Style and play calling are important to many football fans. It's what they can comprehend with a casual glance. That is not a criticism. It's just the truth. And, for some, it's what they love. You can second guess play calling and there's nothing wrong with that.
Coaching is important, but recruiting is much more important. In covering some great coaches through the years, the ones I liked the best were the ones with outstanding line coaches and great recruiters. It's where things matter the most.
That goes whether you are running the single wing, the winged-T, wishbone, veer, pro system, West Coast, Pistol, Power Spread, spread or any other offense you care to mention. It's blocking, getting off blocks and tackling that wins. And the players that are the best, as paired with solid fundamental teachers in the lines, that give the play callers the best chance to be successful.
That isn't just on offense. It's defense, special teams, too.
Coaching matters. It matters at Arkansas, Oklahoma, Alabama, Florida, Texas, Michigan, Notre Dame, Southern Cal and all of the other schools that you can mention. But players matter more. Poor coaching can screw it up, but not as quickly as a collection of off recruiting classes.
The question then becomes how many good recruiting classes does it take to turn things around. I've always thought there had to be at least two, coupled with some time for development. If you put three together, then you are probably talking about a championship contender. Three, with four years of development, you might really be in business. Three solid classes that are juniors, seniors and fifth-year seniors can make a huge difference.
So how long does Arkansas head football coach Bret Bielema need? It depends on what he does on the recruiting front in the next two months. There are some really goof players on the way to the Ozarks for recruiting visits over that time. He doesn't have to land all of them. In fact, he doesn't have room in his current class for all of them.
It's clear that he recognizes the need. That's why there may be from six to eight in the newest class enrolled by January. They'll go through spring practice and provide help both in the starting lineup and in depth. They'll get a head start in the developmental stage with Ben Herbert's strength and conditioning program.
For some, this is a depressing time in the history of Arkansas football. The Hogs won just four games last year and three in the just completed campaign. But I look at it more for what it is going forward, than what has just happened. Good things are happening. The building those new coaches are operating out of gives them a great chance to be successful recruiting. Plus, they are all solid recruiters, starting with the head coach.
The best thing that could happen to the 2013 team is that those freshmen are now evolving into sophomores. And some that weren't quite ready to contribute when they arrived in June are now about to emerge from Herbert's program as "ready to play" redshirt freshmen. You should be able to tell more about linemen like Denver Kirkland, Dan Skipper and Reeve Koehler by spring when they go through their first winter with Herbert. Baby fat is going to disappear.
Herbert's program can do wonders, but every year he adds to players in his program is a huge deal. Defensive line coach Charlie Partridge is anxious to see Ke'Tyrus Marks, redshirt freshman defensive tackle, in March after another eight-week developmental stage with Herbert. Marks, without much weight lifting experience, had 16 sacks as a high school senior. He's got the quick twitch muscles to play in the SEC. He's perfect for Herbert's system and will add lower body strength to his speed.
As far as recruiting, remember this, the new football operations building is in its first year as far as hosting visits for top prospects. I expect it to pay dividends.
These coaches are about relationships. Give them great facilities, they can do some magic. And, the plays they call won't matter as much as how they recruit. Notice I said "as much" because it is important.
But I saw enough "scheme" and nice use of formation to know that Jim Chaney can call plays. They may have actually schemed the running game pretty well this year. They need a few more weapons in the passing game for some of the scheme advantages there to show up as far as vertical passing game.
What I don't think many understand is that while there was progress made in the running game with an improved offensive line, that may have been one of the worst offensive lines Bielema has ever coached. It's going to get better, much better. Then, the play-action passing game will improve and Chaney does have some tricks in the vertical passing game that weren't doable with average -- and I'm talking about speed, skill and experience -- wide receivers.
Defensively, more speed and competition at cornerbacks and safeties will change the back end. Cornerback is so important. To blitz, you must be able to play man-to-man in the back end and that calls for speed at both cornerback and safety, along with experience.
I'm not sure there was any confidence at all to call blitzes this past season with the way the secondary performed. I never ached for anything tricky at linebacker after watching the secondary against Rutgers. And that played out over and over this year. That changes with more competition, more talent and more experience.
No one thought much of John L. Smith during his time at Arkansas. But I think Smith did know defense. He did know talent. He may have not known how to handle a media briefing of keep from saying silly stuff in front of a camera. But I think he did know football and talent. He told me several times during the end of his time at Arkansas what he thought the program needed most.
I thought he was going to say linebackers or cornerbacks, but that's not where he went. It was safeties. He said that you need big, fast safeties to play in the SEC. He said that what safeties were on campus, most were too small to tackle the great SEC tailbacks. He said the really good defenses have powerful safeties that can produce turnovers when they splatter backs and receivers. He said that's the reason the Hogs never caused turnovers over the last few seasons. And, that's the way it was this season, too.
If you think back to the times when Arkansas did field a solid defense over the last 50 years, there was always a great safety to patrol the back end. I'm talking about a safety like George McKinney, Harry Jones, Steve Atwater, Ken Hamlin or Kenoy Kennedy. Those were big, fast, violent football players.
I know Bielema and Ash understand all of this. Every position is a high priority. There's not a spot that the Hogs don't need to improve and that goes for quarterback. But safety is a huge priority. It was a mistake by a senior safety that gave up the deciding touchdown pass at LSU. And when you give up four long-play touchdowns in one game (like at LSU), it's clear that a safety was making a mistake, along with other areas.
I know that many are reading this and can't get past the references to play calling. That's all that most want to discuss. Stay there if you want. It is important. But things will get fun around the Arkansas football program with some good recruiting. And it may happen sooner than you think.
How many will the Hogs win next year? That's a very dangerous question to attempt at this time of year. So many things can change. I don't know the answer, but I do understand the importance of improving enough to go undefeated in nonconference play. That gives you a chance to make a bowl without a winning SEC season.
With that a given, it makes the Sept. 13 trip to Texas Tech so important. I think Northern Illinois, Alabama-Birmingham and Nicholls State are going to be Razorback victories. Winning those four makes seven -- or more -- victories doable if the right things happen in recruiting and development hits top stride in the next eight months.
First, Bret Bielema needs to close out a recruiting class that tops 2013. He needs to find some wide receivers, safeties and linebackers that are a step faster than those at their positions at Arkansas right now. If that happens, Bielema and his coaches become a much better staff.
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