State of the Hogs: Playing Clean

There were no turnovers in the first Arkansas scrimmage of spring ball, but Bret Bielema found a few things that didn't fit his five edges for the Razorbacks. They did 100 yards of up downs as a reminder.

Keeping it clean is one of the five edges that Arkansas coach Bret Bielema preaches. So even when the first spring scrimmage was free from one single turnover, it wasn't clean enough.

Six penalties -- five on offense, one on defense -- left Bielema something to turn into a teaching point on his key edges after Saturday's 82-play scrimmage at Reynolds Razorback Stadium. It left the team with a little conditioning as a reminder that it wasn't clean enough.

“It's been pretty good," Bielema said of spring turnovers. "Our players, if they put a ball on the ground, they just take off running. They know it's not an option to come back to the huddle because you let everyone down in the huddle with the 10 on the field, you let the whole sideline down. You carry the University of Arkansas in your hand when you have that ball. Our guys have really bought into it. I thought our quarterbacks did a better job with two hands on the football. We made that coaching point after Tuesday's practice. Last week, it's just the little things. It drives me crazy.

“When I read about other teams, or start seeing teams have scrimmages or spring games today, I'll start watching those on the SEC as well as across the country. I remember last year I remember reading in the spring game where some guys had seven or eight turnovers, that just made my stomach flip. I think our players react the same way.

"We CANNOT win if we beat ourselves. And, that's why we did the 100 yards of up downs at the end. We had six penalties with the ones and twos, five offensive and one defensive. We can't play a half of football with six penalties and our guys understand that. Now, a couple were ticky tacky, but I wanted to be that way.

“We preach our edges. The first edge is mental and physical toughness. Second edge is we are going to play fast and through the whistle. The third edge is we are going to play clean. Playing clean means you don't turn the ball over, you don't commit penalties before or after the snap, and you play within the rules that we have. I think they buy into those three things.”

The lack of turnovers was obvious. And, there was never a hint of an interception with the top two quarterbacks, Brandon Allen and Austin Allen. Just as obvious is that all the quarterbacks, from the Allen brothers to youngsters Rafe Peavey and Ty Storey, throw with a little more velocity. Bielema said it's just better footwork, as emphasized by new quarterbacks coach Dan Enos, the new play caller and offensive coordinator.

"I think obviously they're older and more mature and (strength) coach (Ben) Herbert," Bielema said. "But all of the quarterbacks have commented just on the fact Coach Enos has brought in some things from throwing the ball to footwork to being able to play with their feet underneath them, stepping up in the pocket. Doing some little things that affect velocity and it's very very evident."

It's just as evident that this is a good Arkansas team, that probably will begin next season in the top 25, maybe top 20. Bielema emphasized that he likes everything about the way they work and the way parts are coming together throughout the roster after six days of spring drills.

Bielema said he listens to veteran coaches who pop into practices, especially those who have come every year like Arkansas alum Pat Jones, former head coach at Oklahoma State. Jones commented on the pace of play, or the practices.

"Without a doubt," Bielema said. "It was good to see Coach Jones, Pat. He came back. He's watched every spring and fall, and it's one of the first things he made a comment about watching practice film.

"Then out there early in practice. Our guys know how to practice now. This is our third year. Our coaches know what we're doing, our players know. It's so fun to sit back as a head coach and not have to worry about if everybody knows where they're going, where they're supposed to be, the tempo that we expect.

"Here's a little indicator of where we're at. We're a good football team, no ifs, ands or buts about it. We go Thursday's practice, and any time you take them into half pad, so we've been full pads all the way through that we were allowed to, and Thursday I wanted to scale back and go half pads, because I wanted to have the type of day we had out there today. Any time you half pad, you worry that they're going to slow down, get a little grabby. Just kind of become juvenile. And our guys had an unbelievable work ethic Thursday.

"I think the sky is limit. We've got to be smart about how we practice. I'm better in tune with our athletes now. I kind of … during my first year and even into that second year, I tried to use probably too much of a cookie-cutter approach I'd used in the past. I've got a different level of athlete here. I've got some guys that really can do some special things up front and in the back end, and we've got to maximize those guys.

It's clear that Enos has brought some clarity to the picture, too. He's simplified some of the formation calls and that has helped bring some zip to the tempo in practice.

"Two things jump out to me," Bielema said. "There is very little confusion with our more experienced players going in and coming out of the huddle. There's no looking around, 'what do I got?' I think they're able to play faster and more aggressive before they're not thinking.

"The calls have condensed by quite a bit. Our basic Hoganese, I know everybody makes fun of it, but that has been tremendous with our players. And just they're playing with a little bit of confidence and tempo.

