State of the Hogs: Pure Excitement

With spring drills beginning on Monday, there's plenty to be excited about for the Arkansas football team. There are position changes that fit Rob Smith's plan on defense and there are going to be more wide receivers on the field in the offense as implemented by Dan Enos.

After visiting with Bret Bielema and his staff this afternoon, two things jump out at me that are exciting -- one on each side of the football.

First, the offense will feature much more looks with three and even four wide receivers. The depth chart listed two starters at wideout, but they will open spring in a three wide look on Monday, as implemented by new offensive coordinator Dan Enos.

Second, the triangle Robb Smith constructed to wreak havoc on the weakside with Martrell Spaight, Trey Flowers and Darius Philon will be every much as strong with a talented combination of players led by Taiwan Johnson and Jeremiah Ledbetter at the three technique, or weakside tackle slot.

Wide receiver coach Michael Smith is trying to get the attention of first-year wideouts JoJo Robinson and Kendrick Edwards to be on time, but it hasn't sunk in yet. Both are off the depth chart for now, in a kind of suspension imposed by Bielema. They will practice with the team on Monday and Robinson would be second at the slot in a three wide look, according to the head coach.

"For both JoJo and Kendrick, until they are committed to the program in the right way, they won't appear in the depth chart," Bielema said, "until I'm sure they'll be here."

The irony about the lack of attention to time by Robinson and Edwards is clear from Smith. He said all of his players are asked to set their clocks 10 minutes fast. And, he said wideouts should look forward to the Dan Enos passing game.

"They do that, but they are still late," Smith said. "They just need to grow up and pay attention to the details. It's just being late and they keep doing it. The part that I don't get is that we are doing some things now that they should like, maybe some things that even the guys that were already here thought they were going to do under Bobby Petrino. We aren't going to be locked down in so many tight formations, but out in space. They should love this."

Defensive coordinator Robb Smith thinks there are playmakers aplenty to play his weakside triangle that was so successful last year at Arkansas with Spaight leading the SEC with 128 tackles.

"The last three years where I've been, we had players that were extremely productive in this system," he said. "We should be again. We have guys who want to slide out and play these spots. Taiwan Johnson wants to play the three technique. Deatrich Wise wants to play the 'R' end, the spot Trey played. And, Brooks Ellis, who played will some last year, knows that spot and is excited to move there.

"We had a conference player of the year play that spot at Rutgers. We had an All-Pro linebacker play that at Tampa Bay. Then, we had Martrell as first team All-SEC last year. It's a position where we are always productive. We dictate that the offense goes there. They don't have to, but if they go the other way, we have numbers. I think we'll still be very productive at this spot. Brooks is actually ahead of where Martrell was here at this time last year."

Bielema sounded excited about the move, too. He discussed the overall prospects at linebacker.

"Moved around some guys at Will, at linebacker," Bielema said. "Moved Brooks Ellis, who probably one of the more fluid linebackers I’ve ever been around, can really run. Probably runs better than Martrell on a straight dash play, but we’re going to put him in at will.

"(Ellis) looks real comfortable, has looked good in our out-of-season conditioning and that obviously bumps Josh Williams up. And then Khalia Hackett might be one of the biggest surprises out of the freshmen class. He’s bulked up, looks good, runs really well and excited to see him.

Smith said he has no concerns about the ability to make plays dropping at weakside linebacker with Ellis.

"We actually played him there two games," Smith said. "We had him at weakside against Texas Tech and LSU. He made plays. He's probably better in space than Martrell. He just covers things so well."

Enos said he'd split up repetitions equally for the first two weeks of spring practice behind starter Brandon Allen. He said the first team quarterback needs the heaviest dose of practice time, especially with some new concepts in the passing game that are developing. But, he will work to get equal snaps for Austin Allen, Rafe Peavey and Ty Storey.

"I want to give them as much as possible, those next three, in those first two weeks," Enos said. "Then, we'll make some decisions for what we do after that. But I think it will be equal for those three early."

Enos said he's excited to see what strength coach Ben Herbert has done with the offensive line to develop quickness and speed that will dove tail into the development of a better screen team with more plays for pulling linemen.

"We will definitely be heavy screen and have a lot of that in the red zone," Enos said. "Coach (Bielema) came up with the blueprint along with (line coach) Sam Pittman. But I like it. We will be a heavy pulling team. I do think our guys are quicker and faster. I like the looks of those guys and am excited about adding that to what we do."

Bielema did not pull any punches when talking about Robinson and Edwards. He said the depth is better at wide receiver with more help coming in the recruiting class. And, he talked up converted quarterback Damon "Duwop" Mitchell, settling in at wide receiver with some impressive winter workouts.

