Dave Wannstedt has never coached at Arkansas. But the former NFL head coach felt at home last week in Arkansas gear. He said there are so many Arkansas ties in his background that it was natural to put on Razorback red.
There's Jeff Long, the UA athletic director and Wannstedt's former boss at Pittburgh. There's former UA player and assistant coach Jimmy Johnson, his mentor at Pitt, Oklahoma State, Miami, Dallas and Miami again. There's Pat Jones, the UA grad and former assistant. Wannstedt and Jones worked together at many stops, too.
Wannstedt spent four days with the UA staff last week, heading home after Saturday's scrimmage. Jones drove over from Tulsa early Saturday to watch the practice with Wannstedt, comparing notes on what they saw.
It gave me a chance to pick their minds. I've known both since they were assistants together at Oklahoma State in 1979-82 under Johnson. Wannstedt was defensive line coach and Jones split time as both defensive and offensive coordinator under Johnson.
They both said virtually the same thing, Wannstedt on Saturday before the scrimmage, Jones on Wednesday morning after watching the Hogs and listening to Wannstedt. The Hogs lack playmakers on both sides of the ball, but agreed that the 2014 team is significantly improved over the 3-9 squad in Bret Bielema's first season.
"They have gotten better since I saw them last spring," Jones said, "You see maturity in several areas. They have good, tough backs. Hunter Henry is big time. I think those young linemen, Dan Skipper and Denver Kirkland, are big time.
"They are a little more active on defense, but they can't over power you. I don't see great linemen on that side of the ball, guys like I remember from the past at Arkansas. There is not a Brison Manor, a Dan Hampton, an Ivan Jordan, guys who I saw pictures of in the new building."
Wannstedt said the same thing. He didn't see defensive linemen who could win a play without a stunt or a call. He said, "I told Bret, sometimes a guy just has to step up and beat the other guy. You need some who can do that."
There was one disclaimer from both coaches. They didn't see defensive end Trey Flowers practice. He's big time and will be a high NFL pick. He was held out of Saturday practices and wasn't in the main contact drills earlier in the week witnessed by Wannstedt.
Both retired coaches know they didn't see Korliss Marshall at running back, either. He was held out of practices last week as medical tests were completed. He was good to go on Tuesday. He has the 4.3 speed that this team aches for on both sides of the ball. He'll change things on offense to force the focus of the safeties and linebackers and that will help the passing game.
"That will help," Jones said. "I know they have some speed coming in the freshmen, too. I think they will get some playmaking from Hunter Henry and Jeremy Sprinkle at tight end. I like both of those a lot. They can use them both and make it tough as far as matchups. That's one area where they'll get plays from."
Jones said assistant Randy Shannon – close to Wannstedt and Jones – told them about Jo Jo Robinson and Kendrick Edwards, the two South Florida receivers headed to Arkansas. Jones wanted to know more about El Dorado signee Bijhon Jackson, possibly a great defensive tackle.
Wannstedt was most impressed with the secondary and the work of Robb Smith, the new defensive coordinator, and Clay Jennings, the new secondary coach.
"I think they are good in the secondary," Wannstedt said. "I think they are good in the offensive line. They just have to continue to add speed everywhere. I told Bret that I like where they are headed."
Jones said, "I could tell they were better in the secondary. They are more settled at linebacker."
Wannstedt and Jones both commented on solid play at quarterback with Brandon Allen. They just think Allen needs more help.
"They just have to keep adding players," Jones said. "I think they have the right idea, get back in Texas in a big way. I talked to (new recruiting coordinator) E. K. Franks. They have a plan for Texas. He wanted to pick my mind. I told him Texas was the right idea."
Jones studied the schedule Saturday before heading home. It was loaded with land mines.
"I know this, that trip to Lubbock is big," Jones said. "That game is incredibly pivotal. They need that one. How much they get over powered within their division is still a question in my mind."
So is there a phrase that would capture where the Hogs are right now? After a bit of a pause, Jones said, "Work in progress."
Wannstedt's catch phrase was simply, "Headed the right direction."
Unfortunately, the direction, as Jones mentioned, is pointed to the SEC West where there are no easy touches and lots of team with maturity.
That's what each man was thinking about as they watched the Razorbacks.
"I like what they have on that staff," Jones said. "They have good coaches. They are going to be well coached. I know a lot of those guys and those that I didn't know, Dave knew. We think it's a good bunch."
Wannstedt looked at home with them.
"I asked Pat how I looked in this Razorback stuff," Wannstedt said. "He thought it was good."
Indeed, Wannstedt's big, long frame – never mind that he's now 61 – did look good. Now if the Hogs just look that good next fall they'll be in business.
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