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A youngster’s questions and answers with Arkansas’ Woodhall

Editor’s Note: Eleven-year-old J.D. Olson, the son of HitThatLine.com contributor Nate Olson, sat down with Arkansas track star and double amputee, Hunter Woodhall, as the 2020 indoor season was winding down and the outdoor season was set to begin before the pandemic halted SEC spring sports. J.D. just finished fifth grade at Collegeville Elementary School in Bryant.


By J.D. Olson
Special to HitThatLine.com

Hunter Woodhall’s track accomplishments would be impressive if he had two good legs. He doesn’t. A condition caused Woodhall’s parents to make the decision to amputate his legs when he was 11 months old.

Even though he faced much adversity growing up, he eventually found track and his success helped him to become more accepted by his classmates.

Woodhall, who is from Utah, began to excel on the track in high school. He was ranked No. 20 in the nation in the 400 meters with a top time of 47.32 seconds. He won a bronze medal in the 400 meters and a silver medal in the 200 meters at the 2016 Summer Paralympics.

Syracuse, Utah, mayor Terry Palmer declared Sept. 15, “Hunter Woodhall Day,” and he was named 2016 Male High School Track Athlete of the Year.

He became the first double amputee to earn a Division I scholarship when he signed with the University of Arkansas. He ran six indoor meets as a freshman and recorded a personal best 1:58.04 in the 800-meters.

He ran a best time of 47.42 in the 400-meters and was a bronze medalist in the 4×400-meter relay at the SEC Outdoor Championships.

He was named to the First-Team All-American Team at the NCAA Outdoor Championships after his 4×400-meter relay team finished sixth.

As a sophomore, Woodhall was an All-American during the indoor and outdoor seasons and ran a lifetime best 46.22 in the 400 meters at the SEC Outdoor Championships. He ran a personal best 1:50.68 in the 800 meters during the indoor season.

Woodhall hoped his junior season would be his best yet.

His 4×400 meter relay team took second as the SEC Indoor Championships, and he qualified for the indoor nationals in the 4×400 meters and distance medley relay. The 4×400 team won the event at the Arkansas Invitational and ran the fifth-fastest time in school history and was ranked as the fastest 4×400 team in the nation in February.

The indoor season ended suddenly before the NCAA Indoor Championships, and the outdoor season was canceled before it began due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

I learned about Woodhall’s story while following him on the social media app Instagram. He posts many inspirational videos on the app. When someone asked about why he doesn’t have any legs, he told his story, which had millions of likes and views.

That story caused Ellen DeGeneres to invite him on her daytime talk show. Ellen then surprised Woodhall with a $20,000 check to use for his expenses to compete in the 2020 Tokyo Paralympics, which have now been postponed.

I had a chance to sit down with Woodhall during the indoor season. We talked about his childhood, signing with the Hogs, going on the Ellen DeGeneres Show and more.

Q: Were you bullied growing up because of your legs?

A: Yeah, I went through a lot of bullying. I was home schooled until I was in the fifth grade. My parents started a business, and they didn’t have time to home school me anymore, and I went to public school. I went through a lot of bullying in fifth grade and into sixth grade as well. It wasn’t until I got to junior high where I found some friends who really treated me like I should have been. I had some friends who really cared about me.

Q: Did you play any other sports growing up?

A: I played all kinds of sports. Both of my brothers played sports, and I just wanted to follow in their footsteps. I started with T-ball, and then soccer and I played basketball and wrestled. I obviously ran track and played football. Basically, anything I could try out I did. I wanted to do what my brothers were doing.

Q: Was there a time you wanted to quit or doubted yourself?

A: Absolutely. There’s been so many times in my life, especially in sports, where things have gotten really hard, and I’ve questioned if it’s the right thing to be doing or not. When you get past those points and fight through that and come out the other side, you come out a better person and better athlete. I think it’s our hard times and our failures, which really define who we are.

Q: How did you first get into track? Was it a hobby at first, or was it something you were really focused on from the beginning?

A: That’s a good question. I started running 5Ks and things with my family – fun runs over the holidays and things like that. Like I said, I went through a lot of bullying, and when I got to junior high, the few friends I did have, were on the track team. So, I started running track because I felt comfortable on the team and felt comfortable being around my friends. That’s actually what got me running.

Q: Was there anyone who impacted your life like a coach or family member?

A: My family, obviously, had a huge impact on where I am today and everything I have been through but also, specifically my dad was always a really big influence in my life. There’s a number of different people in my life who showed they believed in me. A lot of times, they believed in me more than I believed in myself probably. A big reason I am where I am today is because of the people I have had in my life.

Q: What has been your main motivation?

A: There have been a lot of people behind me, but one of the biggest motivators for me is I have just been scared to let those people down. Not just one specific person but everyone who has taken the time to say they believed in me or defend me or something like that. The moment I give up or stop chasing my dreams is when I let them down. To know they believe in me and want me to succeed – I have to do whatever I can to prove them right.

Q: What was your initial reaction when you found out you had an offer from Arkansas?

