Everything Sam Pittman said Monday ahead of Ole Miss week

Arkansas coach Sam Pittman is ready to embrace the challenge. He always has been.

The head Hogs coach said Monday during his weekly press conference he was fully aware of the pressure surrounding him and the program with two weeks left. Arkansas is 5-5 and hosts No. 14 Ole Miss on Saturday as underdogs. A loss to the Rebels and then another in the rivalry game against Missouri the day after Thanksgiving would leave Arkansas bowl-less.

Fans would turn into a mob. Questions would be asked. Serious ones. Pittman would likely enter 2023 on the proverbial hot seat.

But that hasn’t happened yet. And it might not. If Arkansas gets quarterback KJ Jefferson back and the Hogs defense plays the way it did against LSU, not only could they win, it might not be all that wise to pick against them.

Pittman knows all of this. He’s ready. Here’s everything he said to the media ahead of game week on Monday.

Prayer for Virginia

Hundreds gathered for a vigil Monday after a shooting Sunday evening at the University of Virginia left three dead and two injured.
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“I want to open up with our thoughts and our praoyers are with the University of Virginia, their staff and their families. … We’re certainly praying for all involved in that situation. Terrible.”

Previewing Ole Miss

Oct 9, 2021; Oxford, Mississippi, USA; Mississippi Rebels running back Henry Parrish Jr. (25) carries against Arkansas Razorbacks linebacker Hayden Henry (27)at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Marvin Gentry-USA TODAY Sports

“Ole Miss, obviously very explosive on offense. Running the ball as good as anybody in the SEC. Pretty balanced still, though. 265 by 225. Somewhere in there. Very explosive. Have great skill. Mingo, Judkins the running back, Dart, really fine talent skill-wise. Heath, Watkins, they’ve got really good wideouts. Defensively, disruptive. Run a 3-2-6. Can get after the quarterback. Have been blitzing more of late. More for the run game, trying to slow down opponents’ runs against them. They’re playing extremely well. Obviously lost a close game Saturday. They plate extremely hard, well-coached. We’re looking forward to having a night game here. I think it’s our first night game at home.”

KJ Jefferson's health

FAYETTEVILLE, ARKANSAS – NOVEMBER 05: K.J. Jefferson #1 of the Arkansas Razorbacks is sacked in the first half by Kendy Charles #91 of the Liberty Flames at Donald W. Reynolds Razorback Stadium on November 05, 2022 in Fayetteville, Arkansas. (Photo by Wesley Hitt/Getty Images)

“We anticipate him practicing today. We anticipate him playing on Saturday. Those things certainly could change. They have over the last two weeks. I know he feels better than he has since the Auburn game. We’ll have to see how he is at practice. I think he feels, I know he feels better than he has in the last two weeks.”

Arkansas' back-up quarterback

BATON ROUGE, LOUISIANA – NOVEMBER 13: Malik Hornsby #4 of the Arkansas Razorbacks warms up before a game against the LSU Tigers at Tiger Stadium on November 13, 2021 in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. (Photo by Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images)

“It would be an open competition. I think obviously. The problem that we have a little bit is the unknowing of KJ and gameplanning. It was a little easier if Malik was the guy because there is similar talent, run, dual-threat even though Cade made some nice runs the other day in the game. I think our team and our staff, we just want to know if he’s going to be available or not, if he’s going to play. I think our team needs him. Or we need to go the entire week and say he’s not going to. I think a lot of that will be said today. Cade and Malik will battle for who would play in that second spot if KJ is not able to.”

Motivating the players

Nov 12, 2022; Fayetteville, Arkansas, USA; LSU Tigers running back Noah Cain (21) is tackled by Arkansas Razorbacks defensive back Hudson Clark (17) and linebacker Bumper Poole (10) during the second quarter at Donald W. Reynolds Razorback Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports

“We lost the game, but it would be hard to say that we didn’t play an excellent game on defense. We haven’t necessarily done that. We’re going to take what we think helped us, the way that we practiced, some of the things we talked about, the way that we prepared before the game, we’re going to take those and continue to do those things. WE’ve got to get our offense going. A lot of it dictates with a healthy KJ Jefferson as well. If we don’t have him we’ve got to do a better job of hanging our hat on something, throwing the ball on first down, loosen the ball a little bit more. We’re not playing fast, either. A lot of is we’re not getting that first first down. When we get that first first down we can play a little bit faster. We haven’t been able to do that. Those are some things that certainly we talked about yesterday as a staff.”

