With the Crimson Tide set to travel to Fayetteville to take on the 20th ranked Arkansas Razorbacks, I reached out to my friend Tucker Partridge (yes, there are actual pig sooie fans among us) to get some of his thoughts on the Razorbacks so far in 2022. Tucker’s done the Q&A with us here multiple times since 2017 or 18ish, and is always one of my favorite interviews each season. So give it read!
-After a fairly surprising 9-4 season in 2021, expectations were high for Razorback fans going into this season. Has the team played up to how you expected so far into 2022?
It’s kind of a hacky answer, but I have to say “yes and no.” We had a tough start to the schedule, but we always do, so it’s been a little surprising to me that we seemingly have yet to put together a consistent game-long performance. We’ve had all three phases of the game succeed and perform at a high level, but we have yet to put all three phases together for one complete game. I don’t think 9 or 10 wins is outside the realm of possibility, but in the SEC, those lapses cost you games. It almost cost us against Missouri State, and it did cost us against A&M. If we played a full game to our potential with offense, defense, and special teams firing on all cylinders, maybe we don’t drop that game against the Aggies. Individually, yes, the team is talented, and living up to expectations. Collectively, there’s much to be improved upon, and it doesn’t get easier as the year goes on.
-K.J. Jefferson continues to put up very strong stats through both the air and on the ground. For some reason though, he gets ignored by the national and even regional media in favor of guys like Will Levis, Hendon Hooker, and Anthony Richardson. Do you think Jefferson deserves more recognition than he’s getting? (essentially, I’m asking you if he’s in the conversation for the 2nd best QB in the SEC behind Bryce Young).
KJ is one of my favorite Razorbacks ever. I love his tenacity, and his desire to make the play that wins the game. That’s been crucial for us over his tenure as the starting QB, but recently we’ve kind of seen a regression to the mean where those effort plays go the other way, like the fumble against A&M. With that said, I do believe he deserves more love nationally than he’s getting. I think it’s the problem that any QB in a heavy RPO system faces, where people assume their success is due to the system rather than talent. It’s why Matt Corral fell in the draft last year despite being a great QB in my opinion. If you’ve kept up with me on twitter though, you know how much Kendal Briles’ system drives me crazy, and while I have to credit him with KJ’s development, I also think it’s a disservice to KJ to call him a system QB. KJ makes the right reads, rarely puts the ball in danger zones, and has a beautiful deep ball. He has all of the tools and size to be an elite QB, and he has been for Arkansas so far. I trust him completely, and so does our coaching staff. Those kinds of things aren’t reflected in stats, which may be the reason for the lack of national hype. He’s content to do what it takes to win the game, whether that requires 300 yards passing or 100, and because of that, I think he gets missed when evaluating QBs. I think Will Levis, Hendon Hooker, and Anthony Richardson are incredibly talented players, but I wouldn’t take anyone over KJ.
-Who’s replacing the production of Treylon Burks (which, by the way, I still have the receipts from when I previewed Arkansas’s offense when Burks was a freshman and noted him as a dangerous threat)? Jadon Haselwood is a guy that Alabama recruited fairly hard a few years ago and leads the team in catches... Is he the guy?
I don’t think it’s possible to replace a generational talent like Treylon Burks. Burks is the best receiver I’ve seen in my time as an Arkansas fan, and even if you get the numbers he put up from other players, nobody has his skill set on our roster, and probably won’t for a while just because of how good he was. The good news is, because no one has that individual skill set, it’s led to multiple players having breakout moments, making us less predictable. Haselwood is probably the best all around receiver on the roster, and he’s been a go-to guy in clutch moments, but others have stepped up admirably too. Matt Landers is a great deep threat, and had a great game against South Carolina. Ketron Jackson had a great long touchdown last week against A&M. Trey Knox converted from wide receiver to tight end last year, and after putting on weight in the offseason, has become a reliable safety valve and big play threat. Warren Thompson is also worth noting, as I think he might be the player with whom KJ has the best rapport. It’s all about collective at wide receiver this year rather than having one guy be outstanding like Treylon Burks.
-Last year, there were like 10 different guys with north of 5.0 yards per carry. So far this season, it’s mostly been the Raheim Sanders show (along with Jefferson, of course). What’s he been showing to get such a substantial workload, and are there any guys in the wings that could break out later in the season?
At the end of last season, I would have told you that Dominique Johnson was the best running back on the roster. Due to Johnson’s injury to start the year, Raheim (called Rocket by everyone in Arkansas, and his mama) Sanders has been required to be the bell cow back, and he’s excelled with more touches. I believe if everyone is healthy (which they finally appear to be), it’s supposed to be a true committee. Johnson is the big, bruising, between the tackles runner, AJ Green is a fast, home run hitter, and Rocket is the best all around back with the ability to catch out of the backfield given his background as a receiver. I would imagine with his start to the season, Rocket will see a plurality of touches for the rest of the year, but don’t be surprised if everyone is averaging 5 yards a carry again simply based on situations. Keep an eye out for freshman Rashod Dubinion as well. He’s only had one or two touches per game this year, but he’s made the most out of all of them. I wouldn’t be surprised if he got some work in the Bama game.
-Your rushing defense stats look phenomenal so far, but the pass defense is allowing 300 yards per game, though they are getting a 1:1 TD/INT ratio. What’s been the strongest and weakest position groups for the defense?
