FAYETTEVILLE — Coaches begin every football season telling every player how much he means to the team while those on the back bench quietly disbelieve they mean it.
This COVID-19 coronavirus year they do.
New Arkansas Coach Sam Pittman drove that point home in Friday’s annual Razorbacks Kickoff Luncheon, a luncheon without food held virtually on Zoom because of COVID-19.
College teams practice knowing they can be a day away from an outbreak that could quarantine your top players of any position group.
“I think this year more than any gives an opportunity for a young man that might be a third-team guy to go ‘Hey, you know, coming up Saturday I may be on the first team,’” Pittman said Friday responding to emcee Chuck Barrett. “So I think more than ever you’re maintaining the attention of all the fellas at all different levels on the depth chart. Obviously if you’re maintaining attention you’re obviously going to have a chance to be a better football team.”
Defensive coordinator Barry Odom and offensive coordinator Kendal Briles, also part of Friday’s program, said Pittman had pulled this team coming off consecutively dreadful 2-10, 2-10 overall/0-8, 0-8 SEC campaigns under the previous Chad Morris regime into an everybody better be in this together mode even before COVID cancelled spring ball in mid March.
“One of the first things he said to our team once we started, is it’s going to take everybody to get this done,” Odom said. “It’s going to take every single person in this room, and that’s before any of this even hit.”
Effects from the virus, with players on college teams in and out of practice either because of COVID-19 symptoms or contact tracing showing they’ve had contact with others tested positive, underscores, “you never know how Plan A is going to be, so get Plan B and Plan C ready,” Odom said.
Maybe D and E, too.
“As we’ve been through the virus and how that’s adjusted our practice schedules you always have a plan,” Odom said. “Whatever you are on the depth chart, you’ve got to prepare like you’re the starter.”
Briles said walk-ons more than ever are appreciated.
“We’re blessed to have a lot of guys that paying their own way to go to school here,” Odom said. “Because those guys are extremely valuable to be able to get through practices, to run and do the things that you need to do on a daily basis once you get into scout teams and all those sorts of things. We’re going to need every single player on this team.”
Opening Friday’s program, Arkansas Athletic Director Hunter Yurachek lauded Pittman’s attitude as the first-time head coach was beset with the COVID-19 related adjustments before he ever practiced his team and then was realigned from a 12-game schedule with four non-conference games to a 10-games All-SEC adding nationally No. 4 Georgia, the Sept. 26 season opener at Reynolds Razorback Stadium and visiting No. 8 Florida to the original 8-game SEC slate that includes five other AP Preseason Top 25 teams, No. 3 Alabama; No. 6 LSU, the reigning national/SEC champion, No. 11 Auburn; No. 13 Texas A&M and No. 25 Tennessee.
“It is doubtful if any other head coach has had to deal with such adversity before he even had the opportunity to coach his first football game,” Yurachek said. “No spring practice, delays, postponements and from what was the toughest schedule in the nation to in my opinion the most challenging schedule in the history of all of college football. Yet through it all Coach Pittman has remained upbeat , focused, and determined to prepare his Razorback football team for the upcoming season.”
Pittman said he appreciates how hard the Hogs worked and how much bigger they got in the weightroom under strength coach Jamil Walker. He described how “hungry” they are challenging the super hard schedule to show they are up to proving themselves “to erase what’s happened in the past.”
“I think it’s a team that wants to get some respect,” Pittman said. “We know we have to earn that. They’re very knowledgeable about what’s gone on in the past. And the only way it can be changed is through them and through hard work and dedication and doing the little things right.”