In his first season as head coach at Arkansas, Sam Pittman’s special teams were admittedly less than special.
In fact, Arkansas was 124th in ESPN’s efficiency ratings, 122nd in the FEI ratings, 120th on Pro Football Focus and 107th in Bill Connelly’s SP+ ratings.
But Pittman had great faith in Scott Fountain, Arkansas’ first-ever special teams coordinator and a fellow assistant he brought with him from Georgia.
That faith appears to have been rewarded as Arkansas enters year three of the Pittman era with returning freshman all-American field goal kicker in Cam Little, a veteran punter in Reid Bauer and a bevy of return candidates.
The one missing piece from last season is kickoff specialist Vito Calvaruso, now at Wisconsin. `
Calvaruso had 96 touchbacks in 122 kickoffs in two years with Arkansas.
Little, who kicked off in Arkansas’ 24-10 Outback Bowl win over Penn State, will compete for that job against Texas State transfer Jake Bates (5-10, 203).
Bates, a former Tomball, Texas standout, played soccer for two seasons for the University of Central Arkansas before transferring to Texas State.
He recorded 35 touchbacks on 53 kickoffs in 2021 after having 32 on 60 boots in 2020.
“Bates is a guy that can kick,” Pittman said at a Wednesday press conference. “Obviously he had a full-ride offer to — I don’t know how many — at least one other SEC football team. It’ll be between him and Cam Little.
“I think they’re both kicking it 6-7 (yards) deep right now on.”
Pittman remembered a decision he made because of his faith in Calvaruso.
“That’s a valuable deal when Scott and I are sitting there and we’re ahead and, I don’t know, I think it was the Mississippi State game and we’re sitting there talking about what we want to do,” Pittman said.
“Scott said, ‘Let’s just kick it out.’ I said, ‘Well, he damn sure better kick it out if we’re going to do that. We’ll get booed out of the stadium in here.’ He booted that thing out of there.
“Lot of value there when you don’t necessarily have to defend a kickoff return from somebody else’s team. We feel like we have them.”
It would be optimal for Little to concentrate on his field goals and extra points.
Little was 20 of 24 on field goals as a rookie and 46 of 46 on PATs.
“Obviously, I think Scott would like for Bates to be that guy so Cam can really concentrate on field goals, but whomever wins that spot is going to be the one who kicks it the furthest and the highest and with the most consistency,” Pittman said.
Bauer heads up the punting race, but is being pushed by freshman Max Fletcher from Australia.
“Max is close to him, but Reid would be the starter if we went out and played Cincinnati today,”Pittman said.
“…He’s got a strong leg. Right now, we’re trying to get him to punt it to a spot a little bit more consistently. But he can kick it 20 miles high. He’s got a strong leg. Right now, the biggest concern we have on him is outkicking our coverage.
“So, we’ve got to figure that out. We either have to get faster on our coverage team or cut him back a little bit.”
If Fletcher were to win the job, he would likely one match up against Mason Fletcher, his older brother and Cincinnati’s punter.
The Razorbacks and Bearcats, who were in last season’s College Football Playoffs, opened the season Sept. 3 at 2:30 p.m. inside Reynolds Razorback Stadium.
Their parents are expected to be in attendance.
“I think they’ve got a hell of a long travel,” Pittman said. “Isn’t that like a two day deal or something? I don’t know what that is. But I’ll be honest with you, I’ve never met ‘em. (We did) Zoom and things of that nature.
“It’ll be great to see ‘em, and we’ll see what Max does on that day. But I know his brother is good now and confident. We feel the same way about Max too, he just hasn’t been here as long as his brother has been at Cincinnati.
Eli Stein is heading up the deep snappers after Jordan Silver has moved on.
Wideout Bryce Stephens is likely the leader as a punt returner per Pittman.
“I think Bryce Stephens is a guy we all believe in,”Pittman said. “He could be a nice punt returner. (Wide receiver) Jadon Haselwood has done a nice job back there as well. (And Myles) Slusher.
“Kickoff return I like Day Day (LaDarrius Bishop) back there. Slusher is another guy I think would be good.”
One guy who is not going to one back there is lead running back Rocket Sanders.
“They threw Rocket’s name out to me and I threw it out. He’s not doing that. AJ Green is another guy I think with a year under his belt. We’ve just got to have a guy hit it.
(Freshman wideout) Isaiah Sategna is obviously one of those guys in punt and kickoff return we can look out as well.”