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.
Translation: They knew the culture was about to change with this Arkansas football team. Smashmouth was here.
The pass was the thing under Bobby Petrino, but it's the power run that Bielema will emphasize and one fourth of each practice was dedicated to smashmouth. 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, although Bielema did not announce a starter.
"I thought Brandon Allen just continued to move forward," Bielema said. "Brandon Mitchell does a lot of really good things and does some things that will set you back at times. I thought Brandon Allen played his best football the last two weeks and played really well with a group around him. We have three seniors receivers, (tailback) Jonathan Williams and (fullback) Keiro Small."
Asked if he was hesitant to name a starter Bielema responded that he had not done that at any position yet.
"Obviously you guys have been out there and Brandon Allen has not taken every snap, but the majority of the snaps with the ones and he continues to impress, continues to do some things very, very positive...He's got athleticism, he's got ability. Now he has just to learn that he doesn't have to stay alive to make a great play. Get the ball out of bounds and play the next play.
"He is a film junkie obviously growing up with Bobby in that home and all the emphasis on athletics and academics and I think he has continued to grow and I think we will be very surprised."
Bielema had a trick to end the pre-snap penalties that plagued the Hogs under Bobby Petrino. A player that jumped or was lined up wrong for a procedure penalty had to sit out a play while doing "up downs" under the eyes of a coach preaching the cause. By the third scrimmage, those were hard to find. There was one in the spring game in 97 offensive snaps, an off sides by freshman backup tackle Darius Philon. The only other penalties in the game were a holding by a wide receiver on a screen and a linemen down field on a pass play.
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. Mitch Smothers settled in at the other guard slot.
"There can't be a better center in America," Bielema said. "We've got some plays where we pull the center and he's so impressive. You can't run those with a normal center.
"Our most improved unit is easily the offensive line, for the way we are going to play. A close second is the wide receives with the way they've caught the ball and you saw that today."
A strength has been fullback where Small is back for a fifth year after going down with an injury after just one game in 2012. He's being used more as a runner, something he loves. He played tailback in high school before converting to linebacker in junior college. He was a demolition man as a blocking back in 2011 at Arkansas.
Small embraces the change to the smashmouth culture and power running under Bielema.
"Four yards a pop – that is about as physical as it is going to get," Small said. "We are running at people, you know it's coming, so let's just line up and play ball."
"We are lining up and just punching people in the mouth. I am on the field a lot more, I am getting the ball more, I am catching the ball. It is all good on my end."
Defense 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 Rohan Gaines, the 2012 starters, 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.
"I really liked the group of defensive tackles led by our two seniors and see where they continue to grow," Bielema said. "I think our linebackers got better all spring and I am really excited to see where (Jarrett) Lake and Braylon Mitchell and a guy who really emerged at the end in Austin Jones, who did some nice things and was a playmaker. I think Chris Smith and Trey Flowers are a very formidable group at end."
"In the back end with Gaines and Bennett, I think those are two safeties that can play really, really good football."
Bielema thinks Jared Collins emerged to give the Hogs depth at cornerback with Tevin Mitchell and Will Hines.
Linebacker will get more help in the fall when freshman Brooks Ellis and junior college transfer Martrell Spaight arrive.
The Hogs should also get help in the coming class on offense with running back Alex Collins. He'll help depth at that position, an issue at several other spots on both sides of the ball.
Some of the backups did make strides in the spring. DeMarcus Hodge and Philon turned heads at defensive tackle. Deatrich Wise will play as a backup at end. In the offensive line, Austin Beck made a push at tackle in Hurd's absence the last two weeks.
Tight end proved to be one of the deepest positions on the team, mainly because of the emergence of three walk-ons, Mitchell Loewen, Alex Voelzke and Brad Taylor to go along with returnee Austin Tate, battling back from shoulder surgery. Loewen, awarded a scholarship after the spring, held the first team spot in Bielema's first released depth chart two days after the spring game.
The kicking game appears solid with Zach Hocker handling placements, punting and kickoffs. The senior had a spectacular spring.
No one expects the Hogs to challenge for the SEC West in Bielema's first year. They have a murder'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."
It's clear he likes the underdog role the Hogs will own next year after a 4-8 season and a coaching change.
"I think we are in a great position where a lot of people in college football, maybe the outside world, don't think a lot about Arkansas right now, but I guarantee you they will in short fashion," Bielema said. "I really like the progress we made."
Bielema Changes Culture
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