Struggling to break tackles

Arkansas running back Raheim Sanders (5) runs the ball past South Carolina defensive back Gilber Edmond (8) during the first half of an NCAA college football game Saturday, Sept. 10, 2022, in Fayetteville, Ark. (AP Photo/Michael Woods)

“I don’t know that we’ve ever been a great skill guys breaking a lot of tackles. We’ve had some huge holes that they’ve run through. There’s a difference in breaking a tackle between me and that and when we’re between you and I, there’s a difference. You have more space. You can throw a fastball. You can run sideways and cut. We’re not getting those opportunities. It shows a little bit more when you’re closer to a guy it’s hard to make them miss, harder to run over them. But LSU’s back did. And the first guy it seems right now, whether it be an ankle tackle or whatever, seems to be getting us down. We’ve got to work on that. We’ve got to run with a demeanor of the first man is not going to get me on the ground. We’ve got to be better there.”

Status of Slusher and Brown

ARLINGTON, TEXAS – SEPTEMBER 24: Running back Devon Achane #6 of the Texas A&M Aggies carries the ball against defensive back Myles Slusher #2 of the Arkansas Razorbacks as tight end Max Wright #42 of the Texas A&M Aggies blocks in the first half of the 2022 Southwest Classic at AT&T Stadium on September 24, 2022 in Arlington, Texas. (Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images)

I don’t know exactly yet what we’re going to do. They’re going to practice. We’ll make a decision. Wednesday I’ll know for sure then. I’ve got to make that decision by then for sure.”

Defense improved recently

Arkansas coach Barry Odom is seen before the start of an NCAA college football game between Missouri and Arkansas Saturday, Dec. 5, 2020, in Columbia, Mo. (AP Photo/L.G. Patterson)

“The game is alot about matchups but it’s also about the demeanor that you play. I felt like over the last game and a half that we have played like, I’m talking about chasing the ball, the physicality, we have played like we did what I thought our first two years were. I don’t know why we didn’t earlier. I think a lot of it has to do with we might not have been comfortable with the guys around us because there was a lot of shuffling going on. Regardless, we’re playing much better now and we’ve got to get another, we’ve got to win. Our kids, you kind of saw from the loss at Liberty the way that they played I thought was really good.”

Pittman is aware of the expectations

Jul 20, 2022; Atlanta, GA, USA; Arkansas head coach Sam Pittman shown on the stage during SEC Media Days at the College Football Hall of Fame. Mandatory Credit: Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

“It’s a great thing. I’m the head coach at Arkansas. If we were 10-0 people wouldn’t like me or like what I’m doing or decisions I make. That comes with the job. That’s just what it is. Is it right is it not? I don’t have time to talk about that. You’re going to get criticized. We’re 5-5 and we’ve been, we lost to A&M by two. Last year if you go back, we beat Mississippi State at the end of the game. We beat LSU in overtime. 7-5 last year or 7 and whatever it is. We haven’t been able to win the close games. Two of them weren’t close, really. Alabama was a five-point game going into the fourth quarter. We’ve got to figure out how to win close games and you’re going to do that every year. If you don’t, your record is going to be 9-10 wins to 6, 5 wins. Most all the teams in the SEC, it’s that way as well. Being 5-5 and all the expectations, I’d rather have the expectations be high and take the criticism than they go ‘oh, well, you played LSU 13-10 and they’re the West Division champs.’ We won’t want any of that. We want to win. It doesn’t matter who we play. DId we go faster than even I thought we would last year? Probably. But I was happy with it. We’re disappointed where we are. We can wallow in it or we can get bowl-eligible.”

Injuries, especially for KJ Jefferson, have been devastating

Arkansas Razorbacks quarterback KJ Jefferson (1) is sacked by Auburn Tigers defensive lineman Derick Hall (29) as the Auburn Tigers take on Arkansas Razorbacks at Jordan-Hare Stadium in Auburn, Ala., on Saturday, Oct. 29, 2022. Arkansas Razorbacks leads Auburn Tigers 17-13 at halftime.

