State of the Hogs: Reality

Arkansas didn't have the talent for such an ambitious schedule. Reality may have set in for many Razorback fans, more talent needed.

I am never surprised by what I read on the message boards or hear on talk radio. It's the center of most negativity.

Opinions are going to be harsh there. But this will be the wildest week in a long time. The naysayers will be out in full force after a 52-7 loss to South Carolina, the fourth straight on the season and seventh straight in SEC play dating back to last year. Another dose of reality is probably waiting in Tuscaloosa this week

Yes, that was a bad game, what the Gamecocks did to the Razorbacks on Saturday. It was a bad loss. You have 52 straight points given up on Homecoming, it's a bad loss.

But for those that thought this was going to be something special when Brandon Allen went down in week three, I think you were probably in denial of what the next five games would be like as far as strength of schedule. Texas A&M, Florida, South Carolina and Alabama represent the toughest stretch ever attempted by an Arkansas team in consecutive games. Add onto that a trip to Rutgers with a backup quarterback and it's nasty, kind of like the discussions on message boards and talk radio.

They should have won on the road at Rutgers, but it was going to be a difficult deal without Allen. The last three games were pretty predictable, other than I didn't think South Carolina would play as well as it did.

But as far as where the program is headed, I have no doubts. It was always going to be about getting on the recruiting trail and finding SEC talent. Bret Bielema, just past the halfway point in year one as head coach, knew what he needed when he hired a fine staff full of recruiters. He knew it would be about finding players. And, he's good at rolling up his sleeve and working in recruiting, too.

There will probably be some stories written this week about Nick Saban wanting Sam Pittman, Bret Bielema's offensive line coach and among his first hires. But the key is that he probably did not want many of the players at Arkansas. Maybe a few, but not many.

Saban wanted him because of the way his offensive lines played at Tennessee. But that's just part of the reason Pittman is valuable to Bielema. Pittman's reputation is that he's a "bulldog in recruiting." That's what Butch Davis called him when I visited with the UA grad about Pittman two months ago.

Go get more players, get more speed. That's the Bielema mission. I saw speed on the field when Ole Miss and Texas A&M played last week. That's the key moving forward.

But it's not just about speed. It will be about developing that offensive line, the cornerstone of a Bielema system. Bielema made the decision three weeks ago to turn the page on some of the offensive line talent that he inherited, inserting true freshmen Denver Kirkland and Dan Skipper in the starting lineup at guard.

Some forget there was another great freshman offensive lineman in the last class, Hawaii product Reeve Koehler. He might be starting at guard with Kirkland at tackle if he hadn't suffered an injury in camp. The Hogs might be playing with three true freshmen in the offensive line right now.

It reminds me that offensive line play is generally where good offensive football starts. Bielema understands. He quickly moved forward with the freshmen. Skipper will probably move back to tackle when this season ends, replacing graduating senior David Hurd.

The talent upgrade in the offensive line will continue. That much Bielema understands. He built fine offensive lines while producing offenses that NFL teams liked as far as personnel.

The defense has to improve, too. Linebackers, cornerbacks and safeties need better talent. Bielema is a former defensive coordinator under Bill Snyder at Kansas State and Barry Alvarez and he coached linebackers under Hayden Fry and Kirk Ferentz at Iowa.

The focus among many right now will be at quarterback. Brandon Allen is going to get a lot of criticism after tossing bad interceptions in the last three games. His play reminds me of Clint Stoerner's work as a sophomore when sacks and interceptions came in waves. There were some then that thought Stoerner was not an SEC quarterback.

Things changed when the offensive line came of age in Stoerner's junior year. All of a sudden, there was a running game and the play-action pass was a fearsome weapon, with Stoerner calling the checks as coached by Joe Ferguson.

Stoerner called Allen an SEC quarterback on several radio talk shows last week as fans wondered what was up after the performance against Florida. He said talent at quarterback wasn't the issue. It was experience at quarterback, along with the competition and the talent surrounding the quarterback.

Jim Chaney can coach quarterbacks and he knows check systems. But he needs an offensive line to make all of that work. Bielema and Pittman are hard at work finding the pieces to get that done.

It's hard to win with four true freshmen in the starting lineup. Alex Collins hasn't started a game, but he's listed as a co-starter with Jonathan Williams and got the bulk of the snaps against South Carolina. Hunter Henry has started the last three games at tight end.

The Hogs have good coaches. They need to earn their nice pay checks and find some players that match their ability to coach. And, as they say, it's not about the Xs and Os, but the Jimmys and Joes.

And as the Hogs head to No. 1 Alabama, remember the message Joe Kines provided when he was brought in to bring some stability to a defense that was getting lit up by Southwest Conference foes.

It's life in the SEC. No one waits for you to get better. It's kind of like Joe Kines told us in 1992. They slit your throat and drink your blood in this league. There was plenty of blood on the field at Razorback Stadium on Saturday.

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