The new head football coach went through the positions with a broad brush, then got into detail on the winning aspects of what he's installing at Arkansas. It will come down to the little things.
The Hogs – taking next week off for spring break -- worked Sunday, Tuesday and Thursday inside Walker Pavilion. It was closed to the public and the media. Bielema explained that first.
"Wasn't trying to be punishing anybody by closing down the practice," he said. "I just really felt, for me as a first-time head coach, for my staff coming in the first time, for our players working with my staff, I just thought it was important for us to kind of get on the same page, let us have an understanding of who we are and what we are before we kind of let some people in.
"I do promise at some point in the four weeks after we get back from spring break to let the media in, see us in action, let us have an opportunity to see our guys work, see our guys interact with one another and have an opportunity to see what we've been building."
Bielema, working towards the April 20 spring game, expressed excitement at several points Friday.
"After three practices, couldn't be more excited," he said. "I guarantee you this. On Dec. 5 when I came in here and addressed the media and addressed the entire Razorback Nation, I was excited as a head coach, lot of unknowns, lot of things out there I didn't know about Arkansas, our program, our facilities, our players, our administration and the state of Arkansas. But I was excited and I can tell you that's probably multiplied by 1,000 since that time. I've just been encouraged by everything that's come across my desk in any way, shape or form.
"After three practices, first two days by NCAA rules, we have to be in just helmets only. The beautiful world of NCAA football. They decide to take away our pads at the beginning, which makes no sense to me but we have to abide by those rules. Really, try to use them as teaching periods. We had minimal contact between the offense and defense and special teams. It was more about just getting ourselves right on how we do a drill, how we prepare, how we execute the beginning, the start to every drill, how my coaches are going to interact with each other, how they're going to transition on the football field.
"Did a little bit of good on good those first two days, but yesterday was the first day in big-boy pads. We were in full pads, head to toe. Kids got excited, our coaches got excited, everything kind of got amplified by quite a bit; got a little bit sloppy in the details but he effort, the enthusiasm, the intensity was unwavering.
"That part I know is true. I've told our coaches three things: First is our players are very open to coaching, so be careful what you tell them. Make sure you tell them exactly what you want and how you want it to be executed because they're listening to everything you're saying. Second thing is, we have a group of players who are very hungry, so feed them on a daily basis, make sure that they improve and get better from day to day and we'll get a chance to be great at the end."
Bielema did get into specific areas, but he said the overall talent level is good.
" I think we have a group of players that are very talented.," he said. "Certain positions are better than others, but as a group we have a talented football team that we want to make sure that we allow them to play as fast and physical as possible. We don't want to slow them down by verbage, we don't want to slow them down by making them think too much or talk too much.
"That's a little bit of where we're at. I know you're going to ask specifically by positions."
He didn't wait for those questions.
"I think there's no doubt that on offense the key is who is going to be our trigger puller," he said. "I think Bandon Allen, Brandon Mitchell both have shown that they've kind of been little bit ahead of the curve.
"As far as the other guys that are involved, I would say this that A.J. Derby has shown some things that he's definitely a guy that can manage a game. He's been in that position and continued to impress us .. He's a thirsty kid, always eager to learn. Taylor Reed and Brian Buehner both show flashes at times. You know, obviously, Reed has played at a college level before, Buehner hasn't. And then, I would say those five guys, the more reps we can get them as move through spring ball, the better off we're going to be, especially the top two, Brandon Allen and Brandon Mitchell."
Bielema continued on his position breakdowns.
"Offensive line," he said, "that's a group that works very, very diligent, has really taken to coach Pittman and all the things he brings to it. Has had some dramatic changes in body types there with what coach Herbs has been able to do to them and how they've been able to transform.
"They have all been very impressive in their work ethic, everything that goes with it. Trying to find our top 5 guys and who will fit in there.
