Identity crisis: Penalties, injuries trouble UA offense

Arkansas Coach Sam Pittman (right) talks to an official during the fourth quarter of the Razorbacks’ 34-31 loss to LSU on Saturday night at Tiger Stadium in Baton Rouge. Pittman said Wednesday that his biggest concern is that the Razorbacks are “killing themselves in penalties. And we have to get rid of that.” (NWA Democrat-Gazette/Hank Layton)

FAYETTEVILLE -- One third of the way through the regular season, the Arkansas Razorbacks have found out that while quarterback KJ Jefferson has been the leader and record-chasing standout staple they'd hoped for, the offensive lineup and other spots around him continue to evolve.

Under first-year offensive coordinator Dan Enos in his second stint at the University of Arkansas, the Hogs have put up strong scoring numbers -- including 31 points in back-to-back losses to BYU and LSU -- to rank 32nd in the country with 36.5 points per game while still seeking to nail down an identity.

The offense has been inhibited by two major factors: Penalties and the evolving lineup.

Holding calls torpedoed the Hogs in their 38-31 loss to BYU, and false starts, though largely overcome by chunk plays, impacted last week's 34-31 setback at LSU.

"Our biggest concern right now is we're killing ourselves in penalties," Arkansas Coach Sam Pittman said during Wednesday's SEC coaches teleconference. "And we have to get rid of that. I know it's a broken record because we've done that for three of the four weeks. We've got to get rid of that."

On the lineup front, Enos and the offensive staff have been dealing with changes and disruptions in almost all units other than quarterback, where Jefferson is completing 70.4% of his passes and on the brink of breaking the school record he shares with Matt Jones' with 77 career touchdowns.

As the Razorbacks (2-2, 0-1 SEC) enter Saturday's 11 a.m. game against Texas A&M (3-1, 1-0) at Arlington, Texas, they appear to be rounding another corner.

Junior tailback Raheim "Rocket" Sanders might be available for the first time since the season-opener after experiencing swelling in his left knee. Additionally, offensive line coach Cody Kennedy could be nearing the point of settling on five starters on a unit that has battled hand injuries and assorted other ailments during an uneven start.

Sophomore left tackle Devon Manuel appears to be getting healthier and he took more snaps at the spot than redshirt freshman Andrew Chamblee last week for the first time this season. The left tackle position has given up the most quarterback pressures for the Hogs this season, per Pro Football Focus. With only left guard Brady Latham and center Beaux Limmer returning, the front has been a work in progress since last spring.

"I mean, you've got to remember, they had the same offensive line for basically three years," Texas A&M Coach Jimbo Fisher said Wednesday. "That's hard. I went through that, too.

"Those are big changes and things that go on. And their running back has been hurt. But KJ can make plays. They're dynamic outside and they can run the football."

The Razorbacks have yet to produce a game with a 100-yard rusher this season, a feat Sanders accomplished seven times in 2022 en route to his 1,443 rushing yards and 10 touchdowns. Arkansas players combined for 11 100-yard rushing games last season -- two from Jefferson and one each from Rashod Dubinion and backup quarterback Malik Hornsby in addition to Sanders' seven -- including in each of the first eight games.

The Razorbacks have shown signs of an improved run game the past few weeks, with AJ Green managing 82 rushing yards against Kent State and 86 against BYU and Dubinion putting up 78 at LSU.

"Obviously you want to be able to run the ball when you want to run it," Pittman said. "And you want to be able to protect it and throw it. But I thought maybe Saturday night ... we were able to run the football. We were able to throw it. Our protection continually has to get better."

Dubinion said his production against LSU boiled down to one factor.

"Trusting the O-Line," he said. "Because I was going off what I knew last year with the older guys that had left. In the game [in 2022], it was kind of faster. I just started trusting the O-Line and taking what they give me, hitting the right holes, slowing down my steps, making the right reads."

Pittman said Dubinion's work against the Tigers was reflective of what the coaches have expected out of the sophomore.

"He carried guys, made yards on contact, made guys miss in the open field," Pittman said. "Hopefully that's just the beginning of a whole lot of great games for him."

Still, their top rushing game is 177 yards against BYU after the Hogs ranked seventh in the FBS with an average of 236.7 yards per game last season.

Texas A&M allows 109.8 rushing yards per game to rank seventh in the SEC and 38th in the nation, while the Razorbacks are producing 147.8 rushing yards, ninth in the conference and 75th in the FBS.

Jefferson is passing for 229.5 yards per game, slightly down from his average of 240.7 from a year ago, even with a better completion rate.

Yet Jefferson is dealing with a new scheme, new protection calls and a lot of different parts, including his top targets. Andrew Armstrong, tight end Luke Hasz and Isaac TeSlaa -- all first-year Razorbacks -- have combined for 52 of Jefferson's 76 completions, or 68.4% of them.

Last week, transfer Tyrone Broden was featured in the play calling, grabbing a 5-yard pass on the opening snap and hanging on for the game's first touchdown, a 19-yard grab while being held late in the second quarter.

Hasz caught 6 passes for 116 yards and 2 touchdowns against the Tigers.

"He certainly gets better each week, and I think he will continue to," Pittman said. "Obviously, his blocking needs some work and some of his route running and things of that nature, but to have a freshman, a true freshman, as talented as him and for the things that he's doing, is really incredible."