Arkansas head football coach Bret Bielema and his football team went into spring drills motivated by the disappointment of a 3-9 season that left a bitter taste in his mouth, that of his players and staff and the fans.
Bielema believes that his program came out of the 15 workouts in much better shape than it went in.
"I'm probably more confident today than I've ever been that this is a team that takes every day for what it is, has gotten themselves better," Bielema said. "Nobody wanted to go 3-9, but the results of last year's season are nothing more than a great motivator for this year's season. And for me as a head coach, that's not going to waiver."
The Razorbacks finished up the spring Saturday with the Red's 61-22 win over the White – a game in which the first offense (Red) struggled out of the gate.
"Had a chance to watch it on film, talk to our kids," Bielema said. "We had a team meeting on Monday, and one of the things I've always said is film never lies. And one of the things I really tried to stress to those guys on Monday night in the meeting was, you know, I watched the game as they watched the game unfold. You're on the field, you're on the sidelines, you see certain things and they stick in your mind, but nothing gives a better indication of what our opponents are gonna see better than that film.
"And on film you could see some things that need to be cleaned up," Bielema added. "Some very, very good things that are positive, but also some things that need to get cleaned up that our opponents are going to have the same opportunity to see next fall. Really try to get them to understand the things that stop you from losing."
Bielema pointed out some things specifically.
"Almost to a point where we work on everything trying to become a better football team, but the thing that we have to eliminate from our program all together are the things that prohibit you from winning - turnovers, unforced errors, penalties, playing behind the chains, not capitalizing on good field position," Bielema said. "All the little things that make us better in the long run. So, I think for us to move forward those things are going to be very, very positive and hopefully make us continue to grow.
"...I thought our guys overall really, really grew. I thought the 15 practices were capitalized and moved in the right direction and hopefully are going to be a positive for using going forward."
As usual, the focus for most fans was the quarterback play of starter Brandon Allen, who was just 5 of 11 for 20 yards with two picks in the first half, but warmed up to go 7-10 in the second half to finish 12-of-21 for 108 yards and a touchdown in the second half.
While a segment of the fan base is definitely down on Allen after his struggles as a first-year starter last season, the coach had quite the long-winded response when asked about his confidence level in Allen.
"I think one of the things that I am excited about coming into this spring was to actually have a healthy BA, but also have better players around him," Bielema said.
"I learned this actually from (former Wisconsin quarterback) Russell Wilson," Bielema added of his former transfer from North Carolina State and now the Seattle Seahawks Super Bowl-winning QB. "You get better by the more players you coach and the experiences. When I sat down with Russell after the season, I said when it got down to it, 'why was it us over Auburn? (Wilson said) 'I think you had a better core of players around me that I knew I could have success here.'
"That makes me really thinks about the team we field around your starting quarterback," Bielema continued. "He has got to have confidence in them, which allows him to play a little bit better.
"I also do firmly believe that the starting quarterback position – you can say whatever you want, but it is completely different than anybody else on the field," Bielema added. "They get entirely to much credit when they win and entirely too much blame when we lose. It is like a head coach as well. It's something that we share together.
"But on the flip side I will say this, I was in Wynne last night and a person ask me a question about the quarterbacks and I didn't like the way the question was phrased," Bielema said. "One of the things that I said to this individual was this – the more I am in position and the more success we begin to have I would realize that the quarterback is unlike any other position tends to play at the level that he believes the head coach and the other coaches have confidence in him.
"I think everybody on offense would tell you that we believe in him and that we have a lot of faith in him," Bielema responded, "and he doesn't make a throw with the question in the back of his head – 'if I don't get a 3rd and 8 throw here, am I going to get pulled' and I think that goes a long way for a quarterback."
It does appear that Allen will be throwing passes to former quarterback Damon Mitchell next fall.
"What we ended up doing was a slow process," Bielema said. "I suggested it, kind of went back and forth for a couple of days there, but the last two weeks he concentrated solely at wide receiver, and I had a conversation with him and his family on Saturday after the game. They were gonna have some conversations, obviously, to continue the process.
"But in talking with (Arkansas wide receivers coach) Michael Smith in his exit interview with Duwop (Mitchell), he seemed very, very positive and said he was going to come back and try the wide receiver position and move forward, but I'm not going to make him do anything he doesn't want to do," Bielema added. "I also did share with him if he wanted to move on, I'd work with him in any capacity to help him find a home if he truly wanted to stay with the quarterback.
