Bret Bielema doesn't underestimate what a victory will do in recruiting, but the Arkansas coach said Monday that he knows there are bright days ahead from watching the way his players have worked during a seven-game losing streak.
The development of Alex Collins and Jonathan Williams, the Razorbacks' top two running backs, illustrates that point, Bielema said. Collins leads the team with 946 rushing yards, Williams 783. Bielema said he's seen both make strides.
"I couldn't be more impressed with Alex," Bielema said. "It's probably one day a week that I get a letter or an email about Alex, someone reaching out about the impact he's had in the community.
"I can also tell you that Alex has made a difference with the guys in our community with dreads. There are two or three guys (on our team) that are getting stopped and asked if they are Alex.
"Alex is very gifted, but he has improvement to make in the way he trains, sleeps. He's like nocturnal in his habits.
"And, I think Jonathan Williams is the most improved player on our team from our first game to our 10th. He's made a jump in his practice habits, how he prepares for plays and he's been great with his relationship with Alex. I met his mom after the Ole Miss game and I understand now why he plays for his mom."
It's that kind of development throughout the team that encourages Bielema -- along with improvement as far as penalties.
"One of the points of emphasis to my coaches on Sunday is that we are the least penalized team in the SEC," Bielema said. "That hasn't gotten us a win, but when we begin to click on offense and defense, you'll see that really help. We'll be halfway home."
Bielema said it's all a part of the developmental process.
"Where we will be a year from now is part of the excitement, from what we've gone through in the last seven," he said. "Give me another year with these guys, my guys, we'll see where we go."
The here and now is that Bielema knows a victory is needed.
"I'm not oblivious to the fact that, I mean, I know what a win will do," Bielema said. "It will get you all to stop asking the question. But on the flip side of it, it's not going to change anything of what I'm doing or how we're approaching it.
"I was on the road last week recruiting wise and it's just so refreshing to not only get in our state, but outside of our state and to be into a school where coach knows who you are and what you are and wants to give you one of their best players because he knows what you're building. I mean, that's worth its weight in gold.
"To see it come out in a W it obviously will help more to hold up against our competition in the recruiting world. Because there are a lot of negative Nellies out there in recruiting who love to remind people of your schedule and streaks and all that jazz. I've been a part of a lot of great streaks, but nothing of a negative streak as this is. I think we're trying as coaches to de-emphasize the pure number of it, but you can't underestimate the effect of it."
The Hogs will face a Mississippi State team that fought hard in a 20-7 loss to No. 1 Alabama over the weekend. Game time in Little Rock is at 11:21 a.m. Saturday. Bielema was impressed with the effort displayed by the Bulldogs against the Tide.
"Their kids were playing really, really hard," Bielema said. "I know that it sounds like coaching talk and all that stuff. But if you can just get kids to play hard and be aggressive.
"We had a developmental scrimmage on Thursday at the end of practice, I just shut it down and anybody that really was playing were guys that were either redshirting or weren't playing a role. We had about four or five just big-time hits on defense. Again, there were guys who might be redshirt freshmen who aren't anywhere close to playing SEC level. But there was some physicality. They were playing hard. They were juiced.
"And that's what I saw (from the Bulldogs), the same thing on Saturday night. I saw a Mississippi State defense that they knew they were playing a very good Alabama offense. When they had that first pick, you could just see it give life to that other side. To give a little bit of juice when (Alabama's T. J.) Yeldon put the ball on the ground, that gave them a little more juice even though it was at the end of a big run. That's what you need. You need something to bring you over the hump. Let's hope they don't continue to find their way this weekend."
The Bulldogs need to win out to get to a bowl. After the Hogs, they meet in-state rival Ole Miss. Bielema knows that will be the focus for MSU coach Dan Mullen. Bielema said he'll play to a different motivation, closing out the home schedule.
"Well, it's a tremendous amount of motivation," Bielema said. "Every coach is going to have a different tactic to go into every game.
"Ours is last chance for us to play in Arkansas, our chance for our seniors to go out and win in front of their families. But bowl games are great motivators. It's one of the biggest blows I took was when I was still holding out hope for everyone of those last games to give those seniors a chance to go to a bowl game and experience a little bit of postseason play."
Not having a bowl for developmental purposes forced Bielema to change the way he built practices a few weeks ago.
"That's why we switched our gears and started going as much as we could last week and we'll get today, tomorrow and Wednesday as well," Bielema said.
Bielema said he is encouraged by the way wide receiver Demetrius Wilson is battling back from a torn ACL. Wilson had surgery in August and now is back on the field running in his rehab. Bielema said Wilson "jumped out" to him as he was leaving the field Wednesday.
"He was in his brace and flew in front of me," Bielema said. "I wasn't paying attention. I was coming off the field and him and (trainer) Matt Summers were working right in front of me. I think he's definitely on track.
"A kid that, you know, very, very unusual situation to go into what you think you're preparing for your senior year and I will say this: it was kind of the same card that was dealt to Keiro Small a year ago. He expected his senior year to be that last season and then he got an injury and was able to come back and one of the first things I said to Demetrius, and I put it in a note to him was ‘these things happen for a reason. Let's capitalize on the best of a bad situation.'"
Bielema was asked about some position battles that might take place in the spring, including quarterback where Brandon Allen is expected to face competition from Austin Allen, Damon Mitchell, AJ Derby and mid-term arrival Rafe Peavy.
"Brandon has grown in certain ways," Bielema said. "But we have to be great in ball security. We had the wheel route to Alex (Collins) against Ole Miss (that was intercepted). That was a big play. I wish we had that one right.
"I think Brandon's shoulder is pretty much back to normal now. He has to build some confidence for his receivers in these last two games. By the same token, his receivers have to do some things to build confidence in him.
"I will say that Brandon has a tremendous advantage coming into the spring. But he can accomplish a lot in these last two games."
As far as team health, Bielema said the Hogs should be close to full strength. Cornerback Will Hines will definitely play against the Bulldogs and could start.
"He got clearance (for full contact) last week for Wednesday and Thursday and as well as (Sunday) night's practice," Bielema said. "He definitely will play."
Beyond getting healthy, Bielema said the focus is to eliminate the mistakes that were so costly in a 34-24 loss to Ole Miss.
"The big thing, as we addressed the Sunday after Ole Miss," Bielema said, "we did some really good things, but we have to eradicate the things that have hung over us. It's scoring in the red zone, staying on the field on third down and then defensively the big plays in the passing game and getting off the field on third down.
"Those are the specifics, then it's also about playing with pride."
Bielema noted that redshirt freshman cornerback Ray Buchanan would be transferring out of the program after the season. The coach said he's working with Buchanan to get a list of schools for a release.
Bielema has mentioned before that several players might be leaving after the season for different reasons. He said Buchanan does not fit in the Hogs' future because he's not in the running for playing time.
"Ray came to me three weeks into (fall practices) and asked out," Bielema said. "I reached out to his Pops because he's in the football business. I didn't think it was in his son's best interests at that time because I wanted to see if he got involved in the depth chart or special teams.
"I embrace transfer opportunities. I want to turn a negative into a positive. I want to work with kids to make it the best situation for them."
Bielema said there could be others leaving the program, but noted those will "be because we hold them accountable to the highest standards" as far as off-the-field conduct and academics.
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