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Numbers, it seems, rule the world. Americans especially can’t get enough statistics, which explains why data of all sorts have infiltrated college football.
In this world recruiting metrics are a big obsession, even in the thick of a regular season. In the SEC, some analysts and writers go so far as to chart which team brings more former four and five-star players into each game, although many of the players are years removed from high school.
More often than not, Arkansas comes up short.
Only four starting Razorbacks, for instance, walked into last Saturday night’s tilt with higher star ratings in high school than their Volunteer counterparts.
But the Volunteers had 15 such players.
This, of course, is par for the course. Outside of Vanderbilt, Missouri and occasionally Ole Miss, practically every SEC team will bring more former blue-chip recruits into its game with Arkansas. It’s been this way for years.
Still, on Saturday, it didn’t matter. Hogs coach Sam Pittman rallied his team from a 0-13 halftime deficit to a 24-13 win. This victory, which makes Arkansas 3-3 on the season, is the latest evidence that there’s nothing gimmicky about the way Pittman and his staff have turned this program around.
The coaches recognize that for Arkansas to overcome the talent gap and routinely beat more talented teams, they must consistently coach their players up. That happened under Frank Broyles, Lou Holtz and Bobby Petrino, but not so much under latter-era Bret Bielema and Chad Morris.
So far, Sam Pittman and his staff are successfully following this tried and true template. You can see the excellent development on defense, where guys like Hudson Clark and Grant Morgan are playing like the former four-stars that Bumper Pool and Jalen Catalon actually are. On offense, the development of a few offensive linemen like Myron Cunningham has been superb.
Figuring out ways to get as many former two and three-star players to raise their games to levels hardly anybody predicted in high school is at the crux of Pittman’s coaching philosophy.
“A good coach is someone that the kids play better than what they really are,” Pittman said on a recent episode of “The Hog Pod.” “The only way, in my opinion, that the kids can play better than what they really are, is if they trust you and they feel like it’s all in together and they feel like you’re working every bit as hard for them to have success as they are. To me, that’s the whole key to winning, to losing, to all that stuff — is to get your individual, whoever it may be, to play better than what he is.”
Hog fans are ready to see a coach who can pull this off year in and year out. Even when Pittman brings more highly-ranked players into the program, matching SEC heavyweights like Florida (the Hogs’ next opponent), Alabama, Texas A&M and LSU in that department will be a very tall task.
Those programs benefit from being in the middle of more densely populated recruiting hotspots, and even when they are down on the gridiron they almost always stay elite in recruiting.
Take defending national champion LSU, which is struggling now. Some may think that would benefit Razorback recruiting, but that isn’t the case so far. LSU is still on track to haul in a 2021 class on par with that of Alabama and Ohio State. Its recruits aren’t phased by LSU’s losing, in the same way Catalon and Treylon Burks weren’t phased by Arkansas’ losing when they signed on a year and a half ago. In fact, they feel like they are the missing pieces for what’s going wrong, as The Athletic’s Ari Wasserman points out.
Pittman, however, can build an advantage over time by developing Arkansas into a program where very good players know they will get coached into great ones. Part of that is technical teaching, which often falls to the assistant coaches and will be on full display as defensive coordinator Barry Odom assumes the interim head coaching position in Pittman’s absence this week due to his positive COVID-19 test.
Another part of that is fostering a culture of tough love and caring, a task in which Pittman has excelled. The aftermath of the Tennessee-Arkansas game provided ample evidence of this, when Pittman was embraced by multiple Volunteer players including Cade Mays, an offensive lineman who had played under Pittman at Georgia. When opposing players love your coach, and not just because they always beat him on the field, you know you’ve got a good one.
If Pittman can keep the Razorbacks improving at this rate for long enough, perhaps Arkansas can down the line develop into something like Clemson — a non-blue-blood program from a smaller state that eventually breaks into the big boys’ club on the back of undeniably great coaching and execution year after year (which is what Arkansas was for decades in the old Southwest Conference).
The Arkansas-Clemson comparison made more sense under Chad Morris, who helped build that Tigers program into a powerhouse, but the results on the field never matched the big plans Morris had for the team.
Six games into the Pittman era, turning into a Clemson-like success story is more imaginable. Before that, though, first things first. Getting back to consistently beating the mid-tier SEC schools is a great start.
Knocking off a powerhouse like Florida would be even better.
Photos courtesy of Razorback Communications.