When Kiero Small went down early last fall, few realized the importance the senior fullback meant to the Arkansas offense.
Fullbacks are taken for granted by most, if not everyone, except coaches, tailbacks and quarterbacks.
Right behind Tyler Wilson, Small might have been as much the heart and soul of last year's Arkansas football team as anyone. Without him, Arkansas didn't have a third-and-1 play. There was no goal line offense. It all vanished in a broken leg in practice, a non-contact injury Small suffered after the first game.
The good news, Small had not used his redshirt season and could return. It's been love at first sight for all of the Arkansas coaches, including new running backs coach Joel Thomas. He saw video of Small even before he arrived at Arkansas and called his new fullback on Christmas night.
Small had some work to do when the new staff arrived. He was close to 260 pounds, too much for his 5-10 frame. He's around 245 now and might be at his playing weight. And it might be the ticket to get a few carries.
As they say, all a fullback wants is a few bones. Small may get a few bones if the goal line offense the Hogs trotted out for a few plays Saturday is any clue. Small was at fullback to block for Jonathan Williams and also at halfback to tote the rock a few times. Both plays looked effective. There hasn't been goal line success like that at Arkansas in a bit. There were four 4-yard TD plays.
Bielema loved talking about Small afterwards.
"First, he brings an attitude to our offense that you can't put a price tag on," Bielema said. "He plays extremely low to the ground. He's extremely powerful. He's got a big, big ass and in football that's a good thing. We put him in on the goal line last Saturday and gave it a cute little name, I think 21 bam or 22 bam, that's him and (Patrick) Arinze. Together they weigh as much as our right guard and right tackle. But he brings just a little something to us.
"Kiero made a nice play last saturday down on the goal line that just kinda woke everyone up. So we continue to grow that package, something I'm very excited about and he's very talented at it."
Bielema is an old linebacker coach. If there's anything that a linebacker coach can appreicate, it's a smashmouth fullback. Small is every bit of that.
Leadership is a key to any rebuilding process. This offense has two great leaders in center Travis Swanson and Small. Like any baseball team, coaches talk about being good up the middle. There is talent (but not depth) at running back with Williams behind Small, but the Hogs still need a comethrough from one of the quarterbacks, Brandon Allen or Brandon Mitchell.
It gets easier at quarterback if the offensive line comes around. It's too early to tell on that part. Swanson is the bell cow, but the protections and run blocking haven't meshed yet. It's clear that attitude is beginning to mesh. The line loves new coach Sam Pittman, who calls his group "my puppies." When they grow into attack dogs, the Hogs will have something to unleash on the SEC.
They need a few more like Kiero Small, with the big haunches. I don't see that with this offensive line group, yet. That's the goal this summer with Ben Herbert, develop more lower body strength with the O-line. When they match Small, the Hogs will be in business.
Those are the biggest take aways from the scrimmage, but it's probably good to look at other things and just paint the picture on what a Bielema scrimmage is like.
First, you have to understand that this was not a scrimmage where you put the ball down and play the game with first downs and a lot of continuity. They put the ball down over and over from the 37 and just ran plays. The down markers often didn't move. There were some sequences where it did, but it isn't a style of scrimmage that a lot of folks understand. It's completely situational.
What I take away was that Bielema will continue to recruit running backs. Right now, Williams is a quality SEC back. Small is a quality SEC fullback.
It appears there is some ability at wide receiver, too. The best of the group might be Demetrius Wilson. Nate Holmes brings some things in the ability to run screens and is getting stronger, but not is a back who is going to run through a lot of tackles. He did make some people miss, his greatest attribute. He muffed a couple of punts and will have to improve in that area of special teams.
Defensively, Robert Atiga has made some strides at linebacker. He is moving much better than he did last fall when it appeared he had tendinitis in both knees. He had an unreal collision with Patrick Arinze that is probably still bouncing around the Ozarks. Both players went down. There have not been many collisions like that from a linebacker in a bit. I would say Arinze might have won the battle, but he went down, too. And Atiga earned praise from his teammates before the next play.
Linebacker is still not the strength of this team. But they appear to be improving. I would give Randy Shannon some credit for the work he's done at the UA in the last three months.
Defensive line play appears to be solid. It's clear that Deatrich Wise has improved against the run. He's going to be a force. Robert Thomas had a good day. Darius Philon is a fine athlete who appears to have the ability to play end or tackle. DeMarcus Hodge is better than I imagined. Horace Arkadie can play tackle. I thought he was most likely an end when he got here. But he made a believer out of me today.
Offensive line play must improve. But that's the part that comes together late. It's not usually a place that excites anyone early in spring. Grady Ollison can play tackle. I watched him a lot today. He's so gifted that he can run with these defensive ends in pass sets. On outside stuff, he'll get to the edge and will hit someone. I can see why the coaches are excited about his move to right tackle.
Cornerback play did not excite in the scrimmage, but it wasn't bad. There just weren't a lot of situations to judge them. It appeared the passes were more designed to defeat safeties. There were some openings over the middle of the field, but not deep. It's clear they are not going to get beat deep in this scheme.
Someone compared this spring to Bobby Petrino's first spring and this team is far ahead of that point. There are more wide receivers and more defensive players. I can remember that the defense was all freshman by August. I don't think that will be the case this time. Michael Smith was the lone playmaker in that first spring. There were not many wideouts in that group and Rohan Gaines would have been a star in that group at safety.
The competition up front is pretty intense. They get after it. You can tell that pad level has gotten better on both sides of the ball. This is not the finished product, but I like where it's headed as far as the physical play up front.
Overall, it's still just nine practices into the spring and two scrimmages. There will be another one Saturday, then the spring game on April 20. But the good news is that the process is underway and Bret Bielema sounds excited.
State of the Hogs: Nothing Small
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