A: Excited I would say. My recruiting process was extremely difficult. I had really hard time getting colleges to recruit me just because I was missing my legs. It had always been a dream of mine to compete in a conference such as the SEC. Just to be able to have that moment and share it, not only with my family, but also the people that have supported me to this point. That was a big deal in my life and real emotional.

Q: What was one of the most important tools you used to become an athlete?

A: I would say discipline is the biggest one. Discipline is such an overarching topic, and it can be applied to so many parts of your life. It always flows over to different parts. For example, when you are disciplined in the classroom, you are probably going to be even more disciplined when it comes to your sport or the chores you are doing or all of those things. When you can be disciplined in all aspects of your life, they all coincide. It’s hard to put a little bit of effort into one thing and think you are going to be all in and 110 percent in another thing.

Q: When you first came to Arkansas what were your thoughts when you struggled a little bit individually?

A: My freshman year was really difficult for me. I wasn’t used to the training, and I wasn’t used to how fast everyone was running in the NCAA, so it was really hard for me to adjust. It was one of those times I talked about earlier when you go through a hard time or hardship, and you have to reevaluate and keep pushing on. It was a lesson for me that I can’t take anything for granted, and if you want to compete at the highest level,  or you want to be at the highest level, in anything you are doing it is going to take some work.

Q: What was it like being on The Ellen show and knowing hundreds of thousands of people were watching?

A: It was so cool. I think it was amazing to be around someone who has such a positive outlook on life and puts so much love back into the world. Just to be able to use my story and what I have been through to impact somebody else’s life, that’s what it is all about. That’s very special.

PHOTO BY NATE OLSON | HITTHATLINE.COM

Q: Have people ever said anything about your artificial legs being an advantage in your running?

A: Yeah, I get that a lot, and usually … It happens the faster I run the more people are complaining. That is just one of those things where when things start happening in the public eye and people start watching, there’s always going to be people saying negative things. I think in my mind, we are not going to focus on the people that are being negative because that is going to take away from the people who are supporting us – right? It makes more sense to put all of our effort and attention into people that are supporting us and saying kind things.

Q: What is a piece of advice you want to give to other kids and athletes who are dealing with disabilities?

A: I think not even for disabilities, but everyone – it doesn’t matter who you are or where you are from, success is something you decide to do. If you have a dream, there is nothing that separates you from the person sitting next to you in class or the person on TV. We are all humans, right? The thing that makes you successful is how much do you want it, and how much do you want to work? And are you going to make sacrifices for that? So, just chase your dreams regardless of who you are and where you are.

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Nate Olson

Pittman has right attitude to lead Hogs through uncertain season

When Sam Pittman took over the Arkansas football coaching job last winter, he knew he was in for a challenge.

After all, two years of the Chad Morris Era had sunk Razorbacks football to an all-time low.

But Pittman’s road to a rebuild has gotten even tougher thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic. The crisis has put college football on hold and left Pittman without a crucial spring practice evaluation period.

Pitttman needs to evaluate the talent he has on campus and his staff needs to fill in offensive and defensive schemes. Pittman probably realistically needs a 10-week spring practice to get all the work in he needs.

Now he has none.

New offensive coordinator Kendal Briles admitted on a teleconference last month, he hasn’t seen Florida graduate transfer Feleipe Franks throw a pass yet.

Not only did the Hogs not have spring practice, but they have missed valuable time in the weight room. Part of Pittman’s charge was to make this team more physical and athletic.

That happens during two key times — January to March and May to August.

With the campus closed, Hogs players are working out on their own scattered across the country.

Earlier this spring, star sophomore wide receiver Trey Knox caught passes from Arkansas State sophomore quarterback Layne Hatcher at Hatcher’s indoor facility in Little Rock. Knox was with Hogs teammate J.D. White, a former high school teammate of Hatcher’s at Pulaski Academy.

The point is, the staff is limited in the instruction they can do with Zoom calls, emails and text messages.

They also have to rely on players to work out on their own and wonder if they have a proper weight room to work out in or a place to run and work on fundamentals.

Some don’t, so strength coaches have to get creative. I’ve seen different college athletes doing home workouts such as lifting water jugs and the old-school sit-up and push-up calisthenics.

Most of us know all too well how easy it is to get sedentary during quarantine.

That’s the battle for the staff, to keep the players conditioning and off the couch and away from the snacks. Some college football players will report in terrible shape when practice does finally begin and it will take weeks to get them ready to play.

Arkansas athletics director Hunter Yurachek said one of the plans is to have football players on campus by mid-July with the first game with Nevada as scheduled on Sept. 5.

There are still several hurdles to clear to make that a reality including keeping the state’s case trend down and determining the landscape of college football. Ultimately, the NCAA will dictate when the season can start and if there are enough teams in each conference with campuses open for all students, which will be a requirement from the NCAA.

But, if all of that does work, Pittman and his staff are experienced enough to have the Hogs ready for a game in September. It will be a crash course physically and mentally, no doubt, but they will work around the clock to instruct and prepare.

I like Pittman’s “can-do” attitude, and it’s really fitting for this situation. The pandemic is a big setback established programs such as Alabama or defending national champion LSU.

It could be catastrophic for a struggling program such as Arkansas. Pittman knows there is nothing he can do except for stay positive and continue to communicate with his team and recruit hard — which have done successfully since arriving in Fayetteville.