“I think it is. Obviously they’re 1s for a reason. If you have a special guy like KJ, special guy like Catalon, those guys are special and could play for anybody in our league. When you lose your key guys like that who also, it’s ironic and everybody is making excuses, but you’re the one asking the question, I didn’t. You asked the question and I’m answering it. We had four captains walk out there the other night and I’m going ‘KJ is one of them. Wagner is one of them.’ Two of your four leaders out there are not playing. We did learn a lesson from COVID that if you cross-train, things of that nature, you can go out and win games if you’re prepared. This year it’s just been a rash of injuries in the secondary and we never quite got on-target, got comfortable with each other until the last game and a half, probably. You lose your best player, your quarterback, it’s going to affect your football team. Not only is it affecting your team, but it’s affecting how people play against you. If you noticed, the box numbers, the amount of blitzes we’re getting on run downs now versus what we did before with KJ running, it’s different. It’s a different number count, different schematics people are using against us. It’s going to take away some of your rushing yards because they’re not afraid of you. They’re not afraid of that slant anymore. THey’re not afraid of that go-route off of a play-action read. They’re not afraid of it. And part of that is having the confidence, we need to have the confidence in whoever is there as a 2 to still do that because we’ve got to back people off of us.”

Ole Miss is a sack-heavy team

Oct 9, 2021; Oxford, Mississippi, USA; Arkansas Razorbacks head coach Sam Pittman prior to the game against Mississippi Rebels at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Marvin Gentry-USA TODAY Sports

“There’s a pattern to it. It’s a game-by-game type pattern, what they do. I think it’s attack off of…I think their blitzing is primarily to stop the run. ….. They have gone lately into a much more movement-blitzing style than what they had been earlier in the year when they were giving up a lot of rushing yards. They’re defending better in the secondary. I think that’s probably why they’re able to do that. We have an idea of what we think they’re going to do to us because they’ve had success against similar styles that we are. The bottom line is they’re either going to bring a blitz to the back or they’re going to bring it away from him. They may do both.”

Pittman on Henry-Heave, last year's wild game, etc.

`Nov 7, 2015; Oxford, MS, USA; Arkansas Razorbacks tight end Hunter Henry (84) laterals the ball as he is tackled by Mississippi Rebels defensive back Tony Bridges (1) during overtime at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium. Arkansas won 53-52. Mandatory Credit: Matt Bush-USA TODAY Sports

“It’s always exciting to play Ole Miss, especially with Lane being the coach. Popular man, great coach. He’s got them going. It’s always exciting because the fans are going to be excited about the game because there’s going to be a lot of offense. Last year it was 52-51. I’d say that’s a lot of offense. I know they’ve got a really good offensive team and we do, too. I think if we can get our quarterback I think it’ll be one whale of a game just like these other ones have been. If I thought we had any advantage on that, it’d be playing at home at night. Our fans haven’t left us. They’ll be sold out just like they were on Saturday. They’re disappointed and guess what, so am I. Very. We’re working hard to change that. I understand their disappointment. But they’re going to show up and raise a lot of heck on Saturday. We’re going to need them to. I think that’s what the series is all about. … There’s a lot to play for. We’re not bowl-eligible and we sure need to get that way.”

Ole Miss offensive line causes trouble

Sep 24, 2022; Oxford, Mississippi, USA; Mississippi Rebels quarterback Jaxson Dart (2) reacts with Mississippi Rebels wide receiver Jonathan Mingo (1) after a touchdown during the first half against the Tulsa Golden Hurricane at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Petre Thomas-USA TODAY Sports

“One is from Conway, but they’ve got two really good tackles. Pettis is a huge man. I’m kind of interested to see how big he is. I’ve had some big linemen, but this guy is a mountain. Jeremy James is a guy I recruited at Georgia. Ended up going to Ole miss. He’s played tackle. I think they really are in-sync. They’ve got those three veterans in there. They really are in-sync together, timing-wise. They pull really well. They spread you out. Flood zones. Judkins is a really good running back. Really good. Freshman. Can make you miss. Catches the ball extremely well. I think he’s a big time threat coming out of the backfield. Got really good speed. Dart transferred in there, certainly helped them big time. He’s probably the guy right now, him and Evans. He makes them go now. They’re hard to tackle. They run downhill. Reminds me a lot of that attack of Mississippi State, they had those backs that just went – whoop – that’s what they do.”