"The tight end position, I think we haven't had a huge emphasis on this prior to our staff arriving, but we've got a group of guys with Mitchell Loewen, Alex Voelzke, Jeremy Sprinkle that I think are going to give us a chance to have success. And then we obviously have a freshman, Hunter Henry, coming in there. Demetrius Dean, we might move to the fullback position, we've tried him a little bit there. And see what he can do behind Kiero Small.
"Wide receiver, I'd say the top three guys, Demetrius Wilson, Javontee Herndon and Cornell Hatcher, have been very, very impressive. Great work ethic, great attitude. Julian Horton, D'Arthur Cowan, MeKale McKay, Hawkins, those guys have got some ability. We've just got to keep bringing them along.
"Running back, Jonathan Williams has been very impressive. One of the first kids to come into my office and sit down and visit. Really like the way he approaches the game, his mentality and everything else. Nate Holmes is probably one of the more explosive players I've ever been around in my coaching career. Very dynamic, explosive player and then actually Kody Walker has gotten quite a few reps and welcomed him back.
"Obviously, he had a traumatic injury. We did change his mojo a little bit, switched him from No. 40 to 24 and let him have a change of venue there and excited about that. Kiero Small, if there's one guy that has been a champion for me in every way, shape or form in everything we've asked him to do, it's Kiero Small from being the best recruiting host in December and January to being a physical specimen that transformed his body, lost almost 20 pounds from last fall to where he is today in 8 weeks with coach Herbert. There's some before and after photos, I'm not going to show you, he might ... I'm not going to put them out there, but some pretty impressive transition with him.
"Defensively, it all starts up front just like it does on the offensive side of the ball. It has to start up front, o-line, d-line. I think our front four, Trey Flowers, Byran Jones, Robert Thomas and Chris Smith are very, very explosive, very gifted, very hungry, very eager. Have bought into what coach (Charlie) Partridge is preaching on a daily basis. A lot of guys can fill in, Deatrich Wise, Darrell Kelly-Thomas, Horace Arkadie, DeMarcus Hodge, all those kids giving up some depth.
"At linebacker, probably have the biggest amount of area to grow. Right now, Jarrett Lake has been a nice surprise for us, a guy that really has come on. Daunte Carr, Otha Peters, a guy we're using at the mike linebacker, Mike Tavarres and A.J. Turner at the Will, but we're going to start to move some guys around in there, just to kind of get a little better feel.
"And then on the back end, 2 safeties in Rohan Gaines and Eric Bennett have been impressive football IQ wise. Both have played a lot of football and are going to get better every snap. I think between Tevin Mitchell, Will Hines, maybe a little bit of Carroll Washington, those three guys at the corner spot. Davyon McKinney is great effort player, might actually look at a possible transition to some safety with him as well, but a little bit of a work in progress."
Kicking game, the only thing we've worked on is PAT field goal. Hocker has been the most steady performer, probably there. And then we have been hitting punts, but its' mainly been on protection, it hasn't been on the actual hitting of the punt game.
Where does Bielema want the quarterbacks by the end of spring?
"I think if we get better every day," he said. "Everybody wants to jump to the end of spring. I've got to get better every day. If our players buy into that, then I'm going to be OK. Obviously I'd love to have a first-team SEC quarterback - at every position - or SEC quarterback, first-team SEC lineman, linebacker, DB. But the reality is you have to work with where you have and where you're at and I'm not saying that someone won't emerge out of that group.
"Three things that are important to me at quarterback play are: How to manage the game. You know, be able to handle the huddle, handle the comm., handle the snap, just do the things that quarterbacks, by given right, should be able to do. The second thing is be able to execute the play. So, we've got a five-yard dig, he's got to be able to execute it. He's got an outside handoff, he's got to be able to execute it. We've got a bootleg to our right, he's got to be able to execute it. Whatever the play design is, he's got to be able to execute it. The third thing and most prevalent to me, and you're not going to find this in practice three, four five. Hopefully over the course of 15 we'll get an indicator. But a QB needs to be triumphant in the most difficult times. If you want a championship level team, he's got to be at his best when everybody else is at their worst. And that truly defines a quarterback.
