Late in his first season as Arkansas football coach, Bret Bielema was asked what he was looking for on the recruiting trail? Speed, speed and more speed came the response.
And, that's what he wanted from his holdovers, challenging Ben Herbert, his strength and conditioning coach, to reshape his 2014 squad to better handle the speed in the SEC.
There is still more to do, but everyone looks faster, quicker and in better shape as the season opener with Auburn just two weeks away. Even the head coach looked faster Saturday as the Hogs treated approximately 5,000 fans in Reynolds Razorback Stadium to a two-hour scrimmage.
Bielema has lost some 30 pounds (and we don't know the starting point) since last season, appropriate as his complete squad has either gained or lost exactly what he suggested at almost every position. Even the newcomers are headed the right direction, including junior college imports Sebastian Tretola, an offensive guard, and Josh Williams, a middle linebacker.
"My wife ordered it," Bielema said of his new weight. "I'm still not fast, but I'm faster."
That was obvious when late in the day the burly head coach flashed some 40 yards down the field to make a coaching point after freshman JoJo Robinson, the fastest of the newcomers, dove into the end zone from the 3-yard line with the ball extended -- a no-no with Bielema -- to complete a 23-yard touchdown play that brought fans to their feet.
Robinson eluded freshman linebacker Randy Ramsey with a slick cut to get the play started, then turned it up towards the pylon from the 10-yard line. He left defenders in his wake with a dynamic slash.
Bielema said he didn't want to "over coach" the south Florida phenom, but he wanted to make one of his cardinal rules clear.
"My second year as head coach we had a guy reach for the goal line with the ball and it got knocked out and went out of bounds at the 1-yard line," Bielema said. "We don't reach the ball in, we run it in. That ball is going to get knocked out almost every time.
"I did want to congratulate him, but I was (running) down there to make a coaching point."
There was no need to make any coaching points after the other spectacular play on the day. Running back Korliss Marshall, who scored twice on swift dashes, celebrated his birthday with a 57-yard burst to end Austin Allen's time quarterbacking the ones almost as soon as it started.
"I stuck my head in the huddle and Korliss said, 'Let's run it down there,' and I don't think he meant all on one play," Bielema said. "He broke it and that's what Korliss does.
"The sky is the limit for him. I hope he understands how special he is and what God has given him."
There were others that jumped out. Tretola started at right guard in place of Denver Kirkland, out with a headache after a Thursday colliision, that was not diagnosed as a concussion. Like Bielema, Tretola is shedding poundage, perhaps as many as 20 in the first two weeks after stepping on the scales at 370 at his first UA physical.
"He did fine," Bielema said of Tretola's work with the ones. "I liked what I saw of him in the huddle. He's a special player."
Bielema said everyone got a glimpse of his recall ability with a "silly little game" where he asks players to learn a teammate's background, then recall it in front of the team.
"Sebastian spoke clear and concise and repeated every single thing about who we paired him with," Bielema said. "We didn't know what we were getting but he's not the typical JC guy."
What about Jefferson, a three-year starter at UNLV taking advantage of an NCAA rule to allow immediate eligibility at Arkansas?
"He's struggling with the physical part of what we do," Bielema said. "But he has some things that he brings to us, like the ability to pull. We need to take advantage of those skills."
It's clear the passing game has improved, but Bielema noted that everything was vanilla since it was an open scrimmage. There was some near perfect work from the Allen brothers to open the situational part of the day, nine straight completions, six by Brandon Allen. Most of that was against the twos as the play-action game worked cleanly.
Clean was the right word for the day. There were no lost fumbles and the only loose ball was an exchange not held by backup Patrick Arinze. There were no interceptions, although Josh Liddell had two passes from the backup quarterbacks go through his hands.
Brandon Allen was never close to an interception. His incomplete passes were all throws to the wide side that were put where only the offensive man could touch them. Two of them were catches that the receiver made, but didn't get his feet down in bounds.
Allen's velocity was strong throughout. He was quick on the trigger for the most part, but drawing Bielema's attention when he was late to one throw when Jeremy Sprinkle was breaking open in the end zone. The ball was tipped away by the safety and could have been a TD with a quicker release on the play-action call.
Running back Alex Collins, perhaps 20 pounds heavier than when he signed with the Hogs, made some terrific cuts and showed his power in finishing runs. He ran behind his pads, something he didn't always do as a true freshman.
It's clear that the Miami connection has worked some magic for the Hogs again. Ramsey, terrific last weekend in his first scrimmage, missed some tackles after missing three workouts this week because of an oblique muscle injury. While not "flashing" on Saturday, Bielema was clear that Ramsey and fellow freshmen linebackers Dwayne Eugene and Khalia Hackett don't appear to be redshirt candidates.
Williams got the first team snaps at middle linebacker with Brooks Ellis out with a sore knee. Bielema said it's clear that the JC transfer loves it at Arkansas after growing up at Ft. Lauderdale Dillard and Dodge City, Kan., JC. He's shedding weight, too.
Gaining weight since arriving on campus as a 240-pound defensive end is starting nose tackle Taiwan Johnson, solid in his work Saturday. Bielema admitted that his move from the three technique behind Darius Philon was "head coach orchestrated." Johnson is listed at 255, but is closer to 270 now.
"He's jumped out and can play that position," Bielema said. "I played that position, the cockeyed nose or tilt. I wasn't very good at it as a square nose. I didn't have his explosion. But I understood how to play it and it is sort of a unique ability. Taiwan has it."
No, the head coach doesn't have an explosion. But he's like the rest of his team, much quicker and faster than last season.
Among the visitors on the sideline was UA alum John Jenkins, former head coach at Houston. Like Bielema, he appears to be much lighter than previously. He wore Arkansas gear and still has the bright blonde locks, perhaps not as long as during his playing days....
Bielema talked to the crowd on a microphone before the scrimmage to explain the sequence of his plan, noting the situational work and asking for no video to be shot. He said if someone sees video taken by a phone to stop them and if it's someone from Auburn to "knock the (expletive deleted) out of them."...
Senior kicker John Henson handled the work with the first-team field goal team, nailing all of his tries except a 47-yarder in the two-minute drill. Cole Hedlund had one of his boots bounce off the upright....
The offensive play calls were vanilla, as was the defense. There was no press coverage and no blitzes, aside from a quick jump into the box by safety Alan Turner at times....
To end the day, Bielema and the team turned to the crowd and executed a loud Hog Call. That will probably be the last open practice of fall camp. There are no open practices next week and while the game week schedule has not been released, none are expected to be open to the media or the fans....
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