"But I think it's moving in the right direction," Bielema continued. "I think, Saturday, if you asked anybody leaving the stadium who might have made an impression on you, I think he'd probably be one or two or three guys that were mentioned just because of the things he was able to catch and do with the football."
Bielema knows he is blessed with three great tailbacks in Korliss Marshall, Jonathan Williams and Alex Collins.
Marshall had 6 carries for 99 yards, Williams 7 for 78 and Collins 4 for 13 - although a long run of his was called back for holding.
"J-Will...did some things that were very, very positive, realized that he is a guy that is very, very talented, explosive, powerful," Bielema said. "... Alex might have had his best month in our program. Had to wake him up on several areas away from the game, and hopefully that carried over a little bit. I know his numbers didn't match to J-Will and Korliss on Saturday, but he had the longest run called back with holding.
"So, it's not that we're disappointed or anything like that," Bielema added. "I think he's a kid that ... He's nowhere scratched the surface of how good he can be.
"The most exciting guy, obviously, is just Korliss, because he is really unscratched in his potential," Bielema continued. "Didn't even really work with the running backs (early) in the fall camp. He worked with them part time during the fall.
"He started to get things rolling a little bit in the spring, but was setback about a week or two with being out of it, and I think it's very easy to recognize from everybody on our team as well as in the stands that he's a very explosive player," Bielema added. "Those three guys are good players; it's a good issue to have.
"But on the flip side of it, every championship season I've ever been involved with we've been involved as a team that's had three running backs," Bielema continued. "Not one, not two, it's always been three, and I think those three ... In addition, I think Kody Walker brings some things as well. So, that's very exciting."
Those running backs will be used two at a time on occasions this season and also in the passing game.
"Between our top three tailbacks, between J-Will and Alex and Korliss, all of them have shown they're explosive with the ball in their hands, and if we can get them the ball by throwing it, that's even better," Bielema said. "I think everybody wants to throw the ball more efficiently overall, not just to the running backs, but to our tight ends, our wide receivers and everybody else. I think that's an area that will continue to grow."
He also mentioned that Marshall would be put in other places.
"I think, obviously, that's what I hired Jim Chaney for," Bielema said. "...Obviously, last year we had Kiero (Small) involved in kind of a little Wildcat package, if you will. We called it WildHog, but it's something that definitely is intriguing, and if we can do it, I would say that, you know, Korliss might bring some skills that you could use him maybe somewhere other than tailback as well on the field - whether it be as a slot receiver or a motion guy or somebody to have a little bit of nuance to the offense."
Bielema noted that he wasn't in the mind to show off the offense on Saturday because the foes could get the tape off of TV or ESPN3.
"We didn't exactly showcase everything on Saturday," Bielema said. "You know, by choice, we didn't feel that because of where we are and some of the new plays that we've been working on all spring, it's just better to leave some of those things out of it. And that would be some of those plays."
Bielema also noted that Mitch Smothers would start at center and Grady Ollison at left guard if the season started now.
But he also left it open that his highly-touted incoming freshman and junior college offensive linemen - Frank Ragnow, Brian Wallace, Sebastian Tretola and Javon Pruitt (if he gets a qualifying ACT score) could play early.
"I think left guard probably a little bit more up in the air, but I would say that between three of the four offensive linemen coming in in the fall and this summer, it's going to be a wide open race for them to kind of see if they can be a little bit like Denver and Dan Skipper gave us a year ago," Bielema said.
Bielema, who noted the NCAA now allows the assistant coaches some time with the players in the summer, said he wasn't disappointed about there being over 15,000 less fans at this season's Red-White game than last spring's.
"I don't look at it in the light that you do," Bielema said. "I try to look at it in a positive light that there's a lot of people that showed up and gave great support to the program. I think in the world of college football, we're always trying to compare numbers where I just try to compare feelings, and I couldn't be more excited about where we're going.
"I've been to Razorback clubs all over the state, and the people that are attending those things are very, very positive," Bielema added. "Everybody wants to win, and everybody is entitled to their feelings and their urgency to do that, but I can't speed up the process of getting what we need to do to win.
"I'm excited, I think these guys in the room are excited," Bielema continued. "Their teammates are very, very anxious because we know that we're a better team than we were a year ago at this time."
Bielema Believes His Team's Better
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