How do you read the pre-season posturing by coaches and players coming out of the Arkansas football camp? There's been a lot of positives and few negatives. Growth and improvement – and few injuries – have been a regular part of all practice reports.
So what does that mean when you look at the Arkansas schedule, starting with Saturday's trip to play No. 6 Auburn, the defending SEC champ? And, then there are bowl teams waiting around every bend and a key non-conference game at Texas Tech, perhaps as large as last year's trip to Rutgers.
I've weighed all of this as I've pondered my annual prediction column. I'm the late one every year because I've learned that things can change dramatically over the summer and even in two-a-days. But the worst thing that has happened this August is probably the loss of a truck, not any on-the-field talent.
And, that casualty is a thing not a broken foot, torn ACL or an arrest. Yes, this police report concerns the chase of someone doing something to property and it's been done TO someone on the team, not BY someone on the team.
This time the player was in bed at 4 a.m., not going the wrong way with a bad headlight and a suspended license. How many of those reports do you remember through the years? Not with this Arkansas team, at least not lately.
Head coach Bret Bielema sounded upbeat Wednesday at the Northwest Arkansas Touchdown Club, calling this “the most enjoyable camp I've ever been around.” He quickly acknowledged that among the downers has been the “constant negativity” about the Razorbacks on the new SEC Network, which he's “muted” in the football offices.
Building confidence is what Bielema is all about. He admitted at the TD club that his “big worry has been where this team is mentally” after winning just seven of 24 games the last two seasons.
“A lot of teams think they can win and not a lot expect to win,” he said. “You need to get to that point, then you are going to win a lot of games.”
They won't lose because of physical ability like they did last year. It's a different looking team, one that can go toe-to-toe with other SEC programs.
“We are going to be able to handle the fight,” Bielema said. “They can walk down an alley and it's going to be a fair fight. Now it is going to be about can they handle the fight all the way from the first to the fourth quarter.”
That's why confidence is so important.
“We have tried to foster it every day,” he said. “We have tried to make them understand that the swagger does matter.”
The physical improvement in the offensive and defensive line is clear. Newcomers like Sebastian Tretola, Frank Ragnow, Brian Wallace and Cameron Jefferson aren't in the starting lineup, but all are likely to play at Auburn. It's clear that Bielema is not afraid to play eight or nine offensive linemen.
“If they are ready to play, I don't worry (about subbing at O-line),” he said. “The only place you really worry is at center, where the quarterback exchange is so important when you change.
“The only thing I want to cover with them, when are they going to play, what are their expectations for when it will happen. I've gone over that with my coaches to make it clear to each player when that moment for each of them happens to be, is it the second series, or exactly when. I want them to be prepared mentally for that moment.”
Physically, the team is in good shape. Cornerback Tevin Mitchel is probably out with a hamstring injury, but others have returned ahead of schedule. Deatrich Wise is full speed at defensive end, but will split time with one of the bright spots of camp, Jamichael Winston.
Tretola has dazzled all camp. Bielema called him probably the best of all of their interior offensive linemen. The juco transfer has dieted from 375 to 352. The head coach revealed that he too has lost weight, now 35 pounds, going with wife-approved shakes at breakfast and dinner.
There was a mention of the way his team has handled distractions – and he pointed at me to clarify that his wife was not a distraction – during camp, noting how well quarterback Brandon Allen hurdled the truck arson.
“He practiced yesterday like nothing had happened,” Bielema said. “That's a big deal when your truck is torched. It's a huge thing, real life. But he's made great strides. He's thrown the ball well, with accuracy (all fall) and our receivers are catching the ball.”
Bielema covered the offensive plusses for this team and there are many, from the depth and talent at tight end and running back and the many bright spots at wideout including 6-6 freshman Kendrick Edwards now dubbed “Mossy” by teammates because he resembles Randy Moss.
But the highlight to me is the defensive line, now quicker and prepared to play an aggressive style. The emergence of Taiwan Johnson at nose guard is the most exciting thing to me from camp. Quickness and speed close to the quarterback is a headache for spread teams. They don't read nose tackles and Johnson could disrupt the ball handling, perhaps tricky if forecasts of rain come true.
Then there's the linebackers, a void at Arkansas for what seems like forever. Brooks Ellis and Martrell Spaight could be headliners finally and watch out for true freshmen Randy Ramsey, Khalia Hackett and Dwayne Eugene, the reason Otha Peters went home. All can fly and hit like water moccasins. Bielema, calling them freaks, compared them to young versions of three of his former Wisconsin linebackers now in the NFL.
I've given you the good, now for the bad. Auburn should be as advertised, a good top 10 team. They have good players and will be well coached.
But there will likely be some ugly on both sides. The deciding factor in early season games, as Bielema noted, are kicking game mistakes and turnovers. If the Hogs play clean, even in the rain, they'll be in the game in the fourth quarter.
I think Arkansas has a great chance. The Hogs are due some good bounces and Auburn may have used up a bunch last year.
Bielema has done nice work in the last eight months, rebuilding a roster with around 20 newcomers on the travel squad. There is new speed, along with more amazing stuff by the strength coach, Ben Herbert.
That's why I'm going on record with six wins for 2014, another in a bowl game. I thought Bielema looked like he was in fighting shape at the NWA Touchdown club on Wednesday. He called himself “an old linebacker coach.” Now, he's got some linebackers to take to Auburn.
State of the Hogs: 7-6
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