If you will indulge me in accepting the premise that being a coach is a lot like being a chef, I’d like to extend the analogy a little bit.
A chef has three primary duties when planning a meal. First is acquiring the ingredients he’s going to prepare, and second is prepping the food, and third is cooking of the meal.
In collegiate coaching, recruiting is like shopping for the meal you are about to cook. You always want to get the best ingredients you can because as my junior high football coach in West Memphis loudly and proudly told our team on the first day of practice when we were running wind sprints, “You can’t make chicken salad out of chicken bleep!”
Certainly a crude bit of logic, but one that is certainly true.
The better material a coach has to work with, the better chance he has of putting a winning product on the football field. In every instance, it’s best to work with the best talent you can recruit, but just like in preparing a meal, a cold, raw piece of meat isn’t all the appetizing just sitting on a platter.
Even a prime rib or a ribeye needs some preparation before being served. That’s exactly what coaching and player development are. It’s getting a raw player ready to play.
Now, with a ribeye steak, it doesn’t need much preparation to taste fantastic. Really a little garlic salt and pepper and the right amount of heat from the grill, and it’s ready to serve. With a ribeye, the main thing you don’t want to do is mess it up. Don’t over-season it, or drop it on the ground on the way to the grill, or burn it up, and it’s going to taste great.
Now, don’t get me wrong, all players need coaching or development and practice, but some athletes are naturals. They are instinctive. The fundamentals of the game are just easier for them than others. They are like a ribeye.
However, other pieces of meat need some work to be ready for the plate. You can grill a two-inch ribeye for four minutes on each side over high heat, and its going to come out tender, juicy, and medium rare every time.
Try that with a brisket, and you’re not even going to be able to chew it.
That brisket is going to need some development. You might want to pound it, brine it, and make sure its well seasoned. Then you’re going to want to slow smoke it with indirect heat for eight to 12 hours. With some practice and trial and error, you’ll yield some outstanding brisket that some might actually prefer eating than a ribeye.
That’s what player development and coaching is for a college football player, and it is every bit as important to developing a winning football team as recruiting is. The two absolutely go hand in hand. Neither can be neglected if you want to compete at the highest level.
There is no doubt that Arkansas head coach Sam Pittman values player development. We saw that when he made one of his first hires in strength and conditioning director Jamil Walker from Georgia.
Chad Morris left Pittman an undersized squad when he was relieved of his duties. That situation has been rectified. Arkansas is no longer an undersized team, not just along the offensive line but throughout the entirety of the team.
There have been times at Arkansas when the Hogs had few defensive backs taller than 6-foot. That’s about average now. The Razorbacks’ probably have their tallest group of receivers on average in the school’s history with Matt Landers (6-5), Jadon Haselwood (6-3), Warren Thompson (6-3), Ketron Jackson Jr, (6-2), Jadeon Wilson (6-3), Sam Mbake (6-3), and Quincey McAdoo (6-2).
The Razorbacks’ starting offensive line averages around 318 pounds, and there are bigger young men developing behind them.
The long and short of it is that the Razorbacks now look like an SEC football team as well as play like one. That was not the case under Morris, and while Pittman and his staff made improvements among the team even before his first season on the field, the difference is striking now.
We saw improvements in the Hogs’ play, too, over the last two years. Even with a slow start early against Rice in last year’s season opener, by the second half, it was easy to see how much K.J. Jefferson had progressed under the direction of Kendall Briles, the Hogs’ offensive coordinator. Jefferson only improved game by game.
Pittman said there is night-and-day difference in Jefferson this season over last. I am excited to see that improvement.
Arkansas’ defense went from being a joke under Morris to being salty in Year 1 under defensive coordinator Barry Odom. Last year, the Hogs improved even more, and I’m anticipating another step forward this year with a veteran defensive backfield and continued stellar play at linebacker.
Word out of camp is that the Hogs’ defensive line will be improved this season as some younger players come into their own. Those efforts have been bolstered by several solid acquisitions from the transfer portal in Jordan Domineck and Landon Jackson at end and Terry Hampton at tackle/nose guard.
Recruiting is what got those and other athletes on campus, and that can in no way be downplayed.
However, the work that the strength and conditioning staff as well as the nutrition staff does to help the players make themselves better athletes and the work that the coaches put in on the field and in the meeting rooms to make them better players is just as important. They enhance each other. One without the other just isn’t as effective.
Recruiting, player development, and coaching work in conjunction to make an improved team just like shopping and food preparation, and the actual cooking go hand in hand with making a great meal.
Sam Pittman is building his program around those tenants, and the results have been evident.