As should be the case after a five-game losing streak and eight SEC losses in a row dating back to last season, Arkansas head coach Bret Bielema is questioning everything.
Bielema said he's going to make sure the players can do what they are asked to do by coaches in scheme and technique and he's going to make sure players are held accountable, too. That's what you do during an open date.
Obviously, the last four games were terrific challenges for any team. No one rolls through Texas A&M, Florida, South Carolina and Alabama without some knots. But there ought to be some bright spots, not back-to-back slaughters. The Hogs gave up 52 to both Carolina and No. 1 Alabama.
To make it worse, some of the supposed SEC have-nots scored victories against the haves on Saturday and the Hogs didn't offer a whimper at Tuscaloosa. The remainder of the schedule looks like a gauntlet for this team: Auburn, Ole Miss, Mississippi State and LSU. There is two open dates, but that's about the extent of the good news.
So what's the problem? Coaching has been questioned, but it's probably more a talent issue than anything else. There are issues on offense, defense and special teams. The best play can't be a fake punt. The answers lie on the recruiting trail and in player development.
So what's going on with this football team? It's complex and more than talent. Some of it is physical, but some is mental after throwing a tough schedule on top of a 4-8 disaster of 2012 along with transition.
The Hogs appear unable to break free from the muck, as head coach Bret Bielema called it last night in Tuscaloosa.
Pesonally, I don't see a lot of playmakers anywhere on the team. I don't see an offensive line that can dominate, the key to this style of play.
I thought the weaknesses of this team would be linebacker, cornerback and offensive line -- and that's played out exactly. The safety play was poor last year. I thought wide receiver play was decent in the spring, but it was measured against our corners. It started off better at safety, but there have been too many missed tackle at safety over the past three weeks. If you are weak in that many areas, that's a lot.
How many positions on the field does that cover? Probably half of the starting 22 that are sub standard as it relates to SEC play. I wrote down on a piece of paper where I see weakness: offensive line three, linebacker three, cornerback two, safety two, wide receiver two.
The Hogs may be at least adequate at the other positions, but not great. When you aren't great anywhere, and sub standard at more than half of the other positions, you have a team that struggles.
Running backs Alex Collins and Jonathan Williams are more than adequate and have a chance to be great as older players. I see adequate play with Swanson, fullback Kiero Small and offensive tackle David Hurd and tight end Hunter Henry. I see adequate play with the defensive line, but not great.
Offensively, I think Collins, Dan Skipper, Denver Kirkland and Henry provide a foundation for the offense. But I watched those players against Alabama and they aren't perfect yet. They make freshmen errors. But they are competing and talented.
The defensive front makes some plays, but sometimes they get blocked. I thought they looked worn down in Tuscaloosa. I'm sure all of them have some nicks after eight straight games. Darius Philon, the redshirt freshman tackle, was the lone major bright spot against Bama.
But the mental fatigue after 4-8, being pushed out of their comfort level by a new staff and all of the transition has taken a toll. It's got to be more mental than physical but there has not been much normalcy for quite some time around this team.
To speak a bit on coaching, this is a good bunch. They all have some ability to recruit, too. For example, I think defensive line coach Charlie Partridge is a heckuva coach and a great person. He's a terrific recruiter and developer of talent. Ditto for offensive line coach Sam Pittman and everywhere else you want to look.
Partridge told me on media day that they had to be careful how they pushed and coached this bunch. He said the mental scars were obvious. He said yelling at them wasn't something they could do at first.
Partridge said yelling at them caused a complete shutdown. He said they had been through too much. He said they had to earn their trust before they could coach them hard.
One of the things coaches must do is prove they cared about them, and then they could move forward with hard coaching. When I've seen them, they do coach them hard. It is obvious to me that these are good coaches.
But the nightmare of what they've been through is clearly a part of what is going on right now. It is much. And it's also clear that these coaches are going to have to do what they've done in the past, go get them some players.
They know that. Most of them have been recruiting coordinators somewhere in their past. They'll need all of that recruiting expertise as they battle out of this.
Development has to continue. There will be some breakthroughs there. Some of the hits will come in some unlikely places. They always do with Bielema and his development staff, led by Ben Herbert.
But from what I've seen, they need speed and athletic ability. This team is short on that. It's going to take time. No one wants to hear that, but they need players to get out of the muck.
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