The cornerbacks are making Bret Bielema smile. Robb Smith has brought an excitement to the defense. Brandon Allen's completion percentage is up, thanks to fewer drops. And, D'Arthur Cowan will sit out the spring to concentrate on academics.
Those are among the major takeaways after the Arkansas head coach met with the media after the Hogs have completed their first three days of spring football workouts.
Bielema met with the media for 30 minutes Friday afternoon. The Hogs will take the next week off for spring break.
Senior safety Alan Turner had class attendance, missing Tuesday and Thursday. But he's worked out a system with his teacher to account for class and still get to practice the rest of spring.
Wide receiver D'Arthur Cowan will not practice this spring to do some catching up on academics. He'll also miss spring break to stay on campus to work on academics.
Tight end Demetrius Dean has fallen below 12 hours and is no longer eligible. He will not return to the team. He has been gone from the squad for a few weeks.
Wide receiver Demetrius Wilson will not go through scrimmage work this spring, while coming back from ACL surgery. He's gotten his speed back, but still is in a brace. Bielema said there are times he still looks to have "a hitch" in his stride, but he's helped the receivers because of his ability to make plays and with his sure hands.
One of the early questions concerned the play of quarterback Brandon Allen through three days of spring.
"I think first, you guys probably saw it (in Thursday's practice)," Bielema said. "He looks different. He looks like a different guy.
"He's put on a number of pounds and restructured his weight. I believe Jim (Chaney) said this morning he was throwing accuracy somewhere in the low 60s. I'd love to get him 70 percent or higher.
"But just his field presence, his awareness. I think he's kind of ready to move on. You know, we've been a little bit slow and steady, just trying to get everybody on the same page, and he definitely has awareness conceptually of every play, every call. It's neat for him to see a couple of new defensive change-ups that are going to make him read and do things differently.
"As far as someone who's engaged and excited. You know he's great with the younger guys, great with the younger quarterbacks. He's good with the younger players. I've seen him jump somebody's ass a little bit, which I like to see, as far as if he didn't like the way someone ran a route, or did something and he knows that he's right. I like that assertiveness at the position. I think you need it."
Cornerback play -- especially with defensive coordinator Robb Smith's addition of more press -- has been one of the highlights through three days for Bielema.
"Robb (Smith) is a big believer in press coverage, in quarter-quarter-half and in cover two even, and that definitely puts corners up in your face at the line of scrimmage," Bielema said. "What I like about our scheme is that we may use two or three different techniques of press to try to get that accomplished – whether it's right at the line of scrimmage, whether it's five yards and a bail, or it's press and bail. We've looked at a couple of different things and it's been good for our wide receivers and quarterbacks probably like seeing the different looks because it prepares them what they'll see."
Asked more specifically about the way corners have adapted to the change, Bielema seemed pleased.
"To be quite honest, they've been the highlight for me so far," he said. "I really think Tevin Mitchel, in my opinion, has taken a huge, huge liking to what's going on. He's a strong kid. I think it allows him to play with some confidence with someone playing over the top of him. He's really responded well. He's really flying around.
"A week ago Saturday he brought every DB in for a little of what we call overtime. We can't make guys come in past a certain number of hours. If you do that, it's considered overtime and you get rewarded in how you play. He was the driving force with Alan Turner. Between those two guys, we are getting some good leadership back there.
"On the flip side, Carroll Washington and Jared Collins, and if we get a pound or two on each one of his butt cheeks he'd be a lot better. He's really responded in the right way. D. J. Dean, to be quite honest, is doing everything we ask him to do on and off the field. He'll be a guy who continues to rise.
"Will (Hines) has been good. He got to play a little bit at the end (of regular season) with that arm. He's getting used to doing things (with the arm). Will's kind of a guy who really has a bad day or a good day. He just always is there. I shouldn't forget him. Those five guys particularly at corner have been fairly decent."
Overall, Bielema said it was a good start to spring drills. The Hogs had two days in shorts and helmets on Sunday and Tuesday, then added full pads on Thursday.
"I'm excited to get done with Practice number three, Bielema said. "I thought yesterday was a great culmination of a couple of days of work. the first two practices are limited to helmets only because of ncaa rules. so to get out there in pads yesterday was awesome."
