Four downs: Arkansas vs. Western Carolina
By DON KAUSLER JR.
Ready or not, the Arkansas football team opens its 2023 season Saturday against Western Carolina at War Memorial Stadium in Little Rock.
The game will kick off at noon CDT. Repeat: The game will kick off at noon CDT. That’s not the time that originally was scheduled.
That’s where this preview will start. …
Beat the heat: Coming off a disappointing 7-6 season, the Razorbacks can’t wait to start their 2023 season. It was supposed to be a 3 p.m. kickoff.
But it’s going to be hot Saturday in Little Rock. It will be hot at noon. It will be hotter at 3 p.m.
This is the only kickoff time of the season that Arkansas can control, because the game will broadcast only on streaming channels (ESPN-Plus and SEC Network Plus).
Some fans have grumbled. The earlier kickoff time subtracts 3 hours for pregame parties.
“I’m not worried about tailgating, I can tell you that,” Arkansas Coach Sam Pittman said. “I know that’s going to make people mad, but I don’t care. We’re trying to do what is best for our team and what’s best for the fans.”
He went on to explain the reasoning to start early.
“We play 5 of our first 8 games on the road. So, when the heat came out there was a decision to make: Are we going to move it forward or are we going to move it backward? Moving it backward, if it starts at 6 or 7, you’re going to get the team home at 1:30 or 2:30 in the morning versus 7:30.”
Pittman, who is entering his fourth season as Arkansas’ head coach, isn’t entirely insensitive to nitpicking pregame picnickers.
“Tailgating should be cooler,” he said. “The game should be cooler. As you well know, if the game starts at 6, you’re out there at 4 o’clock and it’s 96 degrees out there for tailgaters, pregame, Hog Walk, all those things. I just thought it was the smartest thing for us once the heat became a factor to move it up for the safety of our kids and for our fans.”
Wake up, KJ: If anyone catches Arkansas star quarterback KJ Jefferson yawning when the game starts, understand this: He takes a daily nap that usually lasts from noon until approximately 1:15 p.m. Think about that if he and the Razorbacks get off to a slow start. Maybe Pittman should have considered this when rescheduling the kickoff time.
“I feel like if I don’t take a nap, then I’m not as focused and locked in as I should be because I didn’t get that nap,” Jefferson said in a recent Hog Pod interview. “It’s like I’m drained and tired, but once I get that nap, I’m energized, I’m focused, I’m locked in.”
Jefferson shined as a sophomore 2 years ago. Injuries slowed him last season. This season, he isn’t really in the conversation as a Heisman Trophy candidate, but he could be a sleeper. He enters the 2023 season already etched into the Arkansas Razorbacks football record book: fifth in total yards (7,245), seventh in passing yards (5,816) and sixth in touchdown passes (48). He needs 1,950 passing yards to break Tyler Wilson’s career school record of 7,765 (2008-2012).
If there truly is a Heisman candidate this season in the Razorbacks’ backfield, it might not even be Jefferson. Junior running back Raheim “Rocket” Sanders took off for 1,443 yards rushing last season, despite rushing only 13 times for 64 yards without a touchdown in the last 2 games combined.
Jefferson and Sanders might be the best quarterback-running back duo in college football. An opener against a soft opponent could be a big opportunity for either or both to start the season impressively.
Whom to watch: If Arkansas had a breakout player in the spring, it was Isaiah Sategna. The 5-foot-11, 180-pound slot receiver wears No. 16. He’s a redshirt freshman who was the No. 1 prospect in Arkansas when he signed 2 years ago out Fayetteville High School, where he was also a track star.
Banged up last fall, Sategna impressed in the spring with his hands and his feet. He can contribute as a possession receiver and as a big-play threat.
Pittman revealed this week that Sategna will return kickoffs and punts.
“He was the most consistent back there,” Pittman said.
Bryce Stephens, now a redshirt sophomore receiver, returned 15 punts last season for 149 yards (9.93 avg.) and a touchdown.
“We believe in Bryce,” Pittman said, “but Isaiah was the most consistent catching the football on punts. He returned a kickoff for a touchdown in our scrimmage. So we’ll let him have it and see how he does.”
Many eyes on Saturday will be watching Dan Enos and Travis Williams. Enos is the Razorbacks’ new offensive coordinator. Williams is the new defensive coordinator.
Enos isn’t really new. He was Arkansas’ offensive coordinator from 2015 to 2017 under head coach Bret Bielema. How Jefferson adjusts to a new pro-style offense is a key storyline.
Williams brings an aggressive style and a 4-man front that should be the Razorbacks’ strength on defense.
Beware of those non-logo schools: Western Carolina is a 5-touchdown underdog, but Pittman only has nice things to say about the FCS opponent from the Southern Conference. The Catamounts went 6-5 last season. Former Florida quarterback Kerwin Bell is the head coach. His son, Kade, is the offensive coordinator.
“Kerwin and Kade Bell do a wonderful job with that team offensively,” Pittman said. “They set records last year in touchdown passes and records for total offense. They do a lot of things that are concerning for us. Defensively, they have some good defensive ends. Certainly have our work cut out for us. First games are scary because of the unknowns, but we’re really excited.”
This game is more than an exhibition for Arkansas, which is warming up for September games against Brigham Young, LSU and Texas A&M. The Razorbacks (nearly 35-point favorites on the betting lines) have something to prove: Can they manhandle a team that they are expected to manhandle?
“There’s some things that are concerning, like how we played against non-logo schools,” Pittman said of recent years. “We didn’t play well against Missouri State or Liberty last year. Even Rice 2 years ago. That’s a concern. We talk a lot about playing our best ball, and we need to get back to that physicality and playing our hearts out no matter who we play.”
Jitters are a part of season-opening games. Pittman understands them.
“The first year, I just tried to figure out how to use the headset, to be honest with you,” Pittman said, reflecting on a 37-10 loss to Georgia in 2020. “I was so nervous.”