Bielema said he had no advance perceptions of players because he didn't watch individual film before practice began.
"You know, to be quite honest, I really refrained," he said. "I learned this in my profession, as I transitioned from other jobs and I haven't done it very often. When I became a coordinator at Kansas State I didn't watch a stitch of film of the prior year just because I didn't want to have any preconceived notions, negatively or positively about a player that I didn't know.
"I watched a little bit of film just to watch SEC play. I was intrigued by it, to learn the game a little bit. To be quite honest, I watched a lot of SEC vs. SEC that didn't involve us. Just because I wanted - you know I watched Alabama vs. LSU. I watched a lot of good football. And the reason I do that is because I want, I really do believe that first impressions last a lifetime. I'm a big believer in that saying. I didn't want my first impressions to be anything other than the truth.
"So I didn't watch a lot of film on our guys until we had a chance to work with them on a daily basis in winter drills. so we did skills and drills where there was no football. There was no dummy. There were no pads. It was just about how do they move? How do they react to coaching? Do they resist or do they accept? So that was really big for me. Then obviously through these first three days, the kids will probably even tell you I've become a little more vocal with each practice, because I didn't want to jump all over the kid on the first day if that really wasn't what he was. I understand kids were going to be nervous, excited, anxious. As I get to know them, they'll get to know me. I think that part has been fun.
Did Bielema see any dramatic changes in offensive linemen builds?
"Yeah, for instance, different guys kind of, they may not have maybe changed their weight all that much, but they might have transformed their weight," he said. "I would take David Hurd for instance. The first time he came in and sat in my office and I found out he was a starter, physically he wasn't what you would probably think at that point. But know, he looks a little bit like a player. You know, looks like a tackle, acts like a tackle, walks like a tackle, talks like a tackle. So we're beginning to take baby steps in the right direction. I think Cordale Boyd, from a kid that didm' play to where he's at through the first three practices, is very intriguing.
"I think Travis Swanson, if he's not going to be the best center in college football, I'd like to see. I've had a couple of good centers where I was at. Got one that's leaving out early in the draft two years in a row that'll be I think. My center two years ago left early in the draft was a second round. This kid this year, that I just left, I think will as well. And Travis is right there and might be a little bit taller and a little bit longer, which gives him a chance even higher."
How much does a QB play a role in what you're going to do and how they interact with their teammates?
"Huge, I think the quarterback, obviously, for what you can say, you know, he is the field general of your offense.," Bielema said. "That's the way it has to be done, I believe. Your quarterback and your linebackers on defense have to be able to get things right out there on the field when the coaches aren't around. As they have more and more comfort... I thought Jim did a really nice job.
"We backed off our install a little bit to just to get our guys a little comfortable in what they're doing. As a head coach, my philosophy is that we will be really, really good at fewer things as opposed to trying to be mediocre at a lot of things. That's just what I believe in. Try to be great at a few things, don't be mediocre at a bunch. At quarterback, that has to be the overriding philosophy.
How are the JUCO guys doing?
"Jonathan McClure has exceeded our expectations," Bielema said. "He's trimmed his weight down, I think he has lost about 15 pounds -- actually has lost about 15 and put 5 on, so he's down 10 overall. He looks really, really positive in that regard.
"We signed, obviously, a corner in Carroll Washington that is running with the twos. He shows some flashes and he has put on 16 pounds, but the bad news was he weighed 164 pounds whenever we signed him. He's beginning to enter the college level as far as physical weight and the ability to do things.
"TQ Coleman is a safety that has one speed and that's 100 mph. He's running with the twos at strong safety. He's probably the hardest working guy out there amongst the defensive backs and has a lot of talent.