"Take a play, if you remember early on, whoever jumped offsides, so we went from a 3rd and 4 to a 3rd and 9. WE changed the call, (Brandon Allen) threw a nice little dig route and converted. To have that confidence after you get punched in the face with a setback, that comes from veteran experience and to have a fifth-year senior quarterback is everything I hope it'd be."

Quarterback play always stands out. But Bielema said if you want to track what makes a team SEC ready, it's the line play. He is all smiles about the depth there on both sides of the ball.

"Without a doubt," he said. "I think two guys that have probably been a nice surprise addition for us have been Jeremiah Ledbetter and Hjalte and Froholdt. Both those guys are definitely going to be help us in some capacity. Could possibly even start for us. I think at the inside position between Hjalte and Bijhon and (DeMarcus Hodge) in there at the nose. At tackle, I think Taiwan Johnson has had a really nice spring, and behind him to have a guy like Jeremiah Ledbetter and the ability he has. At the R position to have Tevin Beanum to come on and push Deatrich the way he has. And have Karl Roesler do some things. And at the E with JaMichael Winston. It's kind of our best player there, and Jake Hall's done a nice job.

"Anthony Brown I suspended from the football team. He won't be with us throughout the course of the spring. So that kind of opened up that spot for Jake, and he's done it and ran. And Mitch Loewen, of course can play that position in the fall, and he's done a really nice job for us last fall, but he's coming back from the shoulder surgery. So we're as deep as we've ever been at the D-line and O-line. And that's probably the No. 1 key to success in the SEC."

The Brown suspension goes along with one for wide receiver Kendrick Edwards announced three weeks ago. Bielema said that both have been given the opportunity to explore transfer options, but neither has.

Bielema said there is still a small window for both to return in the fall, but neither are with the team currently.

That brought up a question about wide receiver JoJo Robinson, apparently now out of the doghouse and drawing praise for academic work as well as impressive plays on the field. He was spectacular in a cut off of a reverse on Saturday and has drawn applause from Enos, too.

"Jojo had a really nice day," Bielema said. "But I saw (receivers coach) Mike (Smith) getting in his ear a little bit. He's a very talented player.

"If you took our wide receiver group, he might have the most ability to catch, run, the natural instincts of a wide receiver and all that. He's obviously a little light in the end. But he's got a definite role on our football team, and hopefully he'll continue to grown. I just love … he continues to grow. I've gotten on him about academics. Thursday we had an academic meeting and he got over 90 percent on a speech he gave in an English class he was struggling in. He's beginning to buy into that everything affects one another and I'm hoping it's a sign of good things to come."

There continue to be bright spots in almost every area. Competition is apparent at most places. It's clear that the lone kicker on scholarship, redshirt freshman Cole Hedlund, has some ground to close in that battle. Adam McFain leads the way with Lane Saling and Hedlund taking turns in the next slot.

"Right now, McFain, I saw him go 100 percent out there today," Bielema said. "He missed the last field goal from 52. I backed him pu. I was only going to go to 47 with him, but he was stroking it pretty good. So I backed him up an extra 5 and he pushed it a little bit right. But he's really done a nice job.

"Lane Saling and Cole Hedlund have been going back and forth for that No. 2 spot. If McFain continues to hit it like he has, he's going to be very hard to beat out."

That's Bielema trying to make every area clean, including the kicking game. It's one of the last pieces to the puzzle of a good team. McFain looked like a good kicker Saturday. In fact, the Hogs looked like a good team as a whole.

It's like the tackling, there is very little in the way of issues with the defense. But defensive coordinator Robb Smith was displeased with three missed tackles in the scrimmage, all of them when Alex Collins gave someone the slip.

"It's classic Robb Smith syndrome," Bielema said. "As we all know he's a very short, angry man. First thing, I grabbed him, he goes 'Man, our tackling sucked.' Which, again, because he got mad about two or three missed tackles. A couple of those were against Alex who I think is a very good running back and I couldn't be happier.

"I think our offense came out a little juiced. It was in their favor, I think. We came out all first downs and they made I think three straight then the defense finally made a stop and played pretty well.

"I think there was some big hits, good collisions. We're putting our defense at a disadvantage as well. We're not allowing any tackles below the belt line. So I think a lot of those missed tackles would have been eradicated if we were allowing to cut tackle and go low on those guys.

"We've had a lot of traffic from coaches when we go out on the speaking circuit. One of the best things I've witnessed in football is that tackling circuit Robb brought with him. And the emphasis that Vernon (Hargreaves) and Clay (Jennings) and Rory (Segrest) put on that have been very, very important."

You had to be a witness to see that the Hogs are clean and can tackle. It's classic Bret Bielema football.

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