The traditional "Calling of the Hogs" cheer this season for Arkansas football could just as easily be the "Calling of the Seniors."
Arkansas will look to build off last season's 3-7 record through experience, as Sam Pittman's second squad of Razorbacks will contain a whopping 23 seniors. Among those 23 are 11 "super seniors," players who opted to remain in college by using the NCAA's extra year of eligibility that was granted as a result of the coronavirus outbreak.
"I like the word super, and I think super seniors is cool," linebacker Grant Morgan, a 2016 signee who returns after being a fifth-year senior last season, said last week at SEC Media Days. "I think it's a testimony to Coach Pittman and his staff, and it shows what type of guy he is. When you have guys who had a chance to go to the NFL and then came back and decided to stay, it really does mean a lot.
"It also means a lot to be able to see how the players have reacted to it as well. For the younger guys, it was going to be their time to be the players and the starters, and the fact that they accepted everybody who came back just shows we have a culture here that's different from the past. It was an easy choice for me to come back, and I know it was for everyone else."
Morgan led Arkansas with 111 tackles last season and was an All-SEC first-team selection by both the Associated Press and a vote of league coaches.
The Razorbacks went through two consecutive winless seasons in Southeastern Conference play under former coach Chad Morris, and expectations were very low this time a year ago, especially when the league eliminated nonconference matchups due to the pandemic. Yet when Arkansas rallied to dump Tennessee 24-13 in early November, the Razorbacks were the surprise of the conference at 3-3.
Last year: 3-7 (3-7 SEC) Season opener: Sept. 4 vs. Rice in Fayetteville (2 on SEC Network+) Fun fact: The Razorbacks had winning records in SEC games under Houston Nutt (42-38) and Bobby Petrino (17-15) but are just 16-58 since. Up next: Auburn
Arkansas dropped its final four games, but its 3-7 mark could have easily been 6-4 had it not been for heartbreaking losses to Auburn (30-28), LSU (27-24) and Missouri (50-48). Could the slew of veterans provide a jump in success and land the program's first bowl appearance since 2016?
"I wish I knew that. We'd jump all over the place," Pittman said. "Here's what I do know - it will be hard work. You can't beat anybody if you don't start out thinking you're going to or believing you're going to. I think that has changed over the last year, but I think it's just building on what we have done and getting better and getting a few additions to help our football team.
"We've got enough players on our team to have a good football team as long as we buy in and we work hard and we execute."
Pittman has more depth than a year ago but not as much as he wants. The surplus of seniors has factored into Arkansas returning nine offensive starters, including left tackle Myron Cunningham, and 10 defensive starters.
Cunningham, like Morgan, is also entering his sixth collegiate year.
"It's only bringing back knowledge of the game and experience through what we've played," Cunningham said. "The only thing we can do is pass it down to the young guys as we keep going throughout the year."
One position undergoing a switch is quarterback, with Feleipe Franks moving on to a free-agent opportunity with the Atlanta Falcons and with sophomore KJ Jefferson assuming the reins. A 6-foot-3, 240-pound sophomore from Sardis, Mississippi, Jefferson completed 20 of 41 passes (48.8%) for 295 yards and three touchdowns a year ago.
"He can run better than Feleipe could," Cunningham said. "I think we just have to have that in the back of our mind whenever we do drop back to pass the ball that he could be scrambling, so we just have to be ready for it."
The schedule is almost always daunting for the Razorbacks, and this year is no exception. After hosting Rice in the opener, Arkansas will welcome Texas in a Southwest Conference matchup of yesteryear and a potential future SEC game, given the increased likelihood of the Longhorns and Oklahoma leaving the Big 12.
Texas A&M, Georgia, Auburn, LSU and Alabama are also on the slate, as are ascending league programs such as Missouri and Ole Miss.
"You've just got to take them one week at a time," Pittman said. "We have eight games in a row to start out. We're very conscientious about that."
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