Bret Bielema thinks the running back room is still just fine at Arkansas even with the loss of star Jonathan Williams to foot surgery. The Arkansas football coach delighted a packed house Wednesday at the Northwest Arkansas Touchdown Club with stories about Alex Collins, Kody Walker, Rawleigh Williams and Juan Day.
The news about Day on the practice field and possibly playing by the time SEC games arrive was the big news of the day. Day, the redshirt freshman from North Little Rock, has had reconstructive ACL surgery on both knees in the last two seasons. The last surgery was before spring drills last winter and it seemed likely then Day would miss the 2015 season.
"We think he might be ready in another three to four weeks, fuly recovered," Bielema said. "The Razorbacks are setting just fine (at running back)."
Bielema said Collins was "pissed" before Saturday's scrimmage when he was delivered word that he would not go through any of the contact.
"Alex may be around the same weight as last year, but it's in all of the right places," Bielema said. "He's smaller in the caboose and bigger in the chest.
"Kody looks like a game changer. He's 260 but he runs like he's 230. He looks very good. He shows patience in the way he runs our zone plays, but he has a true burst.
"Rawleigh is an incredible kid. His parents should be proud. They raised him the right way. His father, a police officer, did a great job."
Bielema remains confident that his decision to eliminate true two-a-days turned out right. He said there were plenty of walk throughs, but four less actual practices.
"I learned as a young assistant coach, coordinator and head coach tht the hardest obstable to overcome was injuries," he said. "You can coach them if they are injured.
"In the NFL, they have no two-a-days, but lots of walk throughs. What we've seen in this camp, is fewer injuries. We have one player on our injury list now, Tyler Colquitt. Two years ago at this point, we had 17. So we have benefitted from a lack of injuries.
"Now the down side is if we get our hat handed to us, I'll have a lot of questions. But I think it's gone very well. I would have liked to have done this in our first two years, but we were not ready."
NFL scouts by the droves have commented that the Hogs have the look of a team that's ready.
"We've had 22 in here for our first seven practices so that tells you that we have some players that interest them," Bielema said. "We had two the last couple of days. They watch film and tell me unanimously that we look different."
Bielema sees it daily. He notes how the defensive backs now look like linebackers. That wasn't the case when he arrived. Former Bentonville head coach Barry Lunney, Sr., is a fixture around practice now that he's in retirement. He's given the head coach a thumbs up on the way the team looks, too.
Among the stories Bielema told concerned his defensive line that has now grown to as many as 10 quality players. Hjalte Froholdt, one of the youngest, celebrated his 18th birthday this week.
"He called me before practice," Bielema said. "He wanted to know when practice would be over. I told him I wasn't sure because it depended on how things went. He said, 'Coach, it's my birthday and something is arriving and I need to sign for it.' I asked him if it was edible or what? He said, 'Coach, I'm getting a scooter.' So if you see a 6-5, 300-pounder on a scooter watch out for him."
Bielema tried to deliver a Danish accent in his Froholdt impersonation.
Among those drawing high praise from the UA head coach were several Fayetteville products. Bielema singled out quarterbacks Brandon Allen and Austin Allen, linebackers Brooks Ellis and Dre Greenlaw and deep snapper Drew Gorton. He said it was probably unique that Brandon Allen and Ellis are captains playing in their hometown and that probably wasn't happening across the SEC.
On Gorton, Bielema said, "He's caught some passes in high school. I kinda like drawing up plays for snappers who can catch it. Now having a snapper who can catch it, that's exciting. But it's not erotic."
There was high praise for center Mitch Smothers, a Springdale product. Bielema also revaled that redshirt freshman Jack Kraus, from Bentonville, has turned heads as the fourth tight end.
Mitchell Loewen will play both ways, perhaps at tight end and fullback as well as defensive end. True freshman Austin Cantrell, nursing a sore ankle, is still in the picture as a blocking back/H-back. But it appears that Will Gragg and C.J. O'Grady would redshirt. Offensive guard Josh Allen could also play as a big blocking back.
USC transfer Ricky Town has joined Ty Storey with the scout