Arkansas coach Bret Bielema filled his 30 minutes Sunday at media day with rave reviews for his squad through six days of practice, then turned it over to his players and coaches for more of the same.
If you didn't know better, no one would believe this Arkansas team is picked dead last in the SEC West and is coming off a four-win season. Things not only sparkled in the new Fred Smith Football Operations Center, everyone sparkled in their praise for the 2013 Razorbacks.
Finally, near the end of the two hours of interviews, offensive coordinator brought everyone back to reality when he had a great quip.
"It's all good right now with you guys," Chaney said. "We'll see how it is after a few Saturdays. It all sounds good right now, doesn't it?"
Yes, it does. The question marks coming out of the spring -- quarterback, offensive line and linebacker -- seem wonderful. Zach Hocker is going to handle all three of the kicking jobs and the freshman class looks loaded with stars.
Bielema, who called Jonathan Williams the team's "go-to" back, said the two areas of the team that have improved the most since spring would be quarterback -- with special praise for Brandon Allen -- and offensive line. Allen's composure has been a big plus. Bielema said he noticed it when he stepped in to listen to Allen in the huddle during Saturday's scrimmage.
On defense, defensive coordinator Chris Ash thinks linebacker is going to be a pleasant surprise to many people this year. He raved about Jarrett Lake. He said after watching tape of the scrimmage, that Lake would be the number one draft pick on this team. He said his speed and playmaking ability has really jumped.
"I've liked this first week," Ash said. "We've got a long way to go, but I think this week has shown us that they have retained what was taught in the spring and we are progressing.
"We've got some obvious playmakers, starting with the entire defensive line. We also have them at safety with Eric Bennett and Rohan Gaines. But I think the position people are going to be the happiest with is linebacker. Jarrett Lake, at will, is going to be a great player. I'm really excited about him.
"If I'm drafting someone off this team, I'd start with Lake. He has enthusiasm, juice, and is consistently in the right place. He has attitude and plays fast."
Offensively, the playmakers that Bielema raved about -- after pointing out that center Travis Swanson and fullbck Kiero Small -- were the senior wideouts (Javontee Herndon, Julian Horton and Demetrius Wilson) along with D'Arthur Cowan, Williams and Allen.
The head coach loved what he's seen of Allen and noted that the first offense has now had a spring game and a scrimmage with no turnovers and no fumbles on the ground.
"I'd say 16 of 17 yesterday, there were some pretty good catches," Bielema said. "But (Allen) did a pretty good job. His composure in the huddle was so much different (from the spring). We've got a great personal relationship. He comes from good stock, his mother and father. He's a football junkie.
"I thought some of his receivers jumped that extra two inches to get some of his passes yesterday. There was one bootleg, going to his left and that's not exactly easy for a righthander, that he was a little low for Hunter Henry. But he went down and got it. If he had floated it, Hunter might have gone another 20. Hunter just tapped him on the butt and said next time. That might go a long way next time."
It's clear after watching the scrimmage that there is a healthy mix of pass in Jim Chaney's playbook, not just all run as some have wanted to put on Bielema's system at Wisconsin. Bielema said that's something he has fought in recruiting and that probably played into his decision to bring in Chaney as offensive coordinator, a noted passing game guru. The head coach and offensive coordinator do seem to enjoy each other and some of that came out Sunday.
Asked about an adjustment in offensive philosophy early in media day, Bielema said, "That's a great thing and I will say that I was intrigued by Jim and realized that he had a genuine reason to come here. I will say I took my first jab at him the other day when it was third-and-2 and he got in the (shotgun). I told him that I hoped when he got his first short yardage situation he would not be in the gun."
That drew some laughter, and even from Chaney later when it was brought up to him by a reporter in the interviews with assistant coaches in the player's lounge.
"I am a simple boy," Chaney said. "He's the boss. We will do what he wants."
After a pause for effect, Chaney added, "We will do what we have to do to move the ball. He was joking, right?"
Yes, the head coach was having some fun. Bielema did add, "Jim has embrace ball control, but we do think that balance makes it easier for the quarterbacks. We have taken some shots (on ball control) in recruiting. I do think we looked good in the Pistol this week when he was handing off to the backs."
Chaney has said several times that it takes a few games -- maybe as many as four -- for the passing game to click. Reminded of that Sunday after Allen went 16 of 17 in the scrimmage, Chaney explained it a little better.
"I do believe that," Chaney said. "It takes awhile. But it's not just about throwing and catching it. We did that pretty well. But we may have had some issues yesterday protecting Brandon. That's what takes the longest, pass protection. It's my experience in the spread that the pass protection takes a few games.
"As far as yesterday, we'll see if (Brandon) can keep doing that. He did have a good day. Will it happen again? What I saw yesterday was very clean. That's what I liked about it. We had only one glitch and it was on me for trying to yell something in to Brandon and he got the formation wrong."
The takeaway from players is consistent. They love their new building and their coaches. And all seem to think there is a great freshman class on campus.
Defensive line coach Charlie Partridge admits that the bond between coach and player was something that needed some work early in January, mainly because coaches wondered where the players were hanging out. It wasn't around the coaches.
"We walked through the hallways of the building and you didn't see a player," Partridge said. "The kids simply weren't there. There had been a distinct line drawn before. It just wasn't done.
