Things are changing in the Arkansas athletic department. They are moving forward with football, despite what some might think during a losing streak. The culture is changing with Bret Bielema laying the building blocks piece by piece, just as Mike Anderson did two years ago in basketball.
That's a process that isn't fun, but has to be done. Nothing happens over night in a rebuilding process in the major sports like football and basketball. Youth must be served, then developed and coached.
The tough part is that some of the improvement is hidden. No one sees the future with a Chris Ash defense getting help in the secondary with the likes of De'Andre Coley and Korliss Marshall at safety. It's hard to imagine what can happen at linebacker when Brooks Ellis matures in the middle.
It's easier to see things like the new baseball and track indoor facility that has the walls up and the roof soon to be added. It looked like a huge box on Tuesday when a "beam signing" took place on the sidewalk outside of Baum Stadium near the new facility.
The massive nature of the facility is easy to see when a huge cement truck looks tiny sitting inside. The value is easy to measure when baseball coach Dave Van Horn mentioned that as many as four in his new recruiting class probably made commitments because of seeing the facility on their visit.
As Jeff Long, now in his sixth year as athletic director, noted Tuesday that over 150 of the 460 UA student-athletes would practice in that new facility, he revealed that there would soon be ground breakings on a basketball performance center and then a student-athlete academic center.
When all of those are done, perhaps Bielema's football team has made the steps necessary to add more seats. Then, Long will perhaps move forward to the next building project, bowling in the north end of Reynolds Razorback Stadium. All of that sounds crazy as the losses pile up, but I would bet on it to happen.
As I've watched Bielema build, I'm reminded of what Frank Broyles did in 1958 when he took over the football program. There were six straight losses in a 10-game season. Hope blossomed in a 4-0 November.
That's not going to happen, although there is a chance of victory this week against a Mississippi State team that has only one SEC victory, over Kentucky, the last SEC team Arkansas has beaten.
The key in 1958, just as it is today, is that Broyles spent time to develop what might have been the best freshman class in UA history.
That's what Bielema is doing now. As many as five true freshman could start on Saturday, if you count running back Alex Collins, the team's leading rusher. Collins is listed as a co-starter with Jonathan Williams.
But there are other freshmen who are talented and ready to step in soon. Marshall is playing at running back and returning kicks, but is coveted at safety, his preferred position. He said he knows NFL running backs don't have a very long life, but that safeties can play many years. Oh what a 4.3 man can do to help an SEC defense at safety!
And, this defense aches for some violent men, apparently just what Coley is on the practice field when he has to be called down for busting Collins and Williams. He's grown from 167 to close to 200 since he made it to campus in June. He'll probably play next year at 205, or better.
Coley was spotted by assistant coach Randy Shannon two years ago when the former Miami head coach was out of the business and helping a friend in spring practice at Northwestern High in Miami. Coley, a very skinny 6-1 then, kept making plays, knocking the ball loose.
There are more freshmen in the defensive developmental pool. Bielema has mentioned end Tevin Beanum, 6-5, 260 and still growing. I have great interest in tackle Ke'Tyrus Marks, 6-2, 297 and a pass rush specialist on the inside. Marks made 16 sacks as a senior in high school and has a burst.
That burst thing is critical. It's what separates the great defenses from average, or worse. Being able to blow up pass protection schemes with a burst inside and out in the defensive line is critical. Marks could do that, along with Beanum. Partridge is drooling as he prepares these redshirt linemen for next year.
Marks hails from West Palm Beach, Fla., Suncoast High. He was considered a sleeper by most. Partridge's connections paid big dividends. Suncoast has not had many good seasons and is not a regular target by south Florida recruiters. Partridge found him.
"He had further to go than a lot of our younger players," Partridge said of Marks this week. "He'd been in a program that had been through coaching changes and just hadn't been in a weight room. So he had to gain weight and strength and develop his body.
"But I see some things now that he's coming along there. I was talking about him yesterday in meetings. I saw something in our scrimmage last week that I hadn't seen as far as the progressions in KT's pass rush, putting several things together. It was seven straight plays. He's got ability, that quick twitch and now he's putting the fundamentals together."
