Preseason View Of Arkansas
It didn't take long for Arkansas players to realize that things were different under new football coach Bret Bielema. All they had to do was look at the first few practice schedules this spring. That early 30-minute period of inside run told the story.
The pass was the thing under Bobby Petrino, but it's the power run that Bielema will emphasize and one fourth of each practice dedicated to smashmouth told the story. The new coach admits that the Hogs may not have all the pieces of the puzzle next year to do it exactly the way he did at Wisconsin.
"We will have to throw it a little more next year," Bielema said, noting that's what the returning personnel with quarterback Brandon Allen and receivers Demetrius Wilson, MeKale McKay, Julian Horton, Keon Hatcher, Jevontee Herndon and D'Arthur Cowan are best equipped to handle.
But that didn't stop Bielema from changing the culture and pushing a downhill mentality with the running game with backs Jonathan Williams, Nate Holmes, Kody Walker, Kiero Small and Patrick Arinze.
The results are two-fold: 1, the offensive line developed some punch, and, 2, the defensive line learned to stop the run. Those 30-minute inside run periods helped the Razorbacks on both sides of the ball.
The other thing Bielema emphasized appeared to take hold more quickly this spring. Pre-snap penalties all but disappeared by the spring game. Turnovers were hard to find in the three scrimmages, especially with the first unit as operated by Allen. That's the big reason he won the battle with senior Brandon Mitchell for the quarterback job.
There were no fumbles in 56 running plays. The ball never touched the ground, something that he mentioned as he went to the microphone for his post-game media briefing. A media relations intern dropped a digital recorder at Bielema's feet and the coach said, "That's the first one today and it's on you guys."
The Hogs have plenty of experience, but they are rebuilding in the backfield where they lost significant playmakers in quarterback Tyler Wilson, wideout Cobi Hamilton and running backs Knile Davis, Dennis Johnson and Ronnie Wingo.
The line had to be retooled, but center Travis Swanson is an all-conference type starting for the fourth season. Brey Cook moved from tackle to guard with good results. David Hurd returns at tackle. A big find in the spring was Grady Ollison at right tackle, athletic but a bit undersized. Bielema wants Ollison to gain from 280 to 300 in the summer.
Defensive was a weakness in the Petrino years, but it seemed to improve under new coordinator Chris Ash and top assistants Randy Shannon (linebacker) and Charlie Partridge (line). The front four is the strength of the team with returning starters Chris Smith and Trey Flowers at end and Byron Jones and Robert Thomas at tackle.
Safeties Eric Bennett and Alan Turner impressed Ash throughout the spring. He said he'd been told they were often beaten in 2012, but he said they played "great" in the spring and were almost flawless in tackling and alignment.
Linebacker was a revolving door in the spring as Shannon tried all hands on deck at all three slots trying to find the right fit. The spring finished with Daunte Carr in the middle, Jarrett Lake at weak and Braylon Mitchell at strong. Carr is a converted safety who was mostly injured his first two UA seasons. Lake and Mitchell were mainly special teams regulars. Lake did play in nickel schemes.
No one expects the Hogs to challenge for the SEC West in Bielema's first year. They have a murderer's row in the middle of the schedule with Texas A&M, Florida, South Carolina and Alabama in consecutive games.
Bielema has a stock answer when that stretch comes up at booster club meetings. The new coach repeats, "They all have to play us, too."
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