If they are playing a football game, it's time to do another Top 10 Things to Watch. That's been the most fun thing I've written for about the last 10 seasons. No use changing that now.
The first thing we'll say, Bret Bielema's first team is not a Top 10 team and maybe not a top 25 team. No one who has seen the three practices open to the media (one open to the public) so far this spring would say that. When you completely change a staff -- only one holdover and Taver Johnson is coaching corners instead of linebackers -- and put in a new quarterback, there is going to be an implementation dip.
Implementation dip? That's what they call it in education when a new system comes into the equation. You slide back a little, but the long-term gains are significant. The big questions is how long does it take for the implementation rise to hit.
This team may already be on the rise. That's what the players and coaches think. But it's unfair to think it's a team with enough SEC depth and overall talent -- most notably at linebacker and the offensive line -- to say it's going to win more than five, six or seven games against one of the toughest schedules ever given an Arkansas team.
There is immediate help in the incoming class, but one of the things you notice about newcomers is what happened to the junior college transfers that were added at midterm. None are on the first team right now. John McClure, TQ Coleman, Myke Tavarres and Carroll Washington are all contending for roles in the second team. But they have not pushed for first-team status.
Among those expected to contend for time in the fall not on campus -- but expected in another month -- are linebackers Brooks Ellis and Martrell Spaight, running back Alex Collins and offensive linemen Denver Kirkland, Dan Skipper and Reeve Koehler.
The biggest things that were changed this spring was the overall culture of the team and the nature of the practice, including the way it's broken into segments. Without question, attention to ball security, penalties and just overall details were handled early. A pre-snap penalty resulted in immediate suspension for one play while some physical punishment (up downs) took place. Pad level was addressed at all positions on both sides of the ball.
We'll move into our Top 10 with all of that in mind. Here are some nuggets of what to expect when the Red-White game is played at 2 p.m. Saturday at Reynolds Razorback Stadium:
1. The Game
And it's going to be a game, sort of. Bielema decided he wanted a bit of a treat, so he abandoned the idea of letting the first team whip on the second team, the usual fare for spring games around the country. The difference between ones and twos is significant at Arkansas right now, one of the big problems. A ones versus twos game would give the wrong impression of where the Hogs are right now. It would be a big blowout. Bielema didn't want that.
So he'll play ones vs. ones for the first half, then bring on twos and threes as the game progresses after halftime. There will be a few "kicking duels" with points going to the defense. Bielema is hopeful that this actually lifts the defense ahead on the scoreboard and challenges the offense to play catchup in the fourth quarter.
2. Quarterback Play
Brandon Allen has forged ahead in the battle with Brandon Mitchell in the big race this spring. Quarterback play is the most important spot on the field. Allen has been the clear the leader in the last week, although Bielema does not seem ready to name a starter. Allen said it wouldn't matter if he did because the sophomore from Fayetteville expects the competition to continue throughout the summer and fall. Allen seems the better quarterback in the deep passing game. He sparkled in that area in the last week, most notably in Saturday's pass game work when he hit Javontee Herndon on a series of deep passes. Coordinator Jim Chaney praised Allen, noting the passing game finally was recognizable in the last week. Mitchell has had some positives, too, but there have also been mistakes. Quarterbacks have not been tackled this spring and are expected to wear green jerseys in the spring game.
Without doubt the message Bielema brought with him from Wisconsin was in regard to toughness and physical play. Every practice this spring has featured a 30-miniute period on inside run. As linemen have said over and over after practice, this "is where we live. That's our thing now." Inside running has been featured in every scrimmage. Line coach Sam Pittman said there was little doubt that the Hogs wanted to develop a power play, sending three blockers through the "A" gap. The Hogs have always run through "The A" to start a game. They are also going to run through the "A" gap each game. Count on that. Fullback Kiero Small will be one to watch. He's a wreck looking for a place to happen in the inside run game. If you watch him, you'll see the ball show up soon afterwards.
The Hogs have struggled at linebacker for several years. The best of recent yeas was Jerry Franklin. He was an outside linebacker playing in the middle. The Hogs are working to correct that. The three starters in the spring game were not every week starters at those positions last year. Jarrett Lake and Braylon Mitchell were regulars on special teams, but they did not start always at outside linebacker. Lake was on the field in nickel back situations, sometimes getting 30 plays a game. They are the outside linebackers with the one base defense now. But the real story is Daunte Carr, a converted safety, now with the ones at mike linebacker, ahead of Robert Atiga, Austin Jones and Otha Peters. Jones and Peters are also playing outside linebacker as coach Randy Shannon shuffles the deck constantly trying to find the best combinations. Defensive coordinator Chris Ash said Carr appeared the best equipped physically in winter workouts to play in the middle, so the move was made. It's worked so far, but Carr still has a ways to go to be considered a stud SEC mike linebacker. Check him out Saturday. The first offense is sure to run some plays at him, through the "A" gap. Can he hold up?
