It is time once again for our weekly “Ask Mike” segment where our veteran analyst Mike Irwin answers your questions about Arkansas Athletics.
Q: Let’s begin with our weekly COVID update.
A: The big issue continues to be the number of infections on college campuses. Alabama reached a thousand over the weekend. That’s one in 40 testing positive. That’s total cases not new cases but it’s a concern there.
At Auburn it’s spread to the football team. They shut down practice last week after nine players tested positive with 16 going into quarantine. Gus Malzahn will open practice up this week. This is why the season was pushed back for SEC teams. To give coaches extra time to deal with an outbreak if it occurs.
The University of Arkansas is at around a hundred positive cases. A dormitory on campus has been reserved as a place for these students to be quarantined. A hundred cases is low but the concern is, how much does does it spread? If you get into a situation where there’s, say, a thousand actives cases on campus then the possibility looms for online classes only. If that happens I don’t think it will result in football being shut down.
So far at Arkansas the “testing positive” numbers among students doesn’t appear to have spread to athletes. I say “appear” because we haven’t been given an update in a while but if there was an issue we’d have heard about it. So so far, so good with the Razorback football team.
Q. Our first question is from simon the squealot who says: The spike in COVID-19 cases upon the resumption of on-campus classes at the various colleges and universities suggests our country is not yet ready for the assembly of 17,000-30,000 fans in a single locale. What is the rationale for allowing fans to come to the games?
A. Data from various sources, including the CDC suggests, that the problem on campuses is not occurring outdoors. It’s happening indoors in places where the wearing of masks and social distancing is not enforced. There will be strict protocols in place for these games plus obviously they are held outdoors where the virus is less likely to infect.
The SEC has its own COVID health panel which has approved each school’s plan for seating fans. Plus each of the schools has to comply with guidelines within their respective states which have their own health advisory panels.
Q. BloodRedHog asks: Do you see any similarities between 2020 and Nutt’s first season in 1998 that could give fans hope for a magical season?
A. There are some. Both coaches inherited good talent. Much better than a lot of fans and media people realized. Danny Ford was a good recruiter but his assistant coaches didn’t get along well. That affected the players. Morris recruited well but his offensive coordinator was too inexperienced for the SEC. The defensive coordinator was past his prime.
Nutt fired his players up with positive messages and speeches. Sam Pittman is more of a detail guy. You may have heard him say after Friday’s first scrimmage, he doesn’t believe in telling players how good they are to inspire them. He likes to show it to them on video. The video doesn’t lie.
As far is instant success, the SEC West is a much tougher division than it was in 98. Plus Arkansas is playing an All SEC schedule and every ranked SEC team is on their schedule. I’m not looking for miracles. Just solid improvement.
Q. EngrHog wants to know: From a scheme standpoint and not current player personnel/ talent, which side of the ball is easier to turn-around faster, defense or offense? Conversely, from a scheme and current player personnel standpoint, which side of the ball do you expect to have a bigger improvement this year?
A, I think it’s easier to turn an offense around with a scheme change simply because there’s not an equivalent of the quarterback on defense. That is, a guy who has his hands on the ball on every snap. Change a scheme to fit your quarterback and it’s usually gonna make a big difference.
As far as Arkansas, I’ll go with anything Kendal Briles comes up with over Chad Morris and the QB change with Feleipe Franks is huge. Based on Friday’s scrimmage it sounds like the offense is ahead of the defense.
Q. whippersnapper says: I believe had the Ladybacks been able to participate in the NCAA tourney in March we’d be talking bout a 2nd weekend team. If basketball is played this season will the Ladyback expectations be higher than last year or bout the same?
A. Definitely higher. They will be bigger this season. Destinee Oberg is a big forward who got hurt early then played some but they’re looking forward to having her for an entire season. Macy Weaver another big forward. She missed the whole season injured. And then Destiny Slocum, an honorable mention all American grad transfer guard from Oregon State. She’s a 45% shooter from the floor. Averaged 15 points per game and of course they will have 5-11 forward Chelsea Dungee back. She averaged 17 points a game last year.
