Bielema Sees Continued Improvement

Bret Bielema's focus on the "process" is paying dividends. The Arkansas football coach sees a "different" team in his third season. Bielema, his squad and his coaches met with the media Sunday afternoon.

Whether it was the look of newcomers like Dominique Reed, Jamario Bell, Dre Greenlaw or Colton Jackson or the mid-term arrivals last winter of Jeremiah Ledbetter, Jalen Merrick, Hjalte Froholdt or Zach Rogers, it's more of the same for the Arkansas team. It just keeps getting better as Bret Bielema rolls into year three as head football coach.

"Physically, we just look different," Bielema said, and he was talking about his entire squad, not the 2015 class. "We are bigger, thicker. We showed we can not only put it on, but take it off."

That was a reference to Sebastian Tretola's svelt frame, just 325. That's down from 377 from exactly 12 months ago when the offensive guard arrived from junior college.

Everywhere you looked there were signs that Bielema's program has arrived. There was confidence in the talk from the players, the coaches and an acknowledgement that the road would not be easy in the SEC this season where eight teams are in most preseason top 25 polls.

The Razorbacks opened at No. 20 in the USA Today Coaches Poll. Junior tight end Hunter Henry, recognized as one of the SEC's top players, said it means nothing because the Hogs haven't "proven anything yet."

Henry is well aware of the way the Hogs finished last season, the reason for all of the national attention coming their way. There were shutouts of LSU and Ole Miss in back-to-back weeks then a 31-7 shellacking of Texas.

"That was cool the way we finished," Henry said. "It was good. But that was not a complete year. We've got to prove something. There are still plenty of doubters."

It seems there are more doubters about the defense than the offense, but Henry said that's not the worry within the team. Bielema has tossed out the way the misfit baseball team came together in the Bad News Bears movie with what will happen with the 2015 defense, trying to replace Trey Flowers, Martrell Spaight and Darius Philon from a terrific front seven.

"That's exactly what's going to happen," Henry said. "This defense has tons of dudes, real athleticism. They can make plays. It's like nothing I've seen."

Henry doesn't downplay the roles that Flowers, Spaight and Philon played last year. But he said those outside the programs who think those losses will doom the defense or the team are wrong.

"That's the farthest thing from the truth," Henry said. "We lost three important players, but no one knew about Martrell Spaight this time last year. We've got a lot of guys like that who are going to step in this year, difference makers."

There were no doubters within the walls of the Fred W. Smith Center on Sunday. They all sounded like Henry, including the coaches. Defensive coordinator Robb Smith is pleased with where this unit is headed and likes the Bad News Bears analogy.

"My wife is calling me Buttermaker," Smith said, making reference to the role of coach played by first Walter Matthau in 1976 and then Billy Bob Thornton in the 2005 remake.

"I kind of like myself as Billy Bob Thornton, but Walter Matthau was good, too. But I like the idea a lot."

Told that Thornton was born in Hot Springs, Smith said, "There you go. See it's meant to be."

Smith is excited about the prospects for the 2015 Arkansas defense. Players say their coach holds them to the same standards as last year and they think they can meet them.

"It's about meeting his standards every day," said sophomore Khalia Hackett, the new middle linebacker. "He doesn't allow anyone to fall to a level of anything other than what we did last year. That's what we want."

Smith said it comes down to believing in each other.

"As players, they have to trust that we are going to put them in the right spots that allows us to collectively play at a high level," Smith said. "And, as coaches, we have to trust that they are going to put in the work whether that's on the field, in the film room or with Coach (Ben) Herbert.

"I will tell you this, I really, really like this group. I like their approach to work and their attitude. I do think they like each other."

Henry spoke to the latter.

"This is a close team," Henry said. "The players hang out together. We like being around each other. Away from football, we are still around each other. We have fun together as a team."

That seemed obvious on Sunday. Players had fun with each other while handling their media responsibilities both with interviews and the photo shoots.

Bielema said everything is falling in place, whether it be academics or the work on the field. He has been pleased with the first three practices. He even liked the attitude early Sunday when the players met for weight lifting on an off day ahead of the media responsibilities.

"We had 65 of our 102 players in summer school make over a 3.0," Bielema said. "We had 17 with a perfect 4.0. Every senior on our team except Keon Hatcher is less than 12 hours from a degree and Keon will only need three hours after his last game and that's after playing an awful lot his first three years."

Bielema said, "It's been awesome so far, with a certain energy everywhere. We've done everything right. Even our hydration has been good. I cut a meeting short an hour because they earned it.

In looking around the locker room Sunday afternoon, it was a good looking squad. I was reminded of Bielema's words an hour earlier that the 105 list for the 2015 camp was tough to make.

"It is the hardest 105 to make since I've been coaching," he said. "My first couple of years, we were trying to find guys to bring in."

Bielema noted that defensive linemen K'Tyrus Marks didn't make the 105 "and he's a good player. Juan Day is coming when school starts, like KT."

Day is recovering from ACL surgery. Bielema assured that Marks isn't injured or on any bad lists. They just have a deep group of defensive line prospects.

Bielema revealed that sophomore defensive back Kevin Richardson had been awarded a scholarship and there could be more walk-ons put on the 85 list before the month is complete.

"Our staff voted and we told our team this morning," Bielema said. "It got an ovation."

Bielema was asked about expectations for the season. He effectively dodged the question, but the answer made sense.

"I just want to get better every day," he said. "It's the only way to be great. I know it's a cliche but it's true.

"You want to be better after day three than you were the first two days. I won't be satisfied until we win a championship.

"It's a process. I think you guys hear me say that all the time. I know there is another guy who uses that, but it's so true.

"Everyone always talks about the pot at the end of the rainbow. No one has ever found it. Just enjoy the process."

Quarterback Brandon Allen and Brooks Ellis said the process is going great. The two team leaders were rolling away from a photo shoot when they stopped to talk.

"We aren't ready to play a game right now, but we don't play one for a bit," he said. "But we are dong exactly what we are supposed to be doing, getting better every day and with everything we do. We are so far ahead."

Ellis said, "We've got a great group of young ones in to help us, too. It's a good looking bunch."

Yup, it looks like an SEC squad. Even one of the surprise invited walk-ons, tight end Howie Stettmeier, looks the part. He's got a massive frame. I visited with him at his locker. Scholarship freshmen Will Gragg, Austin Cantrell and C.J. O'Grady don't look any better.

"It's a lot in our meeting room," Henry said of the nine tight ends in the 105. "And with all the things we do with the tight ends, we will need everyone. It's a lot of fun to see this kind of a tight end group."

Henry said the young ones are all ears.

"We have a complex system for the tight ends, several positions and I really think that outside of the quarterbacks, we have to know the most," Henry said. "We are involved in the blocking scheme like the linemen and involved in the passing. So it's more to learn."

Bielema raved about Cantrell's ability to mesh with the scheme as a probable hybrid tight end/H-back.

"We have to get him to move his feet a little more on contact," Bielema said. "He was used to having them just fall down on the first hit. So we are working with him on that. But he amazes me with what he can do as far as what he can do with our motions."

There were questions about Reed, the juco transfer from Camden Fairview. Bielema said Herbert, the strength coach, reported that the wide receiver hit a 11-4 standing long jump the first day he was tested. Then, after three weeks of workouts, went 11-11.

"That's three inches short of the combine record," Bielema said.

Those kinds of numbers correlate to unbelievable speed, probably under 4.3 in the 40.

Yes, this team passes the eye test. It's as good as this reporter remembers for a media day. The process is going well.

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