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Arkansas eyeing 'fast start' in season opener against Western Carolina

Recent history at War Memorial Stadium hasn't been kind to the Razorbacks, but that could change Saturday against Western Carolina.

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — Arkansas kicks off the 2023-24 football season against Western Carolina on Saturday at War Memorial Stadium in Little Rock.

The Razorbacks hold a commanding 152-60-4 record at War Memorial Stadium, dating back to 1946. In the last 10 years, it has been a different story. They are 4-6 in Little Rock in that timespan, with the most recent victory coming in 2021 against the University of Arkansas Pine Bluff.

Arkansas head coach Sam Pittman said season openers are always nerve-wracking, especially since it's the first-ever meeting between the Hogs and Catamounts.

“First games are always scary,” Pittman said. “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.”

Western Carolina, a member of the Southern Conference, is led by head coach Kerwin Bell, who is entering his third season. Last year, Bell coached Western Carolina to a 6-5 overall record and a fifth-place conference finish.

The Catamounts ranked No. 6 in the FCS in total offense last year, racking up a program single-season record of 5,339 yards.

“They’re scary on offense,” Pittman said.” They also have a really good defense, but on offense, they’ve set records… they like to throw that bubble and run that stretch play. They’re good at it.”

Arkansas must contain sophomore running back Desmond Reid to avoid an upset. Reid was the 2022 SoCon freshman of the year after racking up 869 rushing yards on 119 carries with four touchdowns.

While Reid is also a threat in the passing game, securing 10 catches for 212 yards and one touchdown last season, Western Carolina is returning two of its best wide receivers from a year ago.

Senior wide receiver David White Jr. and sophomore wide receiver Censere Lee combined for 1,018 yards and 11 touchdowns on 56 catches in 2022.

"Offensively, they do a lot of things that are a concern to us," Pittman said. "Kerwin and Cade Bell do a wonderful job with that team... their wideouts and running back are very explosive."

Although Pittman alluded to the unknown that comes with a new season, it's no secret what fuels the Razorbacks on offense.

Arkansas redshirt senior quarterback KJ Jefferson is entering his third season as the Razorbacks' full-time starter. He is the first Arkansas signal caller to earn preseason All-SEC honors since 2012.

Jefferson currently sits in the top 10 of seven career statistical categories in the school's record book:

  • No. 3 in 300-yard passing games (5)
  • No. 4 in touchdown responsibility (67)
  • No. 5 in total yards (7,245)
  • No. 6 in touchdown passes (48)
  • No. 6 in total plays (1,028)
  • No. 7 in completions (436)
  • No. 7 in total yards (5,816)

"Just start fast," Jefferson said. "Try not to let them gain momentum and build confidence, knowing they can play around with us and be in the game. Try to kill that hope early and jump on them quickly."

Next to Jefferson is junior running back Raheim Sanders, a playmaker that every opponent will gameplan around, including Western Carolina.

Sanders is looking to build off a monster 2022 campaign where he finished second in the SEC with 1,443 rushing yards, fourth most in a single season in school history.

That wouldn't have been possible without the big boys on the offensive line, which has some fresh faces this season after the departure of multiple-year starters center Ricky Stromberg and right tackle Dalton Wagner.

Redshirt junior Joshua Braun, redshirt freshman Andrew Chamblee, redshirt freshman E'Marion Harris, sophomore Patrick Kutas and redshirt sophomore Devon Manuel will join returners redshirt senior Brady Latham, redshirt senior Beaux Limmer and senior Ty'kieast Crawford in the trenches, all tasked with handling a Catamount defensive front that finished No. 11 in the FCS in sacks per game (2.91) last year.

"There's a kid named Michah Nelson who's a boundary end and a really good player," Pittman said. "They have a nickel that's a good player. Defensively, they've got a free safety that's returning. They have six starters returning on defense and six on offense."

Coverage from War Memorial Stadium begins at noon on SEC+ and ESPN+.

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