'It’s his': Pittman leaves the offense up to Petrino

Arkansas head coach Sam Pittman visits with Bobby Petrino, Saturday, September 17, 2022 before the start of a football game at Donald W. Reynolds Razorback Stadium in Fayetteville.
Arkansas head coach Sam Pittman visits with Bobby Petrino, Saturday, September 17, 2022 before the start of a football game at Donald W. Reynolds Razorback Stadium in Fayetteville.

FAYETTEVILLE — There will be no mystery as to who’s offense will be in play for Arkansas under fifth-year coach Sam Pittman.

The system, terminology and play calling will all belong to Bobby Petrino, the offensive guru who led the Razorbacks to a 34-17 record as head coach between 2008-11.

Speaking at a joint news conference on Thursday, Pittman said Petrino would have free rein, just as offensive coordinator Kendal Briles did from 2020-22 and Dan Enos did last season.

“He’s got a job to do and I don’t know how I can allow him to do a job if it ain’t his offense,” Pittman said. “We hired him because he’s a brilliant offensive mind. It’s his offense. That’s just what it is.”

That wasn’t the case for Petrino in 2023 when he made his return to the SEC as offensive coordinator for Coach Jimbo Fisher at Texas A&M and dealt with a murky mishmash of philosophies.

Fisher had trouble even communicating whose offense would be on display and who would be calling plays in a strange appearance at SEC media days last summer.

Petrino talked about the approach Fisher took to the Aggies’ offense last year.

“When I took the job at A&M, Jimbo wanted to keep the same terminology and call things the same way they did,” Petrino said. “It was hard. It was hard on me. I was staying up all night. I can remember staying up all night just getting ready for the first scrimmage.

“It was different. It was not only calling the plays different, but the formations. The way they called formations was probably different than anybody else that I’ve ever been around.

“Normally you call the strength where your tight end’s going to align. There it’s where your slot receiver is going to align. Just getting the connection to be able to do that was very difficult, but [I] worked hard at it.”

The Aggies produced 403.8 yards per game to rank eighth in the SEC and 53rd in the FBS. They were 10th in the SEC in rushing with 141.4 yards per game, sixth in passing (262.3) and fifth in scoring with 34.2 points per game despite going through quarterbacks Conner Weigman, Max Johnson and Jaylen Henderson due to injuries.

“I thought we had a pretty good year,” Petrino said Thursday. “We went through a couple of quarterbacks, which was hard. But I really enjoyed it.”

Petrino, speaking on the Razorback Daily podcast this week, touted his confidence with his own system.

“I have an offense that I’m very familiar with and understand inside and out,” Petrino said.

He added the offense will be installed three times during the offseason, giving the players the repetition they will need to be ready for the 2024 season opener against Arkansas-Pine Bluff on Aug. 31 in Little Rock.

“Football is a lot about attitude,” Petrino said on the podcast. “What I’m looking forward to is going out on the field with an offense that believes they’re tough, that will play fast and physical and compete.”

Petrino said his agent Christina Phillips convinced him to “get back in the game” during his three-year stint as head coach at Missouri State that included a strange split season in 2020-21 due to the covid-19 pandemic. By back in the game, Phillips meant the upper levels of college football where Petrino operated during a good chunk of his career.

He said the teaching part of the game reinvigorated him in College Station, Texas, during the last season.

“I think that’s the one thing that, when that happened, when Jimbo lost his job, I thought I wanted to still coach,” he said. “Just because how much I enjoyed being in the classroom with the quarterbacks, spending time with the offense, just coaching football, teaching.

“It was fun being back in the meeting room and teaching. I started getting in this profession as a teacher, so it was really fun to get back and do that.”

Petrino said his offense has not changed drastically since his system produced some of the best offensive numbers in Arkansas history, including school records of 6,273 total yards and 4,338 passing yards in 2010 with Ryan Mallett at quarterback working with exceptional skill talent like Joe Adams, Greg Childs, Jarius Wright, Knile Davis, Dennis Johnson, D.J. Williams and Chris Gragg.

“I honestly don’t think a lot has changed, simply because I don’t think it’s about plays,” he said. “I don’t think it’s about what you do. I think it’s about how you use the players that you have.

“How you get the ball to a Jarius Wright. Joe Adams. How you get the ball to Dennis Johnson, and how you work the different situations of the game. So what I love to do is utilize players, and then be good at the situations of the game and the players really understand what we’re going to see in 3rd-and-short and what we’re going to see in 4th-and-short.”

Petrino could also help fill the role of trusted adviser for Pittman that defensive coordinator Barry Odom did for his first three seasons with the Razorbacks.

“Any time that you have somebody on your staff that’s been a head coach, and a successful head coach, you always go over situations,” Pittman said when asked about whether he might be able to lean on Petrino. “You go back and forth and talk about, OK, you’re watching tape, what will we do here? What will we do here? What do you think about this, that and the other.

“I did that with Barry a lot as well because he had SEC experience. … But it’s not just that. It’s a daily basis of having somebody in there that’s been through it and you just run things by and visit about it and try to do what you think is the best decision for the team.”

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