I've got a long list of “must watch” areas for fans after seeing a handful of the first 11 workouts of spring drills. Bret Bielema has done an amazing job of both building a roster and a coaching staff. It's a treat to watch his team in motion, whether you like the passing game with new offensive coordinator Dan Enos and fifth-year quarterback Brandon Allen or big, fast linemen on both sides of the ball.
It's a fun bunch to be around, from the players to the coaches. Enos insists players are a joy to coach, as well as hang out with. He applauds Bielema for assembling “a great group of people.” That's on target. There is class with both players and coaches, and ability. Many on Bielema's staff could be head coaches in time.
Well, I'd start with Bielema's work assembling a great defensive line group. Much has been said about the restructuring with the offensive line and Sam Pittman's awesome recruiting. Don't look now, but the defensive line might be more impressive as far as numbers and ability.
I cannot remember seeing this many defensive linemen play this well this early in spring drills. Taiwan Johnson, Bijohn Jackson, JaMichael Winston, Deatrich Wise, Tevin Beanum, DeMarcus Hodge, Hjalte Froholdt, Jeremiah Ledbetter, Armon Watts, Karl Roesler, Jake Hall and Ke'Tyrus Marks have all made plays in scrimmages.
There have been falls when the Hogs couldn't find four to line up in games, much less come up with a two deep list. Now, they may start fall with over one dozen that many in the SEC would want. It takes dirty dozen to a new meaning.
Mitchell Loewen and Daytrieon Dean are rehabbing from shoulder surgery and should be factors in the fall, although it would make sense that Dean could redshirt with this deep of a defensive line crew. Line coach Rory Segrest must be having a blast, testing and probing for combinations.
If you like linebackers, lock your eyes on Brooks Ellis, Khalia Hackett, Josh Williams, Randy Ramsey, Josh Harris and Dwayne Eugene. You'll love them all, especially Harris, the walk-on from Watson Chapel. Just 5-10, 223, he may be a bigger version of Sam Olajubutu. I's guess he may get a scholarship soon.
There's good stuff on offense, too. Tight end Jeremy Sprinkle is delighting Enos. Hunter Henry is an All-SEC player at that position, but Sprinkle is just as much a matchup problem. He reminds of Travis Beckum, the tight end the Hogs saw in the Capital Bowl on Bielema's first Wisconsin team.
But the thing that delights me the most isn't a player, but concepts that I haven't seen in a few years in the Arkansas offense. When players first talked about the new bells and whistles Enos was adding to the passing game, they hinted that there would be some similarities to what Bobby Petrino ran.
I could see some of the crossing routes and patterns, but I wasn't sure of the concept until talking with cornerback Jared Collins this week. He's been impressed.
“There's a lot of things that are new for the offense as far as what we have to contend with in practice,” Collins said Tuesday. “We like to change our coverages, mix it up. When we do, they can throw a curve at us. They have added some option routes and they have the experience to use them.”
Collins mentioned a play in practice Tuesday that called for a late defensive adjustment, jumping into press coverage.
“They can hurt you with their option routes in those situations,” Collins said. “It's very tough.”
Secondary coach Clay Jennings worked with his corners trying to adjust to the adjustments, but it was clear that it is a wrinkle that causes problems.
“It's good competition,” Enos said. “They've got a great mix of coverages so we are seeing everything in practice. We've seen press, a mix of zone and man and they are good at all of that. It's given us exactly what we need to get better.”
Collins is sure the Hogs are better on offense.
“A lot,” he said. “I have great respect for what they are doing on offense. It's a challenge in practice.”
Allen said it's a matter of having a complete set of weapons. The run blocking has expanded from a gap read style to some new stuff with zone reads for the talented running backs, Jonathan Williams and Alex Collins.
“We've got some checks, some run tags, that will help us against certain looks,” he said. “We have added a lot of things.”
Those option routes in the passing game delight the wide receivers, gradually finding a little more separation. Allen said he sees daylight with more routes. He praised his receivers, starting with senior Keon Hatcher, finally every bit the four star recruit as originally advertised.
The option routes excite Hatcher. He's clearly on the same page with his quarterback in those situations. They've been joined at the hip in film study for going on 24 months.
It's all enough to give Williams confidence in making a prediction about the passing game, it's going to keep the box from getting too crowded like the last two seasons.
“If teams want to load the box, that's fine,” Williams said. “Brandon will pass for 400 yards.”
Just for clarification, Williams was talking about 400 in one game. Yeah, and for the record, the Hogs do not have that many defensive linemen, just around a dirty dozen.