“He’s concentrated on nothing but wide receiver," Bielema said when asked about Duwop. "I would tell you that on the offensive side of the ball, he’s probably been the nicest surprise, just his attitude, his demeanor, his coachability, his workouts, just his overall presence in our program is as good as it’s ever been.

"I’m excited; I think he’s kind of had a rebirth. Again, he was one that really made reference to being able to understand this offense a lot better and being able to line up and get in the right position and get where he needs to be.

"I couldn’t be more excited. You know, we had a couple coaching staffs come in and watch how we do things during the out of season here. It was almost to a tee they came in and watched us do our winter workouts or conditioning drill, everybody would say, ‘Who’s 7, who’s 7, who’s that guy?’ Because he stands out, he’s big, he’s rangy, he’s athletic, he can run. He looks the way you’re supposed to look and excited to get him on the boat.”

The simplification of the offense was the work of Enos, making things more concise and easier for wide receivers to identify formations. Bielema said testing for language and terms has been off the charts better after the changes that Enos made to the system.

Bielema went into detail, comparing the simplification to what Smith did last year when he made things more concise with defensive calls.

“Absolutely," Bielmea said. "So, like, if we line up, if we’re going to line up a tight end to your side and a flanker in a two receivers over here, and the tailback in the back, which we’ve used all the time, it might take maybe some words to have that happen in the past it didn’t make a lot of sense to the kids.

"Maybe it’s something that we used in the past 10-15 years ago, but it ... So, now, Dan has a very easy way of declaring. Most of it is tight end driving. So, if the tight end is to the right you’ll hear some type of right or 'R' sounding. And then they guy that moves, so the f and r, to put it in laymen’s terms, the guy that’s kind of the broke part of the formation, whether it’s the fullback, the slot or the Z or whatever it is. He moves in a position that is very, it’s declared with three easy words. It’s here, here or here.

"It’s like they literally learned it in a day. We test Hoganese every week, and the test scores just went off the charts. We got all All-Academic SEC players in Hoganese. I mean, they really ... And it’s a simple thing like that that when you’re breaking the huddle and you’re a wide receiver and you know right where you need to go and there’s no thought, there’s no “aww” moment and then you just ... The same thing we have defensively. They play faster, they play harder, they’re much more engaged and good things happen.”

The big news as far as the offensive depth chart was a bit of a shuffle in the offensive line with Denver Kirkland and Dan Skipper swapping sides at tackle, with Kirkland now on the left side to provide blind-side protection for the righthanded quarterbacks.

"I know there’s been a lot of talk probably about the offensive line," Bielema said. " ]What we did a couple weeks back, we watched our guys go through winter program, watched our guys put on weight, some guys subtract weight, and we really wanted to get where we five where our five most experienced players on the field in the best positions they could play.

"And Denver Kirkland, by far one of the best pass-pro guys I’ve ever been around. So, that was really the drive course (he meant force) to get him moving to left tackle, the blind side, if you will, of our protection.

"(Sebastian) Tretola, we don’t want to mess with. He really did a nice job all year long, has slimmed down now to 325 pounds. He’s lost about 40 pounds since coming here. Mitch has done a nice job maintaining that center position. Moved (Frank) Ragnow to right guard, and then, obviously, Skipper over to the right side, and early indication is that’s gone very, very well. Sam felt that he even kind of moves a little bit better over there on the right side and the punch the way that they need to. So, really that’s the big news on offense."

Bielema was asked about the redshirt freshmen with top winters that might catch some eyes in spring drills. He pointed to running back Juan Day, perhaps getting a few more snaps early as Alex Collins recovers from an appendectomy.

“You know, I think in particular on the offensive side of the ball, without a doubt I think everybody’s really looking to see what J-Day can do, what Juan Day can do at running back," Bielema said. "Because obviously we’ve got two good ones, but, you know, I’ve always felt that we’ve been able to rotate three running backs through our program in the fall very, very well.

"So, J-Day has got an excellent opportunity to come in and I doubt he can overtake J-Will, but if Alex misses too much time, he’s a guy that can push for a spot I think without a doubt."

There are others.

"Tyler Colquitt at the fullback position is another guy that’s really exciting," Bielema said. "Jack Krauss at tight end has trimmed down from about 255 down to 235-240, looks really good. JoJo, if he’s out there, at times has looked good.

"On the defensive side of the ball, Santos Ramirez is probably the most intriguing guy, just because he almost played for us and he can play. He’s very physical, he’s very athletic, he can run. And then I think at the defensive line position, too, just a guy like Jake Hall is just a try hard, work, effort, he’s gone from like 225 to 265, looks like a different human being and excited to get him out there.”

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