Even if this season doesn’t go well, Pittman won’t use the pandemic as an excuse.

But in his mind, and more importantly the players’ minds, this is going to be a year of progress and improvement and a building block to bigger and better things.

That may be half the battle of conquering one of the more bizarre seasons Arkansas has seen in program history.

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Nate Olson

Life is going to be strange now with world of sports shut down

The week of the 9/11 terror attacks, I found myself in Morrilton as Stuttgart was playing a non-conference prep football game against the Devil Dogs.

With my newlywed wife, Sheena, in tow I covered an entertaining game from the press box for the Pine Bluff Commercial.

While Arkansas high school football is great, this game stood out from many others I’ve covered. After a week of turmoil that saw our nation attacked, taking in the pageantry of a good, high school football game was soothing to the soul.

I felt it, Sheena felt it and all of the Devil Dogs and Ricebirds fans in the packed stands felt it as well.

Later, when the NFL and college football seasons and Major League Baseball playoffs resumed, those events bound us together as Americans. The World Series and football was a great distraction.

Who could forget George W. Bush throwing a perfect strike on a ceremonial first pitch at Yankee Stadium?

Sports is a release, and we needed it. It helped many through a difficult time.

Nineteen years later, we are going through another crisis, but this time sports won’t be a comfort. With the threat of the COVID-19 virus spreading across the United States, college and professional sports began making adjustments.

Those moves came to a head Thursday when the NCAA announced the cancellation of the men’s and women’s basketball tournaments and all spring sports regular-season and championship events, including the College World Series.

The NBA suspended its season with a handful of players already testing positive. The NHL has gone that way as well and Major League baseball halted spring training and will delay the start to its season.

So, one of the busiest, fun times of the year is now dead.  Done. I can’t hardly believe this as I type it.

There will be no March Madness or brackets. We won’t get to see how first-year Arkansas coach Eric Musselman’s Hogs would do in the SEC Tournament and if they could make a miraculous run and go the NCAA Tournament or play in the NIT.

We won’t get to see if Arkansas baseball could snap out of its doldrums and earn another Omaha trip.

The Arkansas High School Basketball State Championships will be halted after Thursday night and other high school sports and minor league baseball teams in the state will be impacted, too.

I’ve been on this planet 45 years and have seen nothing like this. There have been health scares, including the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s and other viruses, but nothing that completely stopped the most powerful forces in sports.

I mean really, our country was under attack, and we picked right up and played ball … almost without hesitation and now the NCAA Tournament won’t be played for the first time since its inception in 1939.

As I sat at home Thursday watching my friend and former Hog Pat Bradley break news of the SEC canceling its events on the SEC Network, my thoughts turned to a life with no sports.

It made me shudder.

Like many of you, I’ve spent much of my life playing and watching sports, monitoring it daily. It’s a huge part of my life. Some would say maybe too much, but it has and always will be my favorite form of entertainment.

My boys J.D, 11, and Luke, 8, are just like their dad. They follow their favorite teams and JD even likes the XFL and watches it each weekend. I was looking forward to taking them to see Arkansas baseball play Alabama next Friday night.

They were on campus a few weeks ago and were able to meet slugger Heston Kjerstad and other Hogs athletes, and they couldn’t wait to go back.

J.D.’s traveling soccer season is suspended at least until the end of March and as I wrote this Luke’s travel baseball season has been delayed as well. We spend at least five days a week juggling those activities.

It is great fun for me attending the practices and hanging out with them.

Sheena pitches in on practice duty, and we all attend the games together. Everything in our daily routine has been snatched away. I know you are reading this and feeling the same way. It is an empty, empty feeling.

From a Hogs perspective, we know the baseball season is over, now you have to wonder if spring football will be allowed to continue and hope that the summer heat zaps the bug, and that football season won’t be affected and maybe things will return to normal.

Some national media types are speculating that football season is in jeopardy. NO!

Maybe spring football will be allowed to continue.

It was already going to be anticipated since its first-year coach Sam Pittman’s inaugural season, but with nothing else to capture the attention of Hogs fans, the practices and spring game would be under way more scrutiny. (I know it would be focus of my columns for at least five or six weeks.)

I know sports is the least of our concerns right now as COVID-19 ramps up in our state. JD and Luke’s school in Bryant has been closed for the month and others around the Little Rock metro have as well.

More schools and events will be canceled as more cases are reported and unfortunately there will be.

And unfortunately, we won’t have sports to comfort us as we brace for the worst.

Here’s to hunkering down and spending time with family praying this pandemic won’t be severe or long and that the effects to our overall health and economy will be minimal.

Then we will be back to enjoying sports and the most pressing issue we have to debate is who the Arkansas starting quarterback will be and how many wins the Hogs will have in 2020.

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Nate Olson

Jones’ stellar season doesn’t make him one of Hogs’ all-time greats

Arkansas junior forward Mason Jones is enjoying a season of epic proportions.

He earned his fourth SEC Player of the Week honor this week. Jones is just the third SEC player to garner the award four times in a season since the award’s inception in 1985 joining Kentucky’s Jodie Meeks (2008-09) and Vanderbilt’s Shan Foster (2007-08).