Q. PorkSoda wants to know: Any stand outs in practice that the average fan may not have heard of?
A. I’m gonna go with Josh Oglesby, He’s a sprinter on the track team that played football in high school. He’s run a 10.3 hundred meters in track. That’s like really fast in football. Sam Pittman has complimented him. The other running backs talk about how quick he is. I think we’re gonna see at leAst three running backs play a lot this season. I think he’ll be one of them.
Q. cowhog32 asks: With this basically being a bonus year for players, do you think the same should be extended to coaches? Like with all the craziness going on it would be nice if coaches got a free year of not worrying about being fired for loosing too many games.
A. I guess if I were a losing coach I would like it. The question is, will any SEC coach whose team struggles get a break because of the all conference schedule? I’m gonna take a wild guess and say that very few college coaches period will be fired this year mainly because with revenues down who wants to pay a big buyout?
Q. Pigsfeat wants to know: Are the “secondary” sports teams unhappy with shortened announced seasons or are they just happy to have an opportunity to compete?
A. Pretty much the same story as with football. They aren’t thrilled with the situation but they also understand that in some conferences their sport has been canceled. So competing under some restrictions is better than not competing at all. Isn’t that he attitude of most fans? Games with no fans or games with restricted attendance is not as entertaining but it’s still worth watching. It’s just part of what we are all dealing with.
Q. MuskogeeHogFan says: There have been reports of the D-Line making a lot of big plays in practice. . What have you seen, either in person, in videos or in conversations with members of the staff that would encourage you that the O-Line is going to be vastly improved, despite the plays that the defense has been making?
A.. This is a good example of what happens in August Camp. We see almost nothing. Certainly not scrimmaging. The coaches and players made reference to certain things and fans form opinions based on partial information. I’ve actually gotten this question from the other angle. That the offense is dominating the defense and does this indicate a problem with the D-line? I’ve seen enough in the form of video to tell me that the offensive line is looking better so far. There’s been a genuine back and forth according to Sam Pittman which is good. I really like what I’m seeing from Myron Cunningham and Ricky Stromberg. I’ve seen above angle, live drill blocking video where both of those guys are impressive.
Q. Twinky275 asks: Any word on stadium attendance? Will there still be a student section? With some space freed up due to no bands, any possibility of regular ticket sales and if so do you think there would be a dramatic price increase?
A. Attendance will be between 16-17 thousand here. That’s going to be lower than at most SEC stadiums because of tighter restrictions imposed by the Governor’s COVID public health committee. Right now we’re experiencing anywhere between 400-800 new cases a day. It’s been slowly dropping for a few weeks now but it’s still a concern. There will be a student section. At the current time only season ticket holders will be allowed in. If the infection rate drops significantly as the season progresses I guess there would be a possibility of larger crowds. But with over 30 000 season ticket holders I doubt we’ll see any individual game tickets sold.
Q. The_Bionic_Pig says: The 120 play scrimmage wore this team down. K. Briles as the OC at Baylor averaged 90+ offensive plays per game. Is 3 weeks enough time to find the right stamina?
A. It was Pittman who said they got tired. He pointed out that it was unusually hot that day. There’s actually almost a month until the first game and he said there’s plenty of time to get them into better shape. I would point out that while the preseason is lasting longer this season, August Camp, which is now over, was structured differently. They were practicing just times in a week before school started. Five is normal during camp. The pace was slower so that had something to do with conditioning. There are also at least two more scrimmages to come so we’ll see if Pittman has the same observation after those scrimmages.
