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Keys to Victory & Five Burning Questions: Arkansas vs. Western Carolina

Jun 06, 2023Jun 06, 2023

Arkansas football will open the 2023 regular season against Western Carolina on Saturday, Sept. 2 from War Memorial Stadium in Little Rock (Ark.). Kickoff between the Razorbacks and Catamounts is set for 12 p.m. (CT) on SEC Network+.

"It's game week, and we're excited to have an opportunity to get over to Little Rock to play Western Carolina," said Arkansas coach Sam Pittman. "Kerwin and Kade Bell do a wonderful job with that team offensively. They set records last year in touchdown passes and records for total offense.

"We're going to have our work cut out for us. First games are always scary because of the unknown. Unknown about the opponent. Unknown this year about our own team. But we're really excited to get over there and play a fine Western Carolina team."

Saturday marks the first meeting between the two programs. The Razorbacks are on the heels of a 7-6 season and victory over Kansas in the AutoZone Liberty Bowl. WCU — an FCS program out of the SoCon — is coming off a 6-5 finish in 2022 under the direction of head coach Kerwin Bell. Arkansas is 152-62-4 all-time at War Memorial Stadium, including a 1-0 record under Pittman.

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Here are Five Burning Questions and Keys to Victory for the Hogs as they get set to kick off the season against Western Carolina this weekend:


Arkansas almost certainly won't show all its cards in the opener, but that doesn't take away from the intrigue of how the Razorbacks will look in the first live action under Dan Enos and Travis Williams, especially considering this is the first time in the Pittman era where there has been a changing of the guard with the coordinators.

How smooth will the operation be offensively? What will the run-pass ratio look like? Will Jefferson's command of the new system be evident? Will there be miscommunications and busted plays, or will the Hogs be a well-oiled machine?

On defense, Williams has a reputation for his aggressiveness. How often will he dial up the blitz packages, or will he even need to if the Razorbacks are able to pave their way to the quarterback with four down linemen? Will a rejuvenated unit play assignment sound and fly around to the ball?

With all due respect to Western Carolina, the burning questions in a season opener against an FCS foe should be centered around the Arkansas Razorbacks. Perhaps the biggest question for the team coming out of fall camp is how the Hogs will hold up on the offensive line with a pair of young and inexperienced, albeit very talented, tackles taking over.

Arkansas will roll with sophomore Patrick Kutas on the right side with one, or both, of redshirt freshman Andrew Chamblee and redshirt sophomore Devon Manuel to the left.

While Sam Pittman has been vocal that he likes what he has at tackle, there is no denying the pieces enter the season unproven. The Hogs had some struggles containing the edge in the preseason. Is that because the defensive line is that formidable, or is there a cause for greater concern? Regardless, Saturday represents crucial reps and experience for the group.

Arkansas has arguably the best 1-2 punch in the country with quarterback KJ Jefferson and running back Raheim Sanders, but for the offense to reach its full potential in 2023 the Razorbacks are going to need multiple targets to emerge as reliable and consistent playmakers in the pass-catching department. The earlier the better when it comes to those connections developing on Saturdays.

The Hogs return just 14 receptions, 170 yards and one touchdown from last year's wide receiver room. Holdovers Isaiah Sategna and Jaedon Wilson are expected to take a step forward, and Arkansas will look to up-level transfers Andrew Armstrong, Isaac TeSlaa and Tyrone Broden to fill the rest of the void in production.

At tight end, freshman sensation Luke Hasz is emerging as the primary option from a cluster of players battling for reps that includes returners Nathan Bax and Tyrus Washington as well as Louisville transfer Francis Sherman and All-Conference USA addition Var'keyes Gumms.

The defensive line has been the talk of the town in Fayetteville as the deep position group is shaping up to be the strong point of the defense. Arkansas led the SEC in sacks last season — although they didn't all come from the D-Line — but the Hogs will have a new look this season under defensive coordinator Travis Williams.

Will the star power off the edge in Trajan Jeffcoat and Landon Jackson wreak havoc on the Catamounts out of the gates? Can Pitt transfer John Morgan have a similar impact to last year's ACC transfer Jordan Domineck? Will an interior that features six player weighing more than 300 pounds command double teams and free up space for the linebackers to eat?

WCU has impressive size for a lower-level school, but Arkansas will be bigger, faster and stronger in the trenches and should be able to impose its will early and often at War Memorial Stadium on Saturday. Last season's FCS opponent was Missouri State, and the Hogs sacked quarterback Jason Shelley eight times and limited the Bears to just 1.6 yards per carry. Can Arkansas have similar success against the Catamounts and talented running back Desmond Reid?