Jones leads the leads the SEC in scoring (21.3 ppg). He’s looking to become the first Razorback to own that distinction.

Four Hogs led the Southwest Conference in scoring before heading to the SEC in 1991. Jones is the only SEC player this season to lead his team in scoring, rebounding, assists and steals.

He is also the only player in the SEC to rank among the league’s top 20 in scoring, rebounding (19th), assists (11th) and steals (7th) this year. Jones leads the NCAA in free throws made and attempted.

So Jones, who has scored at least 30 points in seven games, is having a season that not many Hogs have enjoyed.

His unique success has spurred the debate on different Arkansas talk radio programs regarding his status among the Hogs elite. The argument is normally short-lived.

Sure, Jones makes a case with sensational numbers. You read above that he is the only Hog to lead the SEC in scoring. That’s pretty big-time. However, two things weigh against him being remembered among the greats for years to come.

Timing is everything and unfortunately, Jones’ big season has come during a rebuilding year. However, it must be noted that if Jones hadn’t made the kind of improvement he has, this team would be nowhere close to a postseason bid.

For now, it looks like the NIT, which while it is an accomplishment with the lack of talent and depth available to first-year coach Eric Musselman, the stars of those teams are very rarely recognized with the most coveted of individual honors.

If Arkansas was a Top 10 team and gunning for an SEC championship, Jones would be in the conversation as an All-American and Wooden Award and Naismith Player of the year. The lack of team success has taken some of the luster off his performance.

The other factor working against Jones is that while Arkansas doesn’t have a great recent tradition, it did have an extensive heyday which produced some of the top players in the country — high-profile players who played in Final Fours and national title games.

Jones averaged less than 14 points per game last year on an NIT team. Even with a standout year this year, which probably doesn’t get Jones on a Top 20 greatest Hogs of all-time list.

Instead of being mentioned with the likes of Sidney Moncrief, Corliss Wliiamson and Joe Kleine, as it stands now, Jones is more comparable to another Hogs junior college transfer — Martin Terry.

Terry turned in big scoring seasons in 1971-72 and 72-73 on unremarkable Lanny Van Eman teams. Even though he owns the record for the highest career season (28.3) and career (26.3) scoring averages he is not mentioned among the elite, either because Arkansas was 8-18 his junior seasons and 16-10 his senior year.

He was a two-time All-SWC selection, but only a third-team All-American.

It must also be stressed that there may be more chapters written to the Jones’ story at Arkansas. If somehow Arkansas pulls off a stunning run at the SEC Tournament, makes the NCAA Tournament and something happens there, this is an entirely different column.

Possible but not likely.

The other scenario is Jones returns for his senior year and leads this team to a big run next year. With three years in the program and more accolades that would definitely bolster his status. It’s uncertain what Jones or star guard Isaiah Joe will do.

Both could make a case for entering the NBA Draft although Joe is the better pro prospect. If both players return, next year could be special with introduction of one of the better recruiting classes in school history.

If Jones’ Hogs career does end after this year, I will remember his story. A guy who was playing in the shadow of his brother who played at Duke, and battled weight issues to compete at a high level in a very good league.

That has to mean something. Just not as much at a program such as Arkansas.

Categories
Nate Olson

Kjerstad flexes muscles as Hogs sweep opening series of new season

Arkansas baseball radio color analyst Bubba Carpenter had some high praise for junior right fielder Heston Kjerstad the other day.

Carpenter, a former Razorback player and Major League Baseball alum, said during the broadcast of Friday’s opener against Eastern Illinois that Kjerstad could fill a spot in an MLB lineup today.

“That’s a bold statement because those big leaguers probably would take offense to that because they had to work their way there,” Razorbacks coach Dave Van Horn said. “But Heston’s well on his way.”

Kjerstad lived up to the hype, torching Eastern Illinois pitching in the opening series. Kjerstad blasted four home runs and hit .583 with 10 RBI in the sweep of EIU.

“I don’t have anything to say [on Carpenter’s comment] honestly,” Kjerstad said sheepishly.  “I am just playing baseball [at Arkansas], and we will see what happens.”

The lefty right fielder hit two titanic blasts in a 12-3 win over the Panthers Sunday. He also stroked the first pitch he saw in his final at-bat off the center field wall for a standup double.

He finished 3-for-5 with six RBI after Curtis Washington pinch ran for him in the seventh inning.

“I’m kind of running out of words,” Arkansas senior catcher Casey Opitz said. “He’s been doing the same thing for three years. So, he’s just going to keep doing it this year. It’s fun to watch. It’s fun to have him on our team.”

Opitz is right, but Kjerstad may even be better this year. Van Horn has seen a difference in workouts leading up to the season.

“He hasn’t stopped hitting since he walked back on campus for his junior year,” Van Horn said. “He’s taking more pitches. He’s being a little more patient, not going after balls in the dirt as much, not pressing.

“He’s really developing as a hitter. He’s learning, and he’s going to be a tough out this year.”

On Sunday, Kjerstad, who hit four home runs in the series, showed the confidence of one of the best players in the country. When he stepped to the plate, the Hogs’ faithful held its collective breath expecting something spectacular.

