Sam Pittman / ArkansasRazorbacks.com
If Sam Pittman has added anything to his vast experience as a coach in his first eight months as the head coach of the Arkansas Razorbacks, it’s how to roll with the punches.
Not that he wasn’t already good at doing so. You have to be able to work and adapt and continue to work to carve out a 33-year career in the coaching profession.
Pittman had seen a lot before coming to Arkansas, as a head coach in high school and junior college in his first few years in the profession before working to become known as one of the very best offensive line coaches and recruiters in the college game, which was his reputation when he left Kirby Smart’s Georgia staff to become the Razorbacks’ 34th head coach last December.
However, no Razorback head coach has dealt with what Pittman is dealing with at the moment as the coronavirus pandemic dominates every aspect of our lives.
Like every other head coach or for that matter CEO or manager working today, Pittman is reacting to shifting sand that no one ever dreamed of in their worst nightmares before the pandemic began stomping on our lives in March like Godzilla rampaging through Tokyo.
Even if some of the changes are just minor, everything is different and to be honest a little or a lot more difficult. You know this, though. You’ve experienced it yourself.
What was kinda annoying has become frustrating under COVID-19 rules. What was frustrating has become difficult, and what was challenging is now all of a sudden down right hard.
And as been stated before, there is no handbook for coaching during a pandemic, much less in the Western Division of the Southeastern Conference, which is generally considered the toughest division in all of college football.
The cherry on top of Pittman’s challenge the SEC has decided to play only its conference brethren over the course of a 10-game season.
Certainly, the intention is safety, and no one questions that, but the end result is a fat-trimmed but still extremely tough and grisly schedule that no football coach in his right mind would want if there was another choice, much less a first-year Division I coach like Pittman.
However, Pittman hasn’t balked at any of the challenges that have come his way while living with the rest of us in what seems like a made-for-TV, sci-fi doomsday story for some off-brand cable network.
He’s just put a grin on his face and gone to work, and so far, has been pleased with the effort of his new staff and his players, particularly since he’s been able to work with them in person in walk-through sessions since July 24.
Pittman, who earned praise from Arkansas athletics director Hunter Yurachek for the way he has handled his business during the pandemic, spoke with the media Thursday to give an update on the Razorbacks’ rather limited efforts so far.
Like most programs, Arkansas wasn’t able to conduct any of its 15 spring workouts earlier this year. Training camp was to begin today (Aug. 7), but has been pushed until Aug. 17 by the SEC because the start of the season was moved back three playing dates to Sept. 26.
Like the rest of the SEC, the Razorbacks will have 40 days to conduct 25 practices with two mandatory days off a week in the preseason, which will be reduced to one day once the season begins.
Pittman said Wednesday, he likes the plan he and his staff has put together, but, of course, he realizes they will have to continue to adjust and react to unforeseen circumstances that will crop up along the way.
What may be Pittman’s most impressive attribute as a head coach even for this short of a period is that he exudes a feeling of calm even though he is dealing with very challenging circumstances. Pittman makes you feel like he has it under control and that everything is going to be O.K. despite the fact he’s facing about as many challenges as a first-year coach can face.
That tranquil aura might be what has made Pittman such an effective recruiter. He naturally has the ability to put people at ease. That might be just the right skill at just the right time for the Razorback program that has seen a decade of ups and downs since Bobby Petrino messed up a good thing by driving his motorcycle and the Razorback program in a ditch.
Pittman already shows a comfort at Arkansas that previous coach Chad Morris never found. Maybe it was all that Red Bull, but fidgety Morris never seemed calm or in command of his football team. Any confidence he might have shown turned out to be false bravado as he ran through quarterbacks like a chain smoker and mired Arkansas in a hole with back-to-back 2-10 seasons that still have fans’ stomachs turning.
Pittman already seems more on top of the Razorback program that Morris ever did with his scorched-earth policy of tearing everything down before building it back up.
Pittman passed out praise to nearly every player group while noting that their work so far has only really been of the mental variety. The walkthroughs don’t allow for physical competition, but the workouts do have the Hogs’ up-to-speed on the mental aspects of the game.
As far as the offense, Pittman said the mental installation is going really well, adding that he’s learning the nuances of offensive coordinator Kendal Briles’ offense, too.
He said an area of perceived strength — the receivers — actually needs more playmakers to step forward behind returning starers Michael Woods, Trey Knox, and Treylon Burks.
Pittman said that freshman Blayne Toll has moved back to defensive end after being slotted to play tight end to help with numbers. The move was necessary when incoming freshman defensive end Jaqualin McGhee decided not to play football. Pittman asked Toll to make the move back to the position he was originally recruited to play.
The other interesting news is that Ricky Stromberg, who started at guard last season as a freshman, has been working at center along with returning starter Ty Clary.
Pittman said the idea is to find the best five offensive lineman and slot them in starting spots. If two of the best five happen to be centers, Pittman said then one would likely be moved to guard. Pittman said the goal is to narrow it down to the best five first, hopefully two and half weeks before the first game, and then start determining the next best five. He said the linemen will cross train at positions until the program is stocked with 10 ready-to-play offensive lineman.
I’ve been following Razorback football since the mid 70s, and at their best the Razorbacks’ have never had 10 offensive linemen who were truly ready to play. So expect cross training to continue.
When asked about what type of defensive front the Razorbacks would operate from, Pittman’s answer was that it’s situational in defensive coordinator Barry Odom’s philosophy of play. The Razorbacks will deploy multiple fronts based on what a given opponent’s tendencies are. So expect to see the Razorbacks in a three-, four- and maybe even a five-man front at times this season.