"Myke Tavarres is by far our most athletic linebacker. He's just raw. He hasn't sat down and learned the fundamentals, but Randy has done a great job with him and bringing him along. All the coaches have and their individual meeting time with our juco kids has been very important.
"Then the other guy, A.J. Derby who is a walk-on junior college player, has been a nice surprise, as well.
How do you split time with five quarterbacks in the spring.
"It's not going to be evenly distributed as we move forward," he said. "It kind of has through day three, but now we have to start getting into who our top three guys are and let them work. The ones are always going to get the primary rep and you can split that between the quarterbacks until we get it right. I think you can find it pretty easy and obviously Jim would have the final say, me to a certain extent, but I'll listen to him, I think it's easy to let two quarterbacks get equal reps in the spring and let the third get a fair share, but it is very difficult to get more after that.
Bielema talks a lot about big-boy football. How does he get there with this team?
"It is a process... I don't think you can tap someone on the head to make them go play physical.," he said. "You have to teach them on a daily basis what that means. As coaches we even just discussed this morning that yesterday we went through a high-intensity, full-padded practice for over two hours and as a result of that, some of our players started to break down and wear down. A, we have to push them through that barrier, but at the same time as coaches, we can't put our head in the sand and act like we're not oblivious to what's going gone around us.
"We have to gradually build this into where we want it to be. I told our guys this the other day, I'm not going to necessarily say we're the most talented football team on the field every game next year but I'll guarantee you this: our effort and our coaching technique will try to prepare you to be the most physical team on the field every day in the fall. That's not talent-driven, that's want-to-driven. I think our players our beginning to understand that.
Does he have a feel for defensive talent?
"I can't make a SEC comment, but what I know is good football," Bielema said. "What I can see is guys that can play. I don't think we are deficient in any area, but do we want to be deeper? Absolutely. Do we want more or want better? Absolutely. But that is our job as coaches to make them better and as recruiters to recruit better."
Has Bielema spotted leadership?
"I still think it's a little bit early for that, I think our kids are trying to get a feel for what they are and who they are," he said. "Two guys that jump out to me up front are Byran Jones and Chris Smith... Byran came up to me yesterday when we were wrapping up with practice, we had the threes in and he wanted to know right away what we could do better as a defense. He's an engaging... He comes to my office with thoughts and ideas. I'm really intrigued by that and I think he has natural leadership qualities.
"Offensively, you'll see personality come out. Two main positions, Jonathan Williams and the quarterback, whoever it is, have had minimal playing experience, so that really comes as you play more.
"A guy I've said, Sam Pittman and Jim Chaney all of our offensive coaches have made the comment on, Travis Swanson is as good of a natural-born leader on the offensive line as anyone I've ever seen.
Does Bielema expect to have everything installed by the end of spring?
"No, absolutely not," Bielema said. "We've got an install plan through practice number six that's already been delayed. We are just going to get good at what we know wins.
"As we move through the process, we'll get some nuances in there. If we find a player that we think can do something better than another player at a certain skill level, we'll definitely want to add that.
"We are not going to push the envelope to try to put in a playbook that doesn't need to be used until the first game. Again, I told our coaches at the beginning, if you ever want to get a feel from where I'm coming from, just understand slow it down and make it great. Don't hurry and make it average. Slow it down and make it great.
"I used that philosophy in finding a wife and carried the same thing football wise."
Are you moving guys around at linebacker and where are they coming from?
"I'm talking about really kind of is Mike Tavarres better at will or sam?" Bielema said. "Is Jarrett Lake better at a sam or a will? That is defined a little bit by Randy Shannon and Chris Ash, how do we fit them in.
"For instance, during my seven years at Wisconsin, some years we played a field and boundary backer. Some years we played a sam and a will. Really, those two are independent of one another finding out the skill sets. Then the mike (linebacker) is a guy who has to take directions in the middle both ways.