T'Kieast Crawford's first start

Nov 13, 2021; Baton Rouge, Louisiana, USA; Arkansas Razorbacks offensive lineman Ricky Stromberg (51) snaps the ball at the line of scrimmage against the LSU Tigers at Tiger Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

“I thought for his first start against a really really good opponent in LSU, I thought he did a good job. I really did. Obviously the sack at the end of the game, but really, even that one there, our running back bumped him. He was getting beat and things, but our running back bumped his left hip and had him open even faster. I thought he, for his first start, I thought he held up pretty darn good.”

Worried about Dart

Nov 12, 2022; Oxford, Mississippi, USA; Mississippi Rebels quarterback Jaxson Dart (2) runs the ball during the first half against the Alabama Crimson Tide at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Petre Thomas-USA TODAY Sports

“He’s a better runner than I want him to be. He’s smart, accurate. Not afraid to throw a back-shoulder throw. He’s good at that. He’s got some really good receivers that can catch the ball as well. Seemed to me to be very comfortable in the offense. I’m really concerned about his running ability because he’s good at that.”

Transfer portal has changed college football

Mississippi Head Coach Lane Kiffin returns to Neyland Stadium before an SEC football game between Tennessee and Ole Miss in Knoxville, Tenn. on Saturday, Oct. 16, 2021.
Kns Tennessee Ole Miss Football

“What’s happened now is you’re not locked to 25. You’re locked to 85. If you look at Ole Miss, I think five or six of their starters on defense are transfer portal guys. Offense is I don’t think quite that many. Obviously Zach Evans is a transfer guy. Dart. I’m not going to sit here and bull-headed and lose a whole bunch of games and all that stuff because I don’t believe that maybe that’s the right way to do it. You know what I mean? We had our share of transfer portal, too. I hate the fact that we can’t go and – we can – recruit 20, 25 high-school kids every year. But the world doesn’t wait on you long enough. If you’re trying to build a program within four or five years, you get to Year Three and you’re gone. Everybody wants to win now. Yes, I think it certainly has changed the way that I”ve looked at the transfer portal, too. For us, it’s always been, where’s our immediate need. That’s where we’re going to go and that’s it. We’re going to tell the kids that we have on our team that we need either depth or we need a starter there. When we do that, we know that. I’ve been very conscious about that for our team. Now I think if you have a really good player, regardless of what position he is, if he wants to come, you take him. Before I wouldn’t do that. Before I was like ‘No, no, I’m going to be loyal to these guys. They’re plenty good enough for us to win the SEC.’ But part of that has become, with all the injuries that we’ve had this year, your back-up better be as good as your starter or close to it. That’s maybe shown a little bit for us this year. Where if we want in the transfer portal a little bit more, maybe we’d have been a little bit better off, record-wise, and hopefully team-wise, too.”

Dalton Wagner's health

Arkansas quarterback KJ Jefferson (1) celebrates with teammate Dalton Wagner (78) during the first half of an NCAA college football game against Rice, Saturday, Sept. 4, 2021, in Fayetteville, Ark. (AP Photo/Michael Woods)

“He’s going to practice some today. My philosophy on it is that we don’t really ever say a kid’s out if he can do something. What we do, we always go to Indy and we check him to see where he’s at in individual. If he’s capable of doing a little bit more. The philosophy is to get them out to practice. Sometimes they’re not as hurt, not as sore, or whatever, as they think they are. Obviously if you’ve got the right kid, he wants to play. That’s what we’re going to do with Dalton today to see how far, see what he can do and the length of time, also being smart. Kind of see how far he can go.”

Barry Odom on the sidelines has improved defense

Acting Arkansas coach Barry Odom, left, is pulled back to the sideline by an assistant during the second half of the team’s NCAA college football game against Florida, Saturday, Nov. 14, 2020, in Gainesville, Fla. (AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack)

“I think part of that certainly is being present. The kids have a lot of respect for him. He’s up there. He’s away from it. We won nine games with him upstairs. We decided with him on the sidelines, he could explain the changes … I think we thought his presence on the sideline and his ability to make changes himself, besides through the headsets, I thought we needed that and felt like it helped us. That’s probably the original reason why we asked him to come down. If it’s not working, you can be bull-headed or you can try to fix it. I believe that was the BYU game, maybe. It worked. And it has worked. He’ll stay down there.”

Story originally appeared on Razorbacks Wire