Western Carolina is not the barometer for what Arkansas hopes will be a salty defensive line in 2023, but a dominant performance against the Catamounts could offer the first glimpse of what is to come.

The story is well-documented at this point. Arkansas had the worst pass defense in the FBS last season, allowing 294.7 yards per game through the air. Acknowledging the obvious that there is nowhere to go but up, the Hogs have looked like an improved unit on the back end throughout the preseason. The question is how much better will they be? Saturday will the first opportunity to showcase...

Dwight McGlothern returns at corner and will be flanked on the opposite side by Georgia transfer and former five-star Jaheim Singletary. Jayden Johnson and Hudson Clark are battling out for one safety spot while a pair of Baylor transfers in Alfahiym Walcott and Lorando Johnson figure to round out the first five.

What can be taken away from a Week 1 game against an FCS opponent? Well, last season the Hogs allowed 357 passing yards against a Missouri State team that ranked 35th in the FCS in passing offense. Western Carolina finished much higher at seventh overall with 301.1 passing yards per game and a school record 30 touchdown passes.


Arkansas finished middle of the pack in the SEC last season with an average of 6.4 penalties per game costing it 55.5 yards. After the first scrimmage of fall camp, Sam Pittman was critical of the amount of flags he saw from his team up front and in the secondary. While the defensive backs cleaned things up in the second scrimmage a week later, there were still too many holding calls on the edges.

A number of flags are to be expected in an opener, especially for a team that will be debuting new coordinators on both sides of the ball, but the Razorbacks will obviously hope to limit the costly mistakes that eliminate big plays or stall their own drives or extend them for the Catamounts.

The easiest way for Saturday's contest to be way closer and more interesting than it needs to be is for Arkansas to lose the turnover battle. In theory, ball security through the air should not be a significant issue for the Razorbacks as quarterback KJ Jefferson has only thrown 10 interceptions in 666 career pass attempts. However, Arkansas ranked near the bottom of the SEC last season with 19 total fumbles, 11 of which it lost.

Perhaps the Achilles' heel for Western Carolina a season ago was being bitten by the turnover bug. The Catamounts were potent in the passing game, but were picked off 20 times on the season in addition to losing six fumbles.

On the flip side, Arkansas ranked eighth in the SEC with 18 turnovers gained last season but could stand to improve on that mark in Travis Williams' aggressive defensive system. WCU ranked 113th among FCS team with just 10 forced turnovers.

Both teams boast impressive kickers heading into Saturday's matchup between the Hogs and Catamounts. Arkansas' Cam Little has a strong two-year track record of success and has been booming field goals from long-distance throughout the preseason. Meanwhile, WCU's Richard McCollum was 17-for-19 on his field goal attempts last season and a perfect 5-5 on attempts longer than 40 yards.

Although the return game is not as pronounced as it was in the past thanks to a number of rule changes to address player safety, it can often play more of a factor in these FCS matchups. For example, WCU only recorded 29 touchbacks on 68 kickoff attempts last season.

Arkansas has a potential game-breaker at kick and punt return in Isaiah Sategna — who took a kickoff 100 yards to the house in a preseason scrimmage. The last time the Hogs played in Little Rock, Nathan Parodi had an 80-yard punt return for a touchdown. Don't rule out more electric special teams play at War Memorial Stadium this weekend.

Arkansas had one season-ending injury in the preseason when wide receiver Sam Mbake went down with a torn ACL, but there are still several question marks for the Razorbacks ahead of Saturday's opener with Western Carolina.

At Tuesday's media viewing of practice, offensive linemen Brady Latham and E'Marion Harris returned to action in green non-contact jerseys along with tight end Nathan Bax and wide receiver Jaedon Wilson. While that is a promising sign for their potential availability, it remains to be seen how much, if any, they will contribute on Saturday.

Linebacker Antonio Grier has returned to full practice after missing a significant portion of camp with a quad strain. He is expected to play against WCU. Safety Malik Chavis and defensive end Jashaud Stewart were both non-participants in practice as of Tuesday afternoon and are questionable at best.

In addition to who will, or won't, play this weekend, Arkansas will hope to make it out of War Memorial Stadium as healthy as possible for the long season ahead.

Sam Pittman said it himself during a media availability earlier in the week, for whatever reason Arkansas has not played particularly well against "non-logo schools" the past couple seasons. Rice, Missouri State and Liberty stand out as the most glaring examples.

Pittman said his goal for the 2023 season is for Arkansas to play its best ball on a weekly basis regardless of the name on the jersey of the opponent on the opposite sideline.

The longer a game like this stays tight, the more pressure there is on the home team. There is no reason why Arkansas can't come out of the gates strong, take control and keep the foot firmly pressed on the gas pedal until things are well under control down the stretch.