For some reason, EIU didn’t intentionally walk him in the seventh inning with first base open. Kjerstad nearly hit his third home run of the day as he drilled the first pitch from EIU reliever Ben Stephens off the bottom of the center field wall.

The crowd greeted him with a standing ovation as he exited the game and capped off an epic weekend.

“He reminds me of Paul De Jong of the [St. Louis] Cardinals when he was in college at Illinois State, and he obviously has a bright future ahead of him,” said EIU coach Brian Anderson, who pitched with three different MLB teams. “We would have loved to pitch around him, but they didn’t give us a chance to do it.

“We were able to pitch around [Casey] Martin a little bit, walk him a few times and just go after the next guy, but it just kind of hard when that lineup is so good.”

Cleanup hitter Matt Godheart hit behind Kjerstad and finished 3-for-6 with an RBI and moved his average to just over .300 for the weekend. The preseason All-American Martin was held at bay only hitting .200 in the fifth hole.

Braydon Webb was a bright spot leading off the lineup going 2-for-6 Sunday and hitting at a .357 clip to begin the season.

Arkansas has one of the more dangerous lineups in the country and would be a favorite to go to Omaha even if it didn’t boast a standout pitching staff. The Hogs will score runs in bunches as witnessed this weekend.

And Kjerstad did look like out of place on a college diamond this weekend. Van Horn and Co. are glad he won’t be getting called up to the big leagues this year.

“[Kjerstad] is definitely a player we want on our side against the competition,” Webb said. “He’s a hard worker, and he earns everything he gets. He had a great weekend.”

Categories
Nate Olson

Pittman will continue to take chances on in-state recruits like Towers

There’s nothing that J.T. Towers can’t handle. Not even a snarling SEC offensive lineman.

Towers’ young life has already been full of tumult and adversity, and he’s still standing. Playing football at Arkansas is a challenge but not near as tough as what he’s faced.

His older brother Zack died of a football-related brain injury when Towers was in grade school. He missed his entire sophomore season due to a horrific car accident that has left him with noticeable scars.

A foot injury nearly derailed his senior season at Joe T. Robinson, but he played through it recently having surgery on his big toe.

A year ago, Towers was a quarterback at Class 3A Glen Rose, but he transferred to Class 4A Robinson for his senior season and found a home at linebacker racking up 171 tackles including 47 tackles for loss, 11 sacks and 5 forced fumbles.

He played with a reckless abandon you’d expect from a guy who shrugs off catastrophic car accidents. Former Arkansas coach Chad Morris didn’t offer him a scholarship, but new coach Sam Pittman re-evaluated in-state recruits and offered Towers.

The 6-foot-4, 210-pounder chose Arkansas over Utah, Tulsa, Army, and Louisiana-Lafayette, Illinois State and more.

“It’s a day I anticipated for a long time,” emotional Towers told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette on Wednesday. “It’s been a long time coming for me, and being able to put the pen to the paper and getting the recruiting process over with and moving on to the next stage. I’m just looking forward to it.”

Towers is a roll of the dice. You didn’t see any other Power 5 schools on his list. Oklahoma and Texas Tech offered preferred walk-on spots.

However, it appears Pittman is going to have a place in his classes for some in-state diamonds in the rough, reminiscent of former Hogs coach Houston Nutt. Nutt, an Arkansas native, saw value in recruiting and developing in-state players, who he claimed were tougher when the chips were down as they were fighting for their home state.

Nutt transformed skinny Little Rock Parkview receiver Jamaal Anderson into a hulking all-American defensive end. Former coach Bret Bielema didn’t value that as much but did do a nice job of flipping star receiver Drew Morgan from Arkansas State.

The Greenwood native was a staple in the Bielema Era.

Morris did not follow suit, and focused his efforts on blue chip players in his native Texas. From a recruiting standpoint, he turned in a great class. However, so many other problems existed that we will never know how that formula would have worked.

Pittman probably realized from his first tour at Arkansas as Bielema’s offensive line coach that the Hogs will never get as many four- and five-star players as more than half of the SEC.

Even Morris’ stellar class was not atop the SEC.

So, to beat those teams you need to develop players. Players who have a lot of untapped potential and a desire to win. There isn’t a better place to pluck those than inside the state borders.

Like Nutt, Pittman knows you need to snag big-time recruits, too, a lot of times in Texas to balance out the class. This is where Pittman can outshine Nutt.

He has already proven as an assistant to be an outstanding recruiter. He proved it again Wednesday when out of nowhere, he inked Missouri City, Texas, quarterback Malik Hornsby, who is one of the more highly regarded QBs in the nation.

Hornsby chose Arkansas over Baylor, Texas A&M and Purdue among others. He is a big-time quarterback prospect Arkansas needed, but didn’t seem likely considering Pittman’s limited time to recruit.

Pittman was also able to flip talented offensive linemen Jalen St. John and Marcus Henderson. Both seem primed to fill spots quickly.

When Morris left several recruits decommitted and the stock of the class plummeted. Pittman was able to rescue it to around 30 nationally among most pundits.