Oh boy... the defense. I thought they played well overall against A&M, but the secondary has been a problem all year. We’ve had some horrible luck with injuries, losing our two best safeties in the first game. Jalen Catalon is out for the year after missing most of last year with an injury. Myles Slusher returned in the A&M game after that first game injury, and his presence was immediately felt. Losing an All-American caliber safety for the season for the second time in two years is hard to deal with, so I’ve been sympathetic to the struggles in the secondary, but there are some issues. I don’t know if it’s scheme or lack of bodies, but the number of yards allowed is still concerning. The good news is the pass rush has helped immensely in covering for a secondary that’s still figuring it out. We lead the league in sacks, which feels like something that could only be true on the NCAA 14 video game, but here we are. Linebackers are our strongest position with Drew Sanders and Bumper Pool (more on them later), but the defensive line has been solid as well. If coverage issues can be fixed— and the A&M game showed some progress— I think this can be a solid unit.
-Drew Sanders seems to be doing well for you guys, and I’m not sure how to feel about it. We usually cheer for most of our transfers, but Sanders’s situation was kind of weird. He was our starter as an edge rusher last season, but wound up getting hurt and freshman Dallas Turner came in and got like 8 sacks in 6 games... Which you can’t put that kind of production back on the bench. At the time, the rumor was that Saban wanted Sanders to move to an off-ball linebacker instead of an edge rusher, and he’d have been the starter beside Henry To’o To’o this year. But he wanted to be a pass rusher and transferred... Only to wind up being an off the ball linebacker anyway.
Anyway, that’s a lot of backstory with no question. So how’s he doing so far, and how do the Arkansas fans feel about him?
I don’t really think it’s hyperbole to say that Drew Sanders is already one of the best linebackers to ever play for Arkansas. He’s been crucial to our success this year, and while he’s listed as an off-ball linebacker, and will be used in that position, he’s rushed a lot this year. His skillset as a pass rusher means it’s foolish not to send him after the quarterback, and he’s repaid that with 5.5 sacks, 2 forced fumbles, and 31 total tackles. He brings an athleticism and set of tools we just don’t see often at Arkansas, and I think in terms of game changing ability, he’s our guy on defense.
As a fan of a team that’s not a traditional power, I think this shows the benefit of the transfer portal. According to #sources, he originally wanted to come to Arkansas, but given the state of the program during his recruitment, he didn’t think he could win enough, so he chose Bama. After Pittman’s miraculous rebuild, Sanders made the move, and allowed Arkansas to get an elite talent that we might not have been able to get pre-portal. I think the transfer portal and the promise of playing time has helped even the playing field, and it’s why this season has seen so many fun upsets—elite players are transferring to programs outside of the blue chip ones to get playing time, and teams like Arkansas only stand to benefit from that.
We love him, so thank you.
-Is Bumper Pool ever going to graduate, or is he just eternal at this point? I swear he’s been in my preview piece every year since I started with RBR back in 2014.
I hope Bumper has secured a PhD given his length of time at Arkansas. Dr. Bumper Pool just sounds cool. Unfortunately, this is his final year in a Razorback jersey (for real this time). Pool has had a stellar career at Arkansas and will likely break Tony Bua’s previously unbreakable record of 408 career tackles. The next highest was Jerry Franklin with 382 tackles, and as of the A&M game, Pool has passed him with 385. It would take a record game for him to break the record against Bama, so I doubt we’ll see any records broken this weekend, but I’d be surprised if he didn’t break it by the time we play BYU in mid-October. Drew Sanders has kind of overshadowed him this year, as has been the case for most of Pool’s career, previously playing second fiddle to Grant Morgan. But Bumper racks up tackles, and should be at the top of the record books by the end of his career here.
-If you want to, give a prediction for how this game goes. (if that goes against superstition, feel free to ignore it)
I’m not bold enough to give a score prediction, because this game has a vast spread of possible outcomes. I think this year is our best shot to end the 15(!) year drought without beating Bama, but it’s going to require a perfect game, and we haven’t played one of those this season. I can see a Bama blowout, a close Bama win, or a close Arkansas win—it’ll just depend on which Arkansas team shows up, and if the secondary can hold up against the best QB they’ll face all year. I don’t ever expect a win against Bama, but I do expect a competitive game and for the crowd to very much be a factor. The team won’t be hungover from a close loss to A&M, and will be plenty motivated— it’s just going to take a level of discipline and execution that we’ve only seen in spurts this year.
-How do you think the rest of the season goes for Arkansas?
It’s sort of projecting like this game—it just depends on whether all phases of the team can play well at the same time. The team has enough individual talent to win most of the games left on the schedule, but the collective must show up if we want to do more than last season. Arkansas has been outscored 44-10 in 3rd quarters this year, which illustrates the hiccups in the middle of games. Cut those out, and I think we’ll be a tough out for anyone. I expect 9 or 10 wins, which would be stellar, and a decent bowl game, but wouldn’t be disappointed with 8 wins provided that the losses were close and competitive. Sam Pittman has infinite good will right now, and building momentum with another great year would be game-changing for his project.
Again, big thanks to Tucker for taking time to create some content for us. If you want to harangue him on Twitter, here’s his quick blurb on how to find him:
If you’re interested in Arkansas sports takes, not nearly enough writing, and me lording over the fact that Kendal Briles has blocked me, you can find me on twitter @TuckerPartridge.