Arkansas’ Sam Pittman proud to be from Kirby Smart’s tree

Arkansas head coach Sam Pittman speaks during NCAA college football Southeastern Conference Media Days, Wednesday, July 20, 2022, in Atlanta. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)

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Arkansas head coach Sam Pittman speaks during NCAA college football Southeastern Conference Media Days, Wednesday, July 20, 2022, in Atlanta. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)

Sam Pittman and Kirby Smart happened to run into each other in the Forsythia Suite on the upper floors of the Omni Hotel on Wednesday. You’d think the former co-workers hadn’t seen each other in decades.

“Look at this guy, man!” Smart exclaimed as he leapt up from his chair to give his former offensive line coach a bear hug when Pittman wandered into the room. “Yessirrrrrrrr!”

As it is, both coaches are happy they don’t have to see more of each other this coming season. Smart’s Georgia Bulldogs have played Pittman’s Arkansas Razorbacks each of the past two seasons and beat them pretty good both times. But neither side wants any part of the other this year.

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In Year 3 under Pittman, the Hogs are expected to be more formidable than ever. They led all Power 5 teams in rushing last year, which played a big part in Arkansas putting together a 9-4 season that included an Outback Bowl victory.

“That tells us we’re doing what we’re trying to do with our program,” Pittman said of the run-game success. “We want to be a physical team on both sides of the line of scrimmage. We want to win the line of scrimmage. We want to be physical and tough. It’s hard to do that.”

Long reputed to be one of college football’s better offensive-line coaches, none of Pittman’s previous teams ever have led the Power 5 in rushing.

That’s only one reason why excitement is high in Fayetteville. The nine wins last season were the most by Arkansas since 2011. The Razorbacks finished ranked inside the top 20 in the coaches poll for the first time in a while. Including the Outback Bowl, they won four trophies in 2021. The other three came in “rival games.”

They also held a ceremony in April to present the team with their bowl rings in honor of the 24-10 win over Penn State in Tampa on New Year’s Day.

“That was a big deal to our football team, big deal,” Pittman said. “No one on our team had ever had one of those trophies.”

Ah, but that was last year. As ever, SEC Media Days is about this year. Duplicating and even improving on last season’s accomplishments are the goal.

Unquestionably, the Razorbacks are going to be better. But navigating the rugged SEC West as well as another challenging overall schedule promises to offer more tough sledding.

Arkansas opens the season against Cincinnati. Pittman guesses nobody foresaw the Bearcats being a College Football Playoff team when the game was scheduled, but there coach Luke Fickell took them last year. Including BYU, Missouri State and Liberty, all 12 of the Hogs’ opponents played in postseason games last season.

“It’s the third year in a row that we’ve been awarded the toughest schedule in college football,” said Pittman, who has to wonder what he did to deserve such treatment.

Arkansas has some solid pieces in quarterback K.J. Jefferson, linebacker Bumper Pool and All-American defensive Jalen Catalon. But the Razorbacks are having to replace five starters on offense and seven on defense.

Hence, they added nine transfers via the portal. Two of those additions have Georgia ties, including receiver Jaden Haselwood, an Cedar Grove High School grad who went to Oklahoma, and Matt Landers, a former Bulldog completing his collegiate eligibility. They’re being looked to to help replace Treylon Burks, who might’ve been the best wideout in the SEC a year ago.

Regardless, Pittman remains his gregarious, optimistic self. He still spends a lot of time thanking Smart and the Bulldogs for helping him get the opportunity to be a head coach at Arkansas.

He proudly counts himself as a member of Smart’s growing coaching tree.

“I don’t know what tree (South Carolina coach Shane Beamer is) out of, as far as whether he is with Kirby, Oklahoma, whatever it be,” Pittman said. “But myself and coach (Mel) Tucker, Dan Lanning and coach Beamer all came from the Kirby Smart tree at some point. I’m certainly indebted to him.”

That was evident in one spontaneous embrace.