.”

Morgan also talked about some other Rice players on offense who have caught his attention.

“7’s (Jordan Myers) a ballplayer now,” Morgan said. “7 can play anywhere, he lined up last year at tight end, running back, receiver. He’s a ballplayer, and if he’s going to be somewhere we’re going to have to be able to find him at all times. 11 (Jake Bailey), he’s big on special teams too, that’s a kid who can – he can really kind of do whatever he wants to do too with his speed and the way he gets around the field. They have a lot of good players, they’re not just a random team we found to play on the schedule, they’re a good football team. We’ve got to be able to be ready to play, we’ve got to give our kudos to them and be able to play our best football to win this game. We’re excited, and I know they’re excited to play us because that’s what you do. We were the underdog last year, every single game, and we were excited to play every game so I know they’re going to come in with that same intensity to play us so we’ve got to be able to bring it and match it and overcome it.”

Pittman also has a new quarterback in KJ Jefferson. Pittman is hoping to see an improved offense this year despite the loss of Feleipe Franks.

“I hope so,” Pittman said. “Obviously, any time you start a new quarterback, it’s his team. It’s a different team than what it was with Feleipe. KJ obviously has different assets than what Feleipe did, as well as Feleipe having different assets than what KJ does. I think if we’re looking for in the future a quarterback that runs this type of offense, a guy like KJ or a guy like Malik (Hornsby) is what we’re looking for. So, offensively, you have a lot of guys coming back. A lot of guys who’ve played a lot of ball. The bottom line is we will see how that translates to how we play, but I feel very confident that we’ve got the guys in there that can make plays.”

With fans back at the game Pittman will get a chance to run through the ‘A’ prior to the game. He joked about making it through there.

“If I can get through that ‘A’ ahead of everybody, it’ll be a win right there,” Pittman said. “It’ll be an early win. We did little mock going through there, and I thought it was quite a little ways from where I start to where I finish. But it’s going to be unbelievable. I mean, it just is. I mean, you imagine you’re the head coach at Arkansas, you’re leading your team out through the ‘A?’ That’s a thrill, man. So, I’m really looking forward to it. I need speed up over what I did Saturday,  though, and I’m challenging myself to do that.”

Arkansas and Rice will kickoff at 1 p.m. in Reynolds Razorback Stadium. The game is available on ESPN+ and the SEC Network+.

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