There was some thought that Bret Bielema's decision to close spring football had something to do with holding down expectations. He didn't do a good job of throwing water on the smoldering fire that is Arkansas football expectations with his first visit with the media following three spring workouts.
No, Bielema was mainly positive with all of his thoughts on his first Arkansas football team after the first three practices. Eight days ago when Bielema spoke about his team, about one third of the way through that 30-minute media briefing, the new Arkansas head coach said the magic word, talent. He saw it on the field when he coached his first SEC team.
"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."
The key will be how talented are these 2013 Razorbacks up front, on both sides of the ball. That's the key to playing Big Boy Football, Bielema's goal. How long will it take him to get the Hogs to the point that they can win the battles up front on a consistent basis to grind down opponents the way some of Bielema's Wisconsin teams did over the last few seasons on the way to three Big Ten titles?
One of Bielema's thoughts in leaving Wisconsin for Arkansas was the salary pool to hire and keep quality assistant coaches. He spent $1.2 million for coordinators Jim Chaney (offense) and Chris Ash (defense.) And there was another large chunk for line coaches Sam Pittman (offense) and Charlie Partridge (defense).
Most focus on the coordinators, but under value the worth of Pittman and Partridge, both as recruiters and quality line coaches. Pittman already endeared himself to his head coach and new fans with his decision to stay at Arkansas despite a nice offer from Nick Saban to coach the Alabama offensive line, perhaps stocked with better players than he inherited at Arkansas.
That decision might be the most important thing that's happened in the last three months in the Bielema era. The word is that it took only 15 minutes for Bielema to find Jeff Long, his athletic diretor, and get the counter offer to solidify Pittman's decision to stay. Pittman told his head coach that he didn't want to leave Arkansas and Bielema made sure it was an easier decision with more money.
Part of the decision, assistants like to work for Bielema. He's active in recruiting. He'll help close the deal. Pittman said it's much like working for Butch Davis, his boss for four seasons at North Carolina. He said Davis was good in recruiting, too.
Pittman's job is to find four offensive linemen to go with his bell cow, center Travis Swanson. The only one that's been mentioned as a possible starter by Bielema so far this spring is left tackle David Hurd, a former walk-on who has solidified his status at left tackle by reshaping his body in Ben Herbert's strength and conditioning program.
If Swanson and Hurd are ahead at center and left tackle, respectively, who is going to man the other tackle spot and the two guards. The holdover with the most experience is junior tackle Brey Cook. But he's not been mentioned by Bielema or Herbert, perhaps because no one has asked any questions that specific. Bielema and Herbert have mentioned good things about junior college transfer Johnathan McClure. Herbert also raved about redshirt freshman Cordale Boyd.
Bielema said Hurd looks like a tackle, walks like a tackle and talks like a tackle. He called Boyd's first three practices "very intriguing."
There is more definition to the defensive front. Bielema sees leadership, ability and depth.
"Defensively, it all starts up front just like it does on the offensive side of the ball," he said. "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."
Partridge will coach the entire defensive front, a change in what Bobby Petrino did with his staff. It's a large group, something Bielema considered when he asked Long to tweak the meeting room size for the defensive front to account for Partridge's group.
Ash insists that it's the key to his defense, having one man coach the front. He said they must know each other's moves and that cohesiveness is best attained by combining them under one coach.
If you want to see that illustrated, Google Chris Ash on-line and look for a cache of coaching videos released several years ago that show his Wisconsin defenses in practice. You can watch the first five minutes of a handful of defensive videos. Ash stands in front of a video board, breaking down movements and scheme. It's clear that the key is the quick movement of the front, followed by a clean look for the linebackers moving fast from their keys.
Ash doesn't do a lot of up-front stunting, instead relying on one man to a gap and nothing fancy. Well, it's fancy when you see everyone move in unison and make plays. It's clear that Ash and Partridge work in unison, too. This is their fourth school to work together and they know each other like the back of your hand.
Back to the original thought in this column, that there is talent left for Bielema to mold. I believe that's the reason he wanted to be in the SEC, along with the high salary pool for assistants. He was obviously tired of changing coaches each season. He also wanted to see what he could do with SEC talent. If he could win in Madison, what could he do with more speed and ability in the south?
I believe the Arkansas talent has been confirmed to him through the early practices. That doesn't mean the offensive line is ready to roll. It also doesn't mean that there is enough ability at linebacker. When Bielema went through the linebackers, it was clear he thinks 2013 signees Martrell Spaight and Brooks Ellis will help when they arrive this summer.
Spaight is a junior college signee and Ellis is one of the three Fayetteville High products. Juco transfer Myke Taverres has impressed this winter as far as speed and ability. Those three linebackers are probably going to have to play.
Bielema said new linebackers coach Randy Shannon has already made progress in his area, but that's still perhaps the group that will get more attention in recruiting. That will happen, too. Bielema played nose tackle at Iowa, but he was a linebacker coach at Iowa, Kansas State and Wisconsin before Barry Alvarez tabbed him as head coach at age 35. Once a linebacker coach, always a linebacker coach.
Hayden Fry, Bielema's mentor, refers to him as a linebacker coach. That's why Fry thinks Bielema favors comparably to Wilson Matthews, one of the great Arkansas linebacker coaches. He said he is tough on players, but they love him.
"On the field, he coaches them hard," Fry said of Bielema. "But it's like players were with Wilson Matthews. He loved on them off the field. And when players came back after they were done, they always came to find Wilson. They said he was the coach that taught them how to win. That's how it is with Bielema."
That's the job right now, coach 'em hard. That's perhaps the reason practices are closed to the media, more than holding down expectations. They weren't closed back in the Matthews era of Arkansas. But not many went to practice. And there were no cell phones, no Internet websites. Players communicated to home via the written word, a letter. Phone calls were paid for by the minute.
Tommy Brasher, Andy Reid's defensive line coach at Kansas City, was a linebacker for Matthews. He said he didn't complain to his father at home for how tough it was because the alternative was worse. He'd have to be a common laborer in the El Dorado oil fields back home. That was tougher.
So Bielema has eliminated distractions for most of his first spring. There will be daily visits with the media from coaches and players beginning Tuesday when the Hogs get back to work after one week off for spring break. The media will see the Saturday scrimmages and the everyone will be allowed in for the Red-White game at 2 p.m. on April 20.
By then one of the big questions might be answered, the starting quarterback. Until then, maybe it's too early to have too many expectations about the 2013 Razorbacks. I've found it dangerous to expect too much when there is going to be a change at quarterback.
Most of the good teams around the SEC know plenty about their quarterbacks right now. Tyler Wilson is gone at Arkansas, but Johnny Manziel at Texas A&M, A. J. McCarron at Alabama, Connor Shaw at South Carolina and Jeff Driskel at Florida give you an idea of what Bielema is competing with in the murder's row that is the heart of the Arkansas schedule.
When you look through that list, it gives you an idea of what expectations should be for 2013. Bielema has an answer for that when he meets with Razorback Clubs. All of those guys have to play Arkansas, too.
Bielema has seen enough of Arkansas talent not to be afraid. He's more excited than ever.
"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."
It's taking shape. We are going to see what multiplication in the thousands looks like in the next few weeks.
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