Bielema volunteered a couple of academic situations.
"A couple of guys of note weren't out there yesterday," he said. "First, (safety) Alan Turner has a class conflict that. He was not going to be with us the first two days, a situation he couldn't get out of, but he should be with us the rest of the spring.
"He set up a schedule with a teacher that allows him to do that so he should be back with us.
"The other guy obviously not out there was (wide receiver) D'arthur Cowan. D'Arthur is going to take the rest of the spring to concentrate on his studies. He had put himself in a situation that I felt if we didn't give him some time purely away from the practice element that he wouldn't get to where he needed to be academically.
"He actually is spending spring break here as well to get going on his academics. That is something I have done routinely in the past with guys I felt were concerned."
Cowan missed a lot of time in the fall with a broken bone in his foot that required surgery. So this is another chunk of down time for the talented wide receiver. Does that concern Bielema?
"Well because he missed a significant amount of time in the fall that obviously concerns you," Bielema said. "You get better with reps but on the same account I need him to be eligible and be here so that's my priority for him right now."
Otherwise, the team is relatively healthy.
"Those two guys weren't with us but everybody else stayed pretty well injury free," Bielema said. "Unfortunately we had a couple of walk-on that had an ACL or two that will be out with the rest of the spring. We have been pretty healthy."
Bielema thinks he sees growth from the off-season program, noting a difference from last spring at this time.
"The part that is really intriguing to me that is the guys that have built their bodies into something," he said. "Even from a year ago we have had guys that put on weight, lost weight, and put themselves into position just to play the game physically.
"To play the game physically and their recall mentally has been outstanding and to get through practices one, two and three the way that we have and the pace that we have has been good.
Bielema was asked about the concerns another spring with a new defensive coordinator and adjusting to three new defensive assistants.
"I get it and obviously we have three new defensive coaches but the transition I think has been pretty seamless for our kids," he said. "What we did before we got on the field this year is take advantage of more learning time.
"The NCAA allows us a certain amount of hours that we delegated towards football IQ. We called it 'Hogenese' a time we sat down and visited with kids about the communication we share as a football team unique to us and I think it has really paid off.
"Our kids are that much more advanced. And I think that is helping them as much as anything. The basics that Robb and the defensive coaches have brought in - in theory we are still a 4-3 defense. We play a lot of zone coverages. We began to install some of our zone blitz package yesterday which I think the kids really enjoyed and that's only going to be something that grows from where we are."
Bielema likes the defensive coaching transition. And, obviously, he's pointed out that it's something good, not bad.
"I think it's all in the way that you spin it," Bielema said. "I think our kids have been very, very responsive to Robb. I think Coach Jennings has been a huge hit. If you ask me probably two or three of the biggest surprises of the spring would probably be Tevin Mitchel, Carroll Washington and Jared Collins. Those guys have been pretty stout for these first three practices.
"I am excited to watch them play and that's obviously some kids that had transition a year ago. But I get it. The bottom line is it's new verbiage and language. That's why we took those 10 courses, those 10 meetings to set up a learning curve that hopefully helps them to get better prepared."
Bielema doesn't mind stopping for spring break. He's built it into his spring schedule for a long time.
"I think in the long run it helps us more than not," he said. "It's something I started doing after my second year at Wisconsin.
"It actually uses the allotment of the whole time that the NCAA lets you do it. They have got a certain amount of days that they let you get practices in and we make it under by just one day. What it allows you to do is get more players back that you may lose possibly to injury if you scale it down to a three-week session or four-week session you may lose a couple of players that you never get back.
"It allows us to put a teaching day between each practice day and allows the body to get better recovery and be able to perform better. I think as far as mental recall it only enhances it and doesn't deter it.
Bielema likes what he's seen from the wide receiver group, noting Demetrius Wilson, coming back from ACL surgery, has encouraged coaches.
"Yeah, actually didn't bring him up but not because of a lack of encouragement," he said. "He has remained relatively swelling free. He's been on that knee, this is his first full-go. We won't scrimmage Demetrius. I don't think he's ... Even if you just watch him in routes on air, there's just a little bit of a hitch in his get-along.
