State of the Hogs: Leadership

The intangibles sometimes are ignored in the building of a successful football team. Bret Bielema knows that leadership was one of the keys this spring. JaMichael Winston's pre-game talk Saturday is evidence that Arkansas is headed on the right track after the completion of spring drills.

Spring games can be vanilla. Often, it's what you can't see that is what the coaches love the most, just the build up to a game that can simulate what might happen in the fall. It can be as simple as a pre-game speech.

Arkansas lost the leaders from last year's defense, most notably defensive end Trey Flowers and weakside linebacker Martrell Spaight. Defensive coordinator Robb Smith has seen some leadership emerge this spring, but what happened in the pre-game defensive meeting around noon Saturday was just what the doctor ordered.

Junior defensive end JaMichael Winston took center stage for an emotional speech that assured the Red-White was successful even before the squad headed north from the football building for the game in Reynolds Razorback Stadium.

"Mike reminded me a little of Trey," said Khalia Hackett, the sophomore stepping in at middle linebacker so Brooks Ellis can slide to Spaight's spot on the weakside.

"They are different, but the thing is it's like we have another defensive end to lead us just like Trey did. Mike knows how to get the defense rowdy."

It sparked an antiseptic day by the first defense. The Red-White game was billed as ones against the world and the ones held the world to all three-and-outs in the first half before the Red team began to sub. The White team didn't get a first down until the 8:15 mark of the fourth quarter when Ty Storey quarterbacked a mini drive of 18 yards before it was ended by two incomplete passes.

The Red team coasted to a 62-18 victory. The only points by the White came on a special teams segment when Lane Sailing hit five field goals. Quarterback Brandon Allen completed 17 of 21 passes for 230 yards and three scores, ripping a secondary that was stocked with walk-on cornerbacks.

There was one drop, one strip on what should have been a TD play, a Hunter Henry catch that was minus a foot in bounds and only one throw by Allen that could be deemed off the mark.

Head coach Bret Bielema was tickled with the clean day -- void of major injuries, turnovers and penalties -- that concluded the 15 workouts of spring drills. He said Allen's performance was typical of the fifth-year senior's performance all spring.

“There were very few times this spring when a defensive guy even got a hand on a ball," Bielema said.

"We were in a red zone scrimmage on Thursday and a ball got tipped at the line of scrimmage and the ball went through the defender's hands and our guys over on the defensive side, they were commenting it was one of the few times that they had a chance to pick the ball against BA. He never threw a pick the entire spring. I thought that was pretty impressive.”

In his opening comments, it was clear that Bielema considers the spring highly successful.

“Overall, I was very pleased with the way our guys worked the entire spring," Bielema said. "Obviously, it was practice 15 and I knew there was going to be some bumps in the road just as we started to rotate through. It's an indication that we just don't have the depth at certain positions that we need to right now. We'll continue to address that in recruiting.

“The way our guys worked for 15 practices, the way they got after it, the way they communicated, it's just so much more improved in that area. That helps us overall.

“Offensively, in the first half, especially (Brandon Allen), continued to show why I'm excited. He continues to make strides. We had two drops in the first half, two really good defensive plays, but him and Hatch had a pretty good spring. Him and Hunter Henry had a pretty good spring. Of course, our offense is so different when we don't have Alex or Jwill in the game. I was very pleased with Kody (Walker). Kody is a very reliable back, a back who have a very valuable role in our offense."

“Defensively, I think Robb (Smith) with the addition of coach (Vernon) Hargreaves, our linebacker play has really improved which helps our overall defense with communication. Our D-line, although is not the names of the past, there are guys who are filling roles and doing jobs.

Bielema lauded the mesh between Allen and new offensive coordinator Dan Enos, noting that fans got to see only about 50 percent of their new stuff. A few of the new plays were on the pre-game play list, but Bielema scratched those, too.

Allen said it doesn't matter, but it's a matter of executing even the simplest of play lists at top level, like hitting Keon Hatcher in stride for a 65-yard touchdown.

"You have to execute," Allen said. "If you can handle that stuff, maybe you can handle a little bit more, right?"

Bielema said his quarterback and receiver didn't like his veto power earlier in the day, but said the execution was perfect on his vanilla script.

"I liked it," Bielema said. "I really did. There were still a lot of plays -- Keon and a couple of the wide receivers and B.A. were giving me a lot of grief this morning because they saw the play sheet. You know I nixed a lot of things that we've been working on that are just new things that our offense hasn't shown that I'd rather keep that in-house as long as we can.

"So you probably saw somewhere around 50 percent of the playbook that we've been using this spring."

It was the same on the defensive side, according to Winston, the big-play man with three sacks.

"Just plain, basic American football," Winston said. "No blitzes. No stunts. Vanilla. Real vanilla. Sometimes you can't bring out what you got. Just play your assignment, your man. That's all we were doing out there today. We just wanted to hold the intensity from start to finish."

That was his message in the pre-game speech that defensive teammates loved.

"He was great," Hackett said. "We've got some other vocal types on defense that probably can deliver something like that, too. Maybe Rohan Gaines, Taiwan Johnson or D.J. Dean. Then, you've got someone like Brooks who isn't going to say something, but you see him doing the things exactly like Spaight, in the meeting room, study habits, all the little things that lead your defense."

Winston said he can't be exactly like Flowers, but knows there is a void there for someone to fill.

"I have some of that in me," he said. "I asked to Coach Smith if I could talk. I told them we'd had a good spring, but it was time to finish it off, keep the intensity up until the 15th practice was over and that was today.

"I was pleased with the response. It was a lot of fun. Only thing, you couldn't finish off sacks. Gotta weight on that. I got my hands on the quarterback three times but had to let them go. We are going to need those guys at some point if we are going to go deep next year."

Can the defense be on the level of what the Hogs had in November when they shutout both LSU and Ole Miss?

"We can if we get the details," Winston said. "I think we can. That's what Coach Smith worked with us from the start until the end, the details.

"It was like the first meeting we had, Coach Smith had a tape of all of the bad stuff we did last year. It was play after play on tape. It was every bad play.

"The point was, if we can eliminate those bad plays, we can be better than we were last year. We worked to get those gone before we even began on the good stuff we did. Coach Smith has a way of opening your eyes to the little stuff. It's attention to detail.

"The sky is the limit here. We know that. Coach Smith shows us on tape, then he shows us on the field the detail that he's looking to get us to understand. I think we did alright today.

"You saw how tough it's been all spring for us with Brandon Allen. He gets it off so quick, we can't get there. It's been ones versus ones all spring so we've seen a lot of him. He's tough. We never really close to sacking him and we weren't real close to getting any picks. Good for him today. He played well all spring. He's really leading our offense."

With those intangibles, both sides of the ball look to be in good shape. Ellis knows that last year's season isn't the goal.

"Oh, yeah," Ellis said. "We were 7-6 last year coming off a bowl win and that's good and all that. But that's nowhere near where we can go. Our expectations for next year are as high as they can go. Atlanta is the only goal we have and if we don't get there we will be disappointed."

Brandon Allen was 17 of 21 for 230 yards.

Bret Bielema loved the execution from the offense.

Brooks Ellis had a solid spring stepping in at weakside linebacker.

Dan Enos goes over a call with Hunter Henry.

Khalia Hackett wraps up a defender.

Denver Kirkland fires off on a running play.

Photos by Jason Ivester, Hawgs Illustrated

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