"So the first thing we had to do was earn the trust of the players. We had to make that a priority. One, we wanted them to know that we'd be there for them. And, then we had to prove to them that we knew what we were doing.
"We handled things in a very calculated manner at first. If something didn't go right at first, screaming or yelling wasn't what we needed to do. If that's the approach we took, we knew we were going to lose them immediately. So our response to mistakes was calculated."
Safety Rohan Gaines said it was apparent quickly that coaches knew their stuff. He said players have learned a lot of football from their new coaches and have felt they were welcome in offices. It's been good to have a place to go that's new and neat, too.
"This new building is wonderful," he said. "You have a place just to go watch TV if you want, or get on the computer. So we come here and see our coaches, put in the extra film work and study and then we stay in the building. This is just a wonderful place. We love these coaches. They have taught us a lot."
The freshman class?
"It's big-time," Gaines said. "You see athletic ability, you see size. You see a lot of talent."
Some of that size fits nicely in the new lockers.
"We've got these huge lockers and it's a good thing when you see guys like Denver Kirkland and Dan Skipper," Gaines said. "They need huge lockers. Those guys have ability, too."
Bielema raved about the footwork and ability of Kirkland, right at 350 pounds.
"I'm blown away by (Kirkland's) athleticism," Bielema said. "Those two tackles, Kirkland and Skipper are very good. Skipper has shown some nice ability to really do things in the run game. Kirkland has shown incredible feet in pass protection. I'm blown away with his athletic ability for that size."
Then, there's the freshman running back, the blue chip Florida product Alex Collins. He sparkled in the scrimmage Saturday -- after coaches figured out the source of headaches last week. He had been skipping breakfast. Bielema said someone is now assigned to watch Collins eat his breakfast.
Collins laughed about that and pointed out that he hasn't been missing all of his meals. He has added five pounds since arriving in Fayetteville in the summer and is up to 210. He patted his belly as he chuckled, but there was no sign of a belly.
"I'm stronger and more aggressive," Collins said. "I think that's added strength all over my body."
Collins said he's learned his lesson about skipping breakfast. He admitted that he could get away with eating when he wanted in high school, but not with the added work load in college.
One thing that hasn't changed, Collins is still the social butterfly. He said he's been having great fun in the Ozarks. He has bonded with Fayetteville products and classmates Brooks Ellis and Austin Allen, among others, to see the area.
"I try to have fun," Collins said. "I'm not going to sit in the dorm. Austin and Brooks have had me out in town. They've shown me around. I knew by getting close to them I'd find everything out about Fayetteville.
"I've tried to learn some new things. I've played five sports, been a cheerleader and I just like to broaden out. I've found out since I've been here that I'm pretty good at badmitton."
Ellis laughed about that.
"Alex is very social," Ellis said. "He wants to make new friends and see things. We've taken him to our houses, gone to some places with pools. We've taken him to the lake a couple of times. He's down to do what's out there."
Coaches are careful to point out that Jonathan Williams is the bell cow of the offense. Chaney said Collins is very good, but that Williams "is still in front of him. The good thing, Alex has a great example because no one works harder. He's seeing someone in front of him and in the meeting room doing it the right way. I will see that (Collins) has natural ability with the ball in his hands."
Chaney said Collins displayed all of that ability in the scrimmage, but there were also some mistakes. He still has "those MAs," a reference to mental assignment errors.
Gaines, who hosted Collins on his visit, is not surprised that the young running back looks for new adventure.
"When he was on the visit, we talked about all of the things he did," Gaines said. "I knew right then he had to be an athlete. He has to be good. And what he's shown me through camp, he's a very good player.
"I don't think he's scared to try anything. I've definitely seen that he's not scared. He'll stick it up between the tackles. He has the outside game. He has different dimensions to his game. That's going to make him a pretty good player. I'm pretty impressed.
"He's smooth. He's patient. He'll wait, wait and then he's gone. By the time you realized what's going on, he's out of there, gone. He will contribute this year and be one of the big-time players along with Jonathan Williams, Kody Walker, Nate Holmes. We've got depth to our backfield."
Media Day Notes
Head coach Bret Bielema said linebacker A. J. Turner still has "lingering" affects from a broken wrist that bothered him in the spring. Bielema said the good news is that Turner still has a redshirt to use. He called Turner "willing and eager and I love his energy."
Bielema listed the top three linebackers as Austin Jones, Jarrett Lake and Braylon Mitchell. He said the next three might be Martrell Spaight, Brooks Ellis and Otha Peters, but others are still in the mix, including Robert Atiga and Daunte Carr.
There was praise for backup center Luke Charpentier, who filled in with the ones in the scrimmage for Travis Swanson, slowed by a tight hamstring. Swanson said he'd be back Monday. There was no practice Sunday.
Among the freshmen who have drawn praise is cornerback D. J. Dean. Chris Ash also said TQ Coleman and Kelvin Fisher got solid work at safety with Gaines sidelined with a sore knee. Gaines is the top nickel back, but Will Hines and Dean could help there, too. Price Holmes could help in a nickel linebacker role.
Bielema praised the work of right tackle Grady Ollison. The head coach was particularly impressed with some one-on-one situations against Chris Smith.
"I saw him 'walk' Chris out on two plays as far as isolation as good as you'll see," Bielema said. "I liked what I saw from Grady yesterday."
Bielema: O-line, Allen "most" improved
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