"He's catching the ball; yesterday he made some fantastic catches. We were joking because on Tuesday's practice he started talking a little bit of smack to the DBs and that was the old Demetrius that we knew that we had ... Just that confidence and bravado. So, I'm very excited about him. He brings a lot of charisma. He's got good speed. He's got good hands. He's got maturity. I'm excited to see him continue to grow and get better.
"It's obvious, I think (Brandon Allen) ... The first day of practice, our completion percentage was off the charts. With BA, and the part that jumped out to me was we just didn't have a lot of drops. Sometimes you get better just by, you know, graduation and things moving forward and people getting to where they needed to be. Jeremy Sprinkle's catching the ball extremely well, Demetrius, extremely well. Hunter, Voelzke, our fullbacks out of the backfield, our tailbacks are just catching the ball so much more efficiently.
"I think Cody Hollister and Jared Cornelius might have the best set of hands that we have right now. It's just fun to see those guys catch it."
The running backs have been impressive. Bielema liked what he saw of Jonathan Williams, Alex Collins and Korliss Marshall through three days.
"I've been blown away with J-Will," Bielema said. "He's faster, he's smoother, he's stronger.
"Alex continues to do some very, very good things. He's very explosive. Has got some tremendous upside to him. We made a consistent effort of him trying to, on certain plays, hit it up in there no matter what he sees. Just kind of hit it and get our three yards, get our four yards and be happy. He did a good job of that yesterday. I thought it was a good starting point.
"A guy that really jumped out was Korliss Marshall, an incredibly explosive player. For the first time he's really been fully engaged in the whole running back position. In all of fall camp he was on the defensive side of the ball and came over and played offense on a scaled-down version. For him to be where he is right now has been awesome."
Bielema has seen some competitive fire in the practices, including one brief flare up.
"I'm just glad they're getting feisty, to be honest," he said. "I think about it, one of the things I did, I took Coach Chaney's lead on this, it was kind of interesting.
"We were leaving for that last Friday before we start spring break, or spring ball. I wanted everybody to be out of the office. Make sure everybody got out of there and let's come into the office on Sunday, fresh minded. We'd been grinding pretty hard.
"He stopped through my office and said he'd watched the first day of spring ball. I was like, why would you do to yourself that. Go back to a year ago? So I did the exact same thing and I've kind of now done it with practice No. 1. I'll do it before scrimmage no. 1, where I go back to a year ago to see where we are today.
"Practice in pads last year, as much as I thought it was great at the time, I look back on it and there weren't what you're talking about. There wasn't a competitive nature.
"One of the things defensively I really remember trying to … I remember, I think it was like our eighth practice and we had converted a defensive turnover into a touchdown and it was like lifeless, like nobody was doing anything. I went berserk. I'm like, 'You've got to play the game with emotion and celebrate. A lot of the defensive players said, hey, they didn't know how to because in practice there wasn't a lot of defensive celebration allowed. So we took a while to kind of get that going again.
"On the flip side of that, offensively, when you go into a huddle, you know they were just quick, quick, quick and not it allows them to express themselves a little bit in between plays and to see a little feisty, I think was pretty good."
How have the linebackers been through three days?
"First, we're going to be dictated on how our seniors play and Braylon Mitchell," Bielema said, "has probably been a nice, pleasant surprise because we're playing him at the Sam position, a little bit different scheme for him, but something I think he can physically do very, very well.
"Brooks Ellis and Martrell Spaight, and then another linebacker who's playing extremely well is Otha Peters. You know, Otha came in and we were high on him last year in fall camp. Broke his hand, his thumb, whatever it was. So he never was really engaged in the game, I think last year. And he had a little procedure done during the break, where he had an operation on his groin. That''s been 100 percent healed up and he's been -- I think those four guys for sure, in addition to a couple of those freshmen coming in, may be able to bring a lot to us.
"And Alex Brignoni, I tell you what, Alex brignoni is a kid that really didn't rep in the fall. He's a feisty little sucker that I think plays well in space. He loves reps. He's a good athlete and I think he's a tough guy."
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