Q. peakhog wants to know: With limited numbers in the stadium, how will that affect an already crowded press box?
A. SEC guidelines limit each press box this season to no more than 50% capacity. Each school, of course can reduce that even more depending on local guidelines for social distancing. There will be proper social distancing in each press box and masks will be required. In addition at Reynolds Razorback Stadium local TV stations will not be allowed to shoot their own video. They must take a feed from the TV broadcast. It’s a new world for all of us.
Q. DeltaBoy is back with another question: How is the defense looking? It seems to be an improvement from what the press, players and coaches say.
A. I like the way you put that. “Seems to be….” I say that because again, until we see it in a game how do we really know? The players have been over the top in their praise of the new coaching staff. Isaiah Nichols, who was in Morris’ first recruiting class, said that the coaches, “talk to us like men.” The implication is that the previous defensive staff didn’t. He also says they are bigger and more physical. Other guys on that side of the ball have mentioned that defensive coordinator, Barry Odom, is extremely detail oriented. The little things don’t get overlooked. One of the things I will be looking for in that Georgia game is whether the defense is in more of an attack mode. I’ve said it before. Arkansas defenses under John Chavis were reactive instead of proactive.
Q. BloodRedHog has another question: Do you anticipate the SEC deciding to go with an all-conference schedule for men’s basketball?
A. I can’t predict the future but I will say no. The COVID numbers are dropping in just about every area but rural rural parts of this country. I’ve read that rural American, especially out west will be the last place to have increased COVID numbers. Clearly that doesn’t apply to the SEC so I think we’ll have a normal season and although I think there will be fans I wouldn’t guess at this point what that would look like.
I would also point out that Arkansas basketball team has been working out indoors for several weeks with no infections that we know of and I think we’d know even if the school didn’t report it.
Q. EngrHog has a second question: How does the UofA media access compare to other programs? Obviously this year is unique with COVID, but in years past what is the main driver for the progressively limited access?
A. Over the years Arkansas has generally been more open than other conference schools both in the SEC and the SWC. Media access has slowly been reduced. One factor is the shear number of people that cover the Razorbacks. When I arrived in ’75 there were four or five of us on a daily basis. Now it’s more like 15-20. It’s just a lot harder to accommodate that many reporters. But I also think there’s a trend for each school to want to have exclusive content on their own website so they will put it there first before we get it.
There are coaches like Bob Stoops, when he was at Oklahoma, who are extremely restrictive. Nick Saban is another one, though he’s more open than Stoops was. We’re told that Sam Pittman will follow the Kirby Smart model and where did Smart get his model? From Nick Saban of course. So I expect to have a little less access under Pittman than we’re used to. If he wins I doubt the fans will care. They only seem to make an issue out of media access when a coach is losing. As for me, I’ll adapt. I’ve covered 12 head coaches at Arkansas. Each has handled the media in his own way.
Q. Our last question comes from WizardofhOgZ. It’s really more of a theory. He says: I’d like to dispel a myth surrounding road games this season. The false (IMO) expectation that traveling to other SEC environments will be “much less intimidating” than usual in 2020. I maintain that, especially at field level, 15-25K rowdy, screaming fans sounds almost the same as 70-100K fans.
A. I’m wondering how many times you’ve been at field level in multiple SEC stadiums? I’ve done it a lot and I can tell you that the difference in the noise level between 35,000 fans at Vanderbilt and 80,000 to 100,000 in places like Auburn, LSU, Tennessee, Texas A&M and Alabama is enormous. And there’s not going to be a crowd of 35,000 this season, anywhere. Maybe 30,000 tops
Another issue is the social distancing. 25,000 fans packed together will made more noise than 25,000 spread over a 100,000 seat stadium.
Looking at Arkansas’ road games, at Mississippi State there will be about 35,000 fewer cowbells clanking at that game. I have to believe that’s going to make a huge difference. Auburn will have 60,000 fewer fans than normal, spread out in an 85 thousand seat stadium. I promise you there will be a difference. Mizzou is not that loud anyway but with 18,000 fans spread out there difference will be noticeable.