This should be encouraging for Hogs fans.

Pittman sold a program that was 4-20 the past two seasons and convinced some big-time players to take a chance on him and his staff. That is how you build a program. Pittman laid the first bricks of that foundation.

However, if Arkansas is going to crash the SEC West party like Nutt did a few times, Pittman will need some underdogs such as Towers to bring major contributions.

The more diamonds Pittman mines with a longer list of blue chippers than Nutt’s, the better the chance he will have to bring Arkansas back.

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Nate Olson

Tough game against TCU Saturday comes at good time for Razorbacks

It’s amazing how a couple of losses can upset the apple cart.

Arkansas basketball was riding high, then came a home loss to Kentucky and a loss at Mississippi State. Now some fans are up in arms and even coach Eric Musselman seems frustrated.

Even when it appeared Arkansas was way better than its No. 11 predicted finish in the SEC, I knew a stretch like this was possible. It wouldn’t surprise me if Arkansas is routed on the road.

It is the nature of the beast of a shorthanded team playing in a tough conference.

It’s not an abomination to lose at Starkville. It’s certainly not shameful to lose to UK, who really outmatches Arkansas athletically across the board and is way deeper. Arkansas played admirably in both games.

However, the underlying fact is, the Hogs are small and shorthanded. That inevitably will catch up with them at points.

“I think they’ll be fine mentally,” Musselman told the media Thursday regarding his team. “But, when you lose two in a row, if it doesn’t hurt and you don’t agonize over it, then a third loss becomes a possibility.

“If you hate to lose and you’re a great competitor, then you’ll do every defensive assignment that’s necessary to win the next game.”

The adversity doesn’t mean they can’t finish in the upper echelon of the SEC or make a run in the NCAA Tournament. The odds are just greater, but they have beaten some odds already.

So, now Arkansas has to regroup Saturday against TCU (13-5, 4-2 Big 12) in the SEC/Big 12 Challenge.

On the surface this doesn’t look like an ideal opponent to play while dealing with a losing skid, but it could be exactly what the Hogs need.

First, the game is at Bud Walton Arena. The atmosphere was lit (as my kids would say) for the UK game. Expect another great crowd. That will give Arkansas a lift in what is a winnable game at home.

It is super important that this game is at home. The team needs a lift and the comforts at home.

“I think the atmosphere will be awesome,” Musselman said. “But, look, we’ve lost two in a row … The atmosphere at the home game with Kentucky – nobody in the country is going to be able to duplicate that. I think that was as good as any atmosphere you could possibly ask for.

“We lost a game on the road, we could have potentially won. Our team is playing really, really hard and our fans feel the passion our kids play with.

“Not only is it a sellout, but you not only sell the ticket, but they have to come. I think they will come to the game, and I think our student section will be great. I just came from a sorority, and they seemed fired up.

“They all said they are coming, so I think we will have a great student section. I know they aren’t going to line up early, but as long as they get there before tip-off, I am cool with that.”

The other interesting component of this game is it doesn’t matter in the SEC race. If Arkansas loses, it could continue to deteriorate its confidence, but it wouldn’t mean a lot in the grand scheme of things.

Other than a confidence boost, the game does offer another chance to boost the Hogs’ NCAA Tournament resume. TCU looks like a sure-fire tournament team, so that is probably the most important part of the game — another chance at a Power 5 win.

While TCU does not count in the SEC standings, they are an SEC-quality opponent. The Horned Frogs are led by Desmond Bane, who is a versatile scorer who has shifted positions in recent years.

The Hogs will have to contain him to win the game.

“He’s just improved so much as a player,” Musselman told the media Friday. “A few years ago, he played a lot of [power forward] for them, and then moved to small forward and now to off guard.

“He’s always been a really good three-point shooter, and he’s a good rebounder for his position. He improved his ball handling and has ability to be able to create his own shot. I think he’s a really good passer, too.”

Musselman hinted that he is going to tinker with the starting lineup after consulting his dog Swish on their “morning stroll” Saturday.

He said he will consider the moves then and is going to have “the marketing department ready with different graphics” with lineups that they distribute on social media before the game.

He may or may not experiment with the lineup if Arkansas was playing an SEC opponent, but the nature of this contest lends itself to that.

Arkansas hits the SEC slate again Wednesday night with a home game with South Carolina and is at Alabama a week from Saturday with a critical home game Tuesday, Feb. 4 with No. 16 Auburn.

A win against a quality TCU team would go a long way in sparking that stretch.

If not, the Hogs are still in good shape in the SEC with a home game against a beatable opponent.

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Nate Olson

History against Kentucky means little, but electric crowd might

Eric Musselman didn’t want to talk about past games with Kentucky this week, but Arkansas fans are going to turn back the clock Saturday.

“I don’t think Kentucky beating Arkansas or having any type of streak, in my opinion, doesn’t have any bearing at all,” Musselman told the media Wednesday. “That kind of sounds like a broken record, but every game comes up with its own theme and identity when the refs throw the ball up.”

Arkansas is winless in the past seven meetings with the No. 10-ranked Wildcats. That’s the part Musselman doesn’t have much to say about and why should he?

