Coming off the heart-stopping, high-scoring Liberty bowl, 2023 has arrived. A season on the offensive side of the ball with so much drama, it couldn’t have finished any other way.
Plagues such as quarterback KJ Jefferson’s nagging shoulder injury reigned supreme. One of the bright spots was production from the transfer receivers. Matt Landers is the most notable with over 900 yards to his name. Rocket Sanders was another as he still climbs the ranks of Arkansas’ record books. While some of the histories could be best left to collect dust, there is a lot to spark questions moving forward. As sports fans do, it’s never too early to look ahead.
The majority of questions will stem from the defensive side of the ball. New defensive coordinator Travis Williams is much of the reasoning. Nonetheless, with the dynamic duo of Jefferson and Sanders returning, potential looms large for next season. During the transfer portal era, a ton will change between now and fall camp. Despite that asterisk, there’s still plenty to dive into.
Can KJ Jefferson take the next step after an injury-ridden season?
It’s pretty clear that Jefferson’s injury exposed a weakness this past season – the quarterback room. Possessing just two scholarship players in the room was tragic as is. Without the need to go into detail, Hornsby and Fortin were not the calibers to start for an SEC team. They were still given their shots in relief of KJ’s absence. Games, where Jefferson played injured simply, didn’t go the way of the Hogs either. It was always obvious when something was off with the captain of the offense. Luckily, he had time to rest up.
The Liberty Bowl performance by a seemingly healthy version of Jefferson was a breath of fresh air. As his best game since the trip to BYU, it was a momentum booster heading into 2023. Not to mention his second bowl MVP.
The development of Jamil Walker’s firing as the strength and conditioning coach plays a role going forward. Avoiding rumors around his departure, an injury-filled season across the board doesn’t help his case. New addition Ben Sowders will be tasked with calculating how to keep KJ healthy. If coach Sowders can accomplish what Walker couldn’t, there will be much to rejoice in.
Along with developing a formula to get back to 100%, competition got much, much tougher. Bringing in Jacolby Criswell from North Carolina and freshman sensation Malachi Singleton boosts the room tenfold. While fall camp of 2022 was deemed a quarterback battle, it was forever known who would start. With proven talent walking in the door, extra motivation to develop will be there. Taking the next step forward in 2023 would set KJ up near the top in the Arkansas quarterback lineage.
How does running back shake out behind Rocket?
Tasked with becoming the feature running back brought zero issues for Rocket Sanders. With over 1400 yards rushing, an injury in the bowl game halted his plan of topping 1500. Returning fully healthy next season, the starting spot will be Sanders’ to lose. Finding production behind him was a proposition this season and will return in full force the next. The great thing is, there is plenty of young talent to magnify. With Rocket playing minimally in Memphis, two other players got their shots.
Certainly looking the part was freshman Rashod Dubinion. Settling down to third on the depth chart most of the season, he always took advantage of his opportunities. Racking up 20 carries in the Liberty Bowl, Rashod reeled off 112 yards with a pair of TDs. There was a lot to like about what was put on display. Maybe most importantly as a young player, ball security wasn’t an issue. Matter of fact, he didn’t lose a fumble all season. Dubinion showed off his ability to hit gaps with authority and move north and south. While his speed and agility were a known commodity, it was nice to gain reassurance.
The most bouncy tailback may just be AJ Green. A guy that still hasn’t broken through as an impact player, he still has his role. Earning 20 more carries this season than 2021, his averages remained consistent. That’s a good thing. Averaging 4.7 yards per carry, Green topped 400 yards on the ground. Proving his value for two consecutive seasons means there is nowhere to go but up.
Taking a little step forward next season would silence the talk of fans wanting Green on defense. Whether he does step up or not, the battle for second string will be a fight to the end of fall camp.
If Dominique Johnson can make a miraculous recovery once more, his name will be thrown into the hat. Factor in incoming Isaiah Augstave as lightning in a bottle and waiting for this to unfold becomes even harder to do.
Which young wideout has the best odds to step up?