Beanum has been on more radars after the Hogs signed him out of Forrest City. He's athletic and an impressive academic background, scoring 30 on the ACT.
"He's really come along. He's gotten a lot better with his fundamentals. As everyone knows, he's really changed his body.
"He's got athletic ability, that quick twitch. And, I think the intelligence, which everyone knows, has showed up in the development process, diet and his work habits.
"These guys that are in our developmental program, they lift more than the older guys so what they are gaining really is a lot under Ben Herbert.
"I think Tevin has a chance to be an excellent pass rusher. He's got exciting potential."
Partridge specializes in recruiting south Florida, where guys like Coley, Collins and Marks have already made their mark at Arkansas. All have gained weight after arriving in the Ozarks. Partridge, who grew up in West Palm Beach, is not surprised.
"What I've always said about South Florida guys, they don't eat growing up," Partridge said. "Maybe it's because of the heat there, so warm all the time.
"But they don't eat -- at least enough -- until they come to college and then they gain weight and strength. I don't know how much Coley has gained, but it looks like about 30 to 40 pounds."
What about cornerback? D. J. Dean is the true freshman who has a chance to help. He's played in nickel coverage and special teams. He's a physical hitter and learning by the minute.
There will be development from outside the scholarship roster. True freshman Chris Jones, a 5-11, 240-pounder from DeQueen, may have the edge to follow Kiero Small at fullback.
Don't underestimate what a walk-on can do in Bielema's program. That was among the first things I wanted to know in my first one-on-one interview with the new coach last winter. Can he develop more like David Hurd, the former walk-on who has started the last two seasons at offensive left tackle?
The development of the offensive line will continue next year when Bielema has to find more freshmen to fill spots. Perhaps true freshmen Denver Kirkland or Dan Skipper, starting at guard, move to tackle, making room for more talented true freshmen to take over inside?
There's more building to do. But Bielema thinks it will be easier in the next transition in the offensive line because of the background all will have in the system and under line coach Sam Pittman. Like that big box next to Baum Stadium, things are starting to take shape.
Hurd has held up admirably. There will be more like him under Bielema. Hurd came to Arkansas, with some academic aid and a waiver of out-of-state tuition from West Monroe, La., that Bielema mentioned as strong possibilities for an even better walk-on program than what anyone has done at Arkanas recently. Bielema saw Hayden Fry do that at Iowa and felt that was a strength of his Wisconsin program, too.
One of the best things about Hurd is that no one hardly talks about him anymore and that's a good thing. Most pointed to Hurd last year as evidence of poor recruiting. When was someone going to beat him out at offensive tackle. Surely, he wasn't the best the Hogs could field?
Now, as Pittman said this week, "He gets it done. He's consistent and knows exactly what we want on every play. He's a lot of fun to coach because he's always in the right spot."
Hurd may get a shot at the next level, perhaps getting an invitation to a training camp. But if he doesn't, it won't kill him. He's ready for his next step, possibly in medical school. He's sharp in the class room and will have a Biology degree in December.
Hurd won't be surprised when the Hogs turn the corner because he sees the development taking place. He wasn't surprised when he took over a starting spot last year. He knew it was his time. He saw it coming when he had success on the practice field against Jake Bequette.
"I remember coming here and holding the dummies and working on the scout team," Hurd said. "I figured I was a late bloomer and my time would come. I began to know that for sure when I held up against Jake. I remember the way he went wild against Texas A&M, getting all of those sacks, and I could do alright against him in practice.
"I envisioned it being just like this for me, that I'd play by the time I got to be a junior. I knew I'd get there and play."
Hurd will have one of the key matchups Saturday as the Hogs try to find the win column. As quarterback Brandon Allen's blindside protector on the left outside, Hurd will draw one of State's fine pass rushers, Preston Smith or Denico Autry. It's a matchup he looks forward to, just as he did when he was the man assigned to slow down Jadeveon Clowney last month. Hurd sounded pragmatic when asked what the mission would be against Smith or Autry.
"Win," he said. "I have to do what it takes for us to win. That's all that matters right now. Win."
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