Nothing that has happened in those games has anything to do with him or this team. It doesn’t take a basketball guru to understand how impactful Musselman has been on this group, which has improved greatly since being under the tutelage of former coach Mike Anderson.

“We have played really competitive all year, and we just want to play with maximum effort,” Musselman said. “I told [the team] after the [Vanderbilt game Wednesday night] the only way we will be able to compete with Kentucky is if we bring our ‘A’ game. We can’t bring a ‘B+’ game and expect to compete.”

The past is the past, but what about a blast from the past?

Bud Walton Arena hasn’t been itself for quite some time. Once, one of the most feared arenas in college basketball the mediocrity of recent decades has removed some of the luster.

However, now with a team that is playing well and a coach who is a marketing whiz, this game atmosphere has a chance to be the most electric in 20 years. The game is sold out and at last check you couldn’t buy a ticket on broker sites for less than $100 and those were in the upper deck.

Musselman admits there is something different playing a traditional power such as Kentucky, and that he’s gotten many more ticket requests. He even has a group of friends from his youth from the San Diego area flying in for the occasion.

He’s already been impressed by home crowds. If Arkansas plays well, he is in for a real treat that he may never have witnessed before at a college venue. The Bud atmosphere has been that good.

“There’s just hype, you know. I am sure when the [New York] Yankees come to town in Major League Baseball, there is more outside noise,” Musselman said. “As a player, you should be ready to play every night. As a coach, I think if you bring great intensity every night …. I’m not going to coach any different whether it’s Vanderbilt or Kentucky.

You prepare the same way, and your level of play shouldn’t fluctuate like a yo-yo, either. You should be ready to play every night as a player and a coaching staff. You should have great preparation, and we have a game after the Kentucky game, too, that becomes important.”

However, the Wildcats won’t be intimidated. After a buzzer-beater loss at South Carolina, they will be determined. Their length and size could really hurt the undersized Hogs.

“Certainly, the teams we have had after a loss there’s a heightened awareness of what we didn’t do well and need to improve on,” Musselman said. “Many times losses grab your attention more than a win. Sometimes, when you win, you take some of the little things for granted.

“When you look at [Kentucky Coach John Calipari’s] record, he is pretty good after a loss. I can tell you that.

“They present a lot of problems with their defense, length and scoring ability,” Musselman said. “They are so well-coached, and I can go on and on.”

This is the biggest, most-anticipated game in the Musselman Era. It may be one of the more-anticipated in recent memory.

Anderson didn’t have many signature wins. The Hogs’ win at Indiana is already a good one and Kentucky would be monumental, both in his first season, with many more chances to go.

It could be a very historical day that paves the way for more of the past to become the future.

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Nate Olson

MSU’s hiring Leach makes Pittman even more forgettable in critics’ eyes

If Arkansas’ hiring of Sam Pittman was vanilla, it became a little more so last week.

Mississippi State made one of the splashiest hires of the offseason by replacing Joe Moorhead with Washington State’s Mike Leach.

As you know (unless you live under a rock), Leach is popular among casual fans for his witty and unusual press conferences  that often go viral. He wins enough to be considered successful and has done it in such outposts as Lubbock, Texas and Pullman, Wash.

Now, he brings his shtick to Starkville, Miss, and the Bulldogs faithful couldn’t be more tickled.

It took about a second for fans and media alike to begin to drool over Leach and Lane Kiffin as interstate rivals. The buzz has also already begun for SEC Media Days in August.

There will be media turned away at Birmingham trying to get sound bites from Kiffin, Leach, LSU’s Ed Orgeron and Alabama’s Nick Saban. LSU could be defending national champions.

There will be questions about a Bama comeback, and Leach and Kiffin will be in rare form for sure, as they can rest easy with an 0-0 record.

Then, there’s Pittman.

The career offensive line coach will attract some attention being a new kid on the block and rising through the ranks, but even rookie Missouri coach Eli Drinkwitz, a relative unknown, will get more publicity.

That is  fine with Pittman.

He doesn’t seem to be a guy who cares much about the spotlight. He’s a better speaker than you might think, and I know he commands attention in a living room, but he doesn’t crave the attention like Leach or Kiffin. He would be fine to stand in the corner, and let them flap their gums.

Leach’s bravado seems to give him more credibility. However, he was 6-6 at Wazzu this fall.

He’s 139-90, but he’s only won two division titles (one in the Big 12 and one in the Pac 12) and is 7-8 in bowl games. But there are some who would place him in the upper echelon of the SEC West elite that includes Alabama’s Nick Saban, Auburn’s Gus Malzahn and Texas A&M’s Jimbo Fisher, who all have won national titles.

And don’t forget about Orgeron who could win his first Monday night.

Leach is a good coach, but as I told some Hogs fans when the Arkansas job was open, Leach is too offensive-minded for me.

His style isn’t set up to win big games, and I’d question how he would line up in the SEC West as this would be the toughest competition his faced as a head coach.

Those questions still abound for me, yet MSU is paying him $5 million. There’s no question most think he’s light years ahead of the ol’ offensive line coach from Oklahoma.

Heck, by most pundits Pittman is ranked last among SEC West coaches and near the bottom of the entire league, maybe only ahead of Vanderbilt’s Derek Mason.