The question with the most deviation possibilities might just be this one. Bringing in Landers and Haselwood to damper the youth could only hold for one season. While the decision paid off substantially for both parties, it will still be time to buckle down moving forward. A recent transfer has a lot to do with that. Ketron Jackson bailing for Baylor came as an unpleasant surprise. As a proposed starter next season, his loss hurts to an extent.
As it stands, the transfer portal route is still on the table as a major player. Currently, the portal has also given one in Andrew Armstrong via Texas A&M Commerce. The freakish athlete will certainly find the field, but it’s not nearly certain who will line up next to him. With departures among the receivers, the Liberty bowl gave backups opportunities once more. Matt Landers was the only upperclassman to stay and participate in the game. He ripped off 121 yards as a result which led the team.
Behind him, Jaedon Wilson had the most flashy performance despite just two receptions. With only one catch for two yards coming into the game, the Desoto native bolstered his questionable status. A lengthy wideout with a 6-foot-3 frame like Jaedon is ideal on the outside. With limited game-time experience, it’s tough to gauge his ability. However, Wilson has put a solid catch radius and speed on film to pair with his physical tools. He will be one to watch develop this offseason. It’s almost necessary that he does.
Bryce Stephens might be the most obvious to move up the ranks. A guy with little action in 2021, he stepped into the role of punt returner alongside second-string receiver. Taking one punt to the house on the year, he’s proven his twitch and vision in that role. Stephens’ quickness had been a known factor since his recruitment. As it pertains to wide receivers, like Wilson, he has the physical ability. A difference maker in the mix may be SEC experience for Bryce. Besides being just a vertical threat, he has proven to track the ball quite well in coverage. His route running is in a good position and can certainly take a leap over the offseason. If a certain player needs to have a huge development, Stephens is him.
Isaiah Sategna is an interesting character to keep an eye on after not getting much action this season. The Liberty bowl proved he needs more time to acclimate to the college game. A hot commodity out of Fayetteville, the talent is there. Slot receiver is currently hanging a help wanted sign and Sategna fits the mold on paper. While he may not turn into a starter after one year, he can transform into a contributor with some work. Sam M’bake is another former four-star but never found a catch in 2022. It will be key to have the bigger-body receiver work his way into a role as a redshirt freshman.
Boiling that down, it doesn’t exactly bring a smile. Getting at least one more proven transfer at the position will be vital for Briles’ offense in 2023.
Can Briles and the offense find a killer instinct?
Speaking of coach Briles, possibly the most blood-boiling aspect from a fan perspective this season was how Arkansas finished games. Oddly enough, opening possessions were never much better. Put on display most obviously in two games was the inability to step on the opponent’s throat.
Blasting Ole Miss at home, Arkansas never scored after the 14 minute mark in the third quarter. Combining a complacent defense with an offense that was no longer playing to win made the game look quite closer than it felt. With the offense having their way the entire game, shutting down at 42 points didn’t make sense. Especially facing a team that hung 52 on them the year prior.
While it didn’t almost cost Arkansas that game, the Liberty bowl was nearly an utter disaster. Even with the victory, it still felt despicable. Midway through the third quarter, Arkansas held a commanding 38-13 lead over Kansas. Once again with a cushion, the defense became complacent and the offense shut down entirely. Undesirable refs accompanied overall awful decisions which brought a game to overtime that shouldn’t have been even close.
Whichever coach, whether Pittman or Briles, is making the call to let the foot off the gas needs to address it. Becoming a more aggressive offense is the name of the game in the modern day. Teams can’t settle to be happy with a 30-point lead with how high-powered offenses have become. It’s just not ideal for longevity.
The lack of aggression wasn’t just a problem in those scenarios, but overall offensively. Jefferson and company would sometimes just hit a wall and not be able to do anything. Even against the lone FCS opponent on the schedule, this was evident. Unfortunately, that’s something to be addressed behind the curtain.
For a team to develop a thirst for blood all 60 minutes it starts with the head coach. That trait had to be learned under Bobby Petrino when he took the job. The ball will be in coach Pittman and Briles’ court to see if that change can be filed. Having Jefferson and Sanders return, the x-factors will be at their disposal if they decide to take the initiative with leads late in games. Turning the dial up a notch or two may make for something wild next season.