5. Offensive line
I can't believe I put four thoughts ahead of the offensive line. But that may indicate the overall depth of this particular top 10. There are lots of things to watch Saturday. The offensive line is clearly one of them. This is an area that was probably furthest away from what Bielema did at Wisconsin. They did not play smashmouth at Arkansas in the last five years. Soft was a better description, in comparison to Bielema's style. So the work began at the start of the semester in the weight room to transform the legs of the O-line into run blocking bull dozers. The job is not done, but progress has been made. Bielema said the line has come the furthest this spring. It sill has a long ways to go. Travis Swanson is the bell cow. David Hurd was thought to be next best, but he hurt a knee two weeks ago and is still out. The idea is to play physical. The best way to watch offensive linemen is to tape the game and then use your DVR to go player by player. You'll learn something if you take the time to watch in that detail. Pay particular attention to the battles in the middle with Travis Swanson, Brey Cook and Mitch Smothers against defensive tackles Byron Jones, Robert Thomas and DeMarcus Hodge. Those should be some collisions.
Bielema stresses not beating yourself with pre-snap penalties, turnovers and mental errors. Sometimes it's hard to know what proper alignment should be at wideout, secondary and in the defensive front. But these are the places where improvement has been made this spring. As defensive end Chris Smith said Thursday, "We don't have a lot of plays, a lot of calls. So we should be able to get them right. That's what this style is all about. Less movement, fewer techniques. It helps us play faster." There were too many penalties early, but they've disappeared of late, according to everyone at practice. Officials are there daily to call the penalties. By their own admission, they have had less work lately.
Secondary coach Chris Ash said safeties Eric Bennett and Rohan Gaines have been "great" this spring. I guess I'll have to see it on a consistent basis to believe that. As Ash admitted, no one thought the UA safeties were great last year. He was told that Bennett was beaten often last year and didn't have a very good year. Gaines was a redshirt freshman and made rookie mistakes. Both were targeted by SEC quarterbacks. Ash said he's seen both learn to be consistent in alignment and calls. There was one goal line practice that they were a little off, but they've been solid the rest of the spring. If they are now "great" players, then that speaks well for Ash and gives the Hogs a chance to be much improved on defense over last year when safety play drug down the Hogs.
This has been an improved area this spring. It starts up front with better gap control in the defensive front, the strength of this team. But there seems to be a better mesh between linebackers and safeties, too. Does tackling show up solid in the Red-White game? That's a big key to where this defense is moving forward. The long periods of inside run are designed for two reasons: 1, improve the offensive line. 2, help the defensive front learn to stop the run. That's what the SEC is all about. If you can run the ball some, and stonewall it on the other side, you are going to be in every game. If you do that and eliminate turnovers and penalties, you are probably going to be in most games when the fourth quarter rolls around.
9. The Passing Game
Did it disappear as the last Petrino cleared out his office? That seems to be what some suspected happened with this move to Bielema. But that's hardly the truth. Jim Chaney, the OC, is a passing guru. He's going to feature inside running and the power game, per instructions from the head coach. But he's also good at scheme development within the weapons on hand. Brandon Allen is an adequate passer and has displayed fine touch on the deep ball. The goal is to make safeties squeeze the run and get one-on-one matchups on the outside at cornerback. That's been evident as spring has rolled into the fifth week. There will also be a lot of short passing as they flood zones. That will develop off play-action looks. If you can run the ball a little, the play-action becomes effective. One of the keys in the pass game will be protection. They appear to be improved with the running back protections with Jonathan Williams, Kiero Small and Kody Walker.
10. Running backs
Jonathan Williams, Kiero Small and Kody Walker provide a good nucleus. All appear to be SEC quality backs. Alex Collins is believed to be top shelf, too. Is there any others to help? JoJo Wynn and Patrick Arinze will get a chance to show if they've developed enough to be counted on in the fall when they get their spring game touches. Arinze is more powerful and Wynn a little shiftier. Small's development in this offense has not surprised. Bielema liked him front he start. He'll get more touches than he did in the Petrino system when he was a blocker. Look for Small to get some touches in short yardage and in the goal line and utilized more in some power sets. He's got what it takes to run the ball in the SEC, a low center of gravity, low pad level and then he's got this feature that Bielema pointed out two weeks ago. "He's got a very, very big ass," Bielema said, "and it football, that's a good thing." I'm not suggesting anyone check out Small from the back side. But now that I've written it, I'll let you decide if that's part of the top 10 things to watch Saturday.
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