The thing about Pittman is, no one knows what he will do.

There are many that think he is in over his head and his fall will come hard and swift. On the other hand, I think this exactly the kind of situation that Pittman can thrive in.

He seems to be a guy who likes his back against the wall. He’s risen through the ranks to become one of the great offensive line coaches in the country. His success has been a mix of hard work, faith and effective interpersonal communication.

No doubt, he will get this point across to his players that not many expect anything out of him or them. Talk is cheap.

Leach and Kiffin do a lot of talking. To assume they will take the SEC West by storm is a big stretch. They have a mountain to climb just like Pittman.  Trying to dethrone LSU, Alabama and Auburn is unlikely for everyone else.

The way to relevancy is with hard work on the recruiting trail and in the meeting room. Pittman made some noise by hiring a great staff with innovative Kendal Briles leading the offense and former Mizzou head coach Barry Odom heading up the defense.

You couldn’t hear that splash over the hype of Kiffin and now Leach.

That’s fine with Pittman. He’s ready to shock the critics who’s expectations dropped a bit more after Leach’s hiring.

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Nate Olson

Hogs win at Indiana significant on different levels & could set up big January

If Arkansas earns an NCAA Tournament berth this year, they might well point back to a Sunday night in Bloomington, Indiana.

The 71-64 win over the Hoosiers wrapped up the non-conference part before the league schedule was big for multiple reasons. They’ll play TCU later in January.

The Hogs trailed by as many as 11 points in the second half to the Hoosiers (11-2) in front of a packed house at venerable Assembly Hall. Just as Indiana was about to slam the door on Arkansas, the Razorbacks used a 19-3 run the final 7:49 to pick up first-year UA Coach Eric Musselman’s biggest win this season.

“It’s a real big win,” Hogs sophomore guard Isaiah Joe, who paced the Razorbacks with 24 points, told the media following the game. “To be able to bring this win back to Fayetteville, you have to cherish moments like these.”

The win has all kinds of significance.

First, the historical. The win marks the first time Arkansas has won a road game against a Big 10 opponent since the 1949-50 season when it won 65-53 win at Illinois and 75-50 win at Indiana.

The Hogs have been 0-7 since that time. The win also avenged a 63-60 loss to the Hoosiers at Bloomington in the NIT last season, former coach Mike Anderson’s final game at the helm.

A neat stat, sure, but really just a fun fact footnote.

Here’s the meat of this win. This win proves Arkansas CAN win SEC road games and WILL earn an NCA Tournament berth.

The impressive part was not only with winning, but how they won, coming back from a significant second-half deficit.

Arkansas hit 12 of 31 three-pointers and Mason Jones was clutch, hitting 3-balls on back-to-back possessions late in the game to fuel the win.

Arkansas was picked 11th in the preseason SEC poll. What Musselman has shown over the past 12 games is he has improved every player on the roster individually, and he can outcoach and out-prepare the opponent.

That’s what I figured when I predicted Arkansas would need a win or two in the SEC Tournament to get off the NCAA Tournament bubble.

That was bold at that point. Now, there is reason to think Musselman’s crew could be in the upper echelon of the conference.

Playing in front of nearly 15,000 fans at Assembly Hall will be tougher than most SEC venues. The crowd was really getting loud midway through the second half. It looked like IU was going to blow the game open.

“In the huddles, there wasn’t any panic,” Musselman told the media. “I probably got on the guys less tonight than I have all year. At halftime I got on them less. We were calmer in all of our huddles.

“I thought they were giving great effort. I thought if we just hung around and tried to get [other] guys on their roster to take shots instead of some of the guys that were hurting us that maybe the tide could change if we knocked down a few threes.”

And that will be the recipe to winning on the road in the SEC, too. Musselman gained this team’s trust early. The chemistry and bond is strong.

That’s remarkable with a first-year coach, but it probably goes back to his lengthy past of coaching in the NBA and other stops as to how to build that rapport. Whatever the case, the coach knows this team, and it has paid off so far.

The other reason the win is important is because of what it could mean on Selection Sunday. Indiana is primed for a good run in the rugged Big 10 and will have a good chance of a tournament berth.

That will help Arkansas in the committee’s eyes.

The Hogs’ nonconference schedule hasn’t been extremely tough, but they won two of the tougher games on the schedule — at Georgia Tech and Indiana.

The win couldn’t have come at a better time as Arkansas welcomes Texas A&M to a sold-out Bud Walton Arena for the SEC opener Saturday.

The Aggies are struggling under first-year coach Buzz Williams. Among the losses are a 62-51 loss to Harvard and a 65-42 blowout to Temple, and a 67-62 setback to Fairfield — all at the Orlando Invitational last month.

A&M has won back-to-back games with Texas Southern coming into College Station on Monday night, but Arkansas will be favored.

In the past, Arkansas has had trouble getting out of the gates of the SEC slate.

The A&M game should continue the momentum of the Indiana win, and then two good road tests against LSU and Ole Miss before returning home for Vanderbilt and Kentucky, respectively.

January sets up for a good start if the Hogs can play well at LSU and Ole Miss.