"There are two linebackers not on campus. First, Martrell Spaight is a junior college player. Quite honestly, I don't want to put out expectations that I don't think are realistic. But everything I've learned and witnessed and seen from Brooks Ellis, a young man who is coming in as a true freshman, indicates he might can give us some help as well."
From the top two quarterbacks, Brandon Allen and Brandon Mitchell, what have you seen that they are doing right?
"Both of them are a little bit different," Bielema said. "Bandon Allen has thrown the deep ball very nice. He's engaged, he understands it, he's a football kid. Obviously, his dad is a coach and all that goes into it. That part is very evident.
"Brandon Mitchell is a tremendous competitor. The kids really respond to him. He's got a live arm at certain throws. He's reverted back and called a play by the old system and everyone looks like he's got three heads.
"If there is one thing that I would get across to our quarterbacks in general is that I need to have an urgency out of them to become great. If the quarterback position is not a junkie, if he's not a guy is begging on your door every day to be learning, we are not going to get where we need to be. At that particular position in general, we need a whole lot of urgency."
Demetrius Dean was mentioned as a possible fullback. He's at 270. Can he play at that weight?
"No, he's going to have to trim that down," Bielema said. "Obviously, he put on a little bit of weight since Fayetteville High. One thing he is, he's very gifted. Athletically, he's talented with his hands. He catches the ball as good as anybody.
"What we are going to try to do offensively with the tight end position, he just can't do those things as well as he could at the fullback position.
"Kiero Small is really the only one we have there (at fullback). I know Morgan Linton is there, but he has to lose weight and get his body right to play championship football. To get a guy in there physically that can get done what he needs to get done, it's going to be a lot about how much Demetrius can take on in a short amount of time."
Are the Saturday practices going to be scrimmages? Also, how much do you like to get real physical in terms of tackling to the ground?
"The NCAA does limit you in that regard," he said. "Only a certain number of practices can be dedicated to full contact scrimmages and take them to the ground. The way I see Saturdays now – and I can change my mind – but what I'd love to do is maybe a 25 to 35 play practice where we are doing an inside drills and a skelly drill where we are getting tempo and communication, then anywhere from a 40 to 60-play scrimmage where we are taking people to the ground and playing tackle football.
"We'll limit the amount of cutting that goes on at different positions. A lot of it depends on the health of our running backs, obviously. I do like practices that engage in both.
"We'll have officials out there. One of the first things I've emphasized if you've watched one of our practices, if you have a pre-snap penalty in any shape or form, you are removed from the contest, from that play. You have to do a certain amount of physical repercussions and you have to sit out an entire play before you are put back in. It's just a way to ingrain.
"I've said this a couple of times on the chicken leg circuit, as a football team, there are more games that are lost on any given Saturday than are won. Teams don't learn how not to beat themselves. They commit offsides, pre-snap penalties, time on the clock, lined up off sides, illegal formations. They take away before the play is even started.
"For a football team that wants to win championships, that would never be acceptable. They give up free turnovers, they fumble the ball because of loose ball security, they throw an interception on first down, which is unacceptable. The defense drops a quick, easy interception, they miss a ball that is on the ground.
"That means a lot of little things that are very detailed, but are the biggest things when it comes to winning."
Are there any other position switches?
"We just met as a staff and it's the first time we've gone through the depth chart, A to Z," Bielema said. "There's going to be a couple of kids we are going to talk to. It could be as simple as moving from corner to safety, safety to linebacker. We could be moving tackle to guard, center to guard, all of that stuff. There's nothing drastic as far as moving opposite sides of the ball.
"At the end of spring, I might do that. As of right now, no."
How is the health of the team?
"Overall, it's very, very positive," he said, knocking on wood. "There is nothing that should cause anybody extended amount of time. Austin Tate had a shoulder surgery after the season. He has yet to be cleared, full go. Kody Walker, you obviously know of his issue. He's not 100 percent full go. Those are the only two guys who are as of right now limited in any shape or form."