Bret Bielema's offseason battle cry for an Arkansas football team coming off an 0-8 SEC campaign and a nine-game losing streak is simple. Change the math.
That can mean a lot of things. It can mean a better work ethic in the offseason program. It can mean better off-the-field nutrition, better choices late at night to concentrate on studies. And it means getting things done in spring drills when they begin Sunday afternoon.
Motivation has come easy after a 3-9 season. Bielema wonders if it might have even been a blessing that the Hogs didn't get those SEC wins at the end of the season in overtime against Mississippi State or in the finale at LSU.
"We played good football against Auburn and we let those last two slip away," Bielema said. "I was upset to lose those games as everyone. But, it might have been a blessing. I think it helped our players realize that to change the math, they had to change. They had to do better with their grades, better in late-night choices and better in their workouts. That's how you change the math."
And that means getting better in all areas. It was not a surprise when Bielema answered a question about needs at the end of last season when recruiting was the topic. Everywhere. Bielema said the Hogs needed help at every position on the field.
Some of that help arrived at the start of the semester when quarterback Rafe Peavey, cornerback Chris Murphy and wide receivers Cody Hollister and Jared Cornelius enrolled. All four will compete for positions this spring, although Bielema said Murphy was excused for Sunday's practice to attend his high school prom in Georgia.
Bielema jokingly said a week ago he had hoped Murphy had forgotten his promise during recruiting. He said he tells all midterm enrollments that they can go to prom or attend graduation. Murphy will actually be returning on Sunday about midway through the workout, but Bielema said he'll excuse him for the first day.
Murphy will try to join the mix for playing time at cornerback, a position that gets a facelift with a new secondary staff. Bielema said Robb Smith, the new defensive coordinator, and Clay Jennings, secondary coach, will rework the corners and safeties on a defense that was especially leaky in the back seven.
The top returning hands at corner are Will Hines, Tevin Mitchel and D. J. Dean. Alan Turner, seventh in the SEC with 97 tackles last year, is the top returnee at safety. Rohan Gaines, bothered by a knee injury last year, will give free safety a try. De'Andre Coley, one of the most heralded redshirts, will join the battle at safety.
Getting that group to mesh with Smith and Jennings is one of the main goals in the spring. New defensive line coach Rory Segrest hopes to teach a more aggressive style up front. Those three will join the lone returning assistant on defense, linebackers coach Randy Shannon.
The offensive staff returns intact, but lost a coach on the field, center Travis Swanson. Line coach Sam Pittman is charged with finding a replacement there. Luke Charpentier was Swanson's backup and he'll get a challenge from Cordale Boyd this spring and perhaps others. Don't be surprised if Denver Kirkland, a big man with great foot quickness, gets a look there this spring. The battle at center might continue into fall camp. Newcomers Frank Ragnow and Sebastian Tretola will both get a shot at center.
Brandon Allen will start spring as the number one quarterback, but Bielema has said that the others will get their chances, too. That includes Peavey, the All-American from Bolivar, Mo., that has run-pass ability. Bielema says Peavey "has a live arm." A. J. Derby was the backup, but it wouldn't surprise if redshirt freshmen Austin Allen and Duwop Mitchell slide ahead quickly.
Hollister and Cornelius have impressed in offseason workouts. Hollister's 6-4 frame and ability to catch the ball over the middle was sorely missing last year. Cornelius has speed and athletic ability the Hogs lost when Demetrius Wilson, now back after ACL surgery, went down in August.
Those three should impact the passing game in a big way and there is more help coming in the recruiting class, a group that is loaded with speed and athletic ability on the perimeter. Bielema points to all four of the midterm arrivals as speed guys.
The matchups on the perimeter this spring between the wideouts and the corners will be worth watching because that's where Bielema said the Hogs need much improvement. He noted a new "swagger" and confidence this winter after Smith and Jennings began meetings and work in offseason agility drills.
"We can't work with football situations, but our coaches can put them through drills that show our athletic ability," Bielema said. "I like the flavor that Clay Jennings has brought to that group in the secondary.
This will be the first spring for linebackers Brooks Ellis and Martrell Spaight, possibly joining with senior Braylon Mitchell as the top three on the depth chart across the back of the 4-3 defense. Smith said he wants his defense to adapt a "swarm" mentality. Bielema said they will try to play faster by "decreasing the verbage."
Smith said they will carry as much detail as possible, but he'll "pare back" until they play fast.
"You want to be detailed, but not at the risk of slowing down reaction," Smith said. "Our defenses at Rutgers played aggressive and fast. We kept it simple and got to the ball with a physical attitude. We have to force more turnovers."
One of the areas that needs improvement is turnover ratio. The Hogs were last in the SEC by a wide margin last year, at minus 12. They forced only seven turnovers, just three fumbles. They coughed up 19 turnovers.
One of the interesting things to watch will be how the Hogs work Trey Flowers into the offense at tight end. An athletic 280, Flowers is the top returning defensive end in the SEC. In recruiting Flowers to return for his senior year, Bielema promised to get him some snaps at tight end, like he did J.J. Watt at Wisconsin. Watt started his college career as a tight end at Central Michigan.
The Hogs have a nice group of young defensive ends to battle for the spot opposite Flowers vacated by Chris Smith. Deatrich Wise, Brandon Lewis, Jamichael Winston and redshirt freshman Tevin Beanum form a talented group.
Segrest has a good group at defensive tackle despite losing Byron Jones and Robert Thomas. Darius Philon emerged as a playmaker after Thomas went down with a broken leg. DeMarcus Hodge showed promise as an inside anchor, too. Horace Arkadie and redshirt freshman Ke'Tyrus Marks could make a move this spring, too.
It's the first spring for sophomore running backs Alex Collins and Korliss Marshall. Bielema said junior Jonathan Williams, rock solid after a wonderful offseason, might sit out some of the contact after proving himself as an impressive inside runner. Collins and Marshall should develop in other areas of the offense in a running back picture that includes Denzell Evans, Kody Walker, Patrick Arinze and redshirt freshman Chris Jones. Bielema said Jones, a walkon, impressed in scrimmage work with the young players last fall.
Arinze and Jones will battle at fullback to replace Kiero Small. Walker will work at running back and fullback, much like Small did last fall.
The Hogs will work Sunday, Tuesday and Thursday before taking a week off for spring break. The first two days will be in helmets and shorts with the Thursday work in pads. The first two workouts are closed and the first media opportunity is with offensive coaches and players after Tuesday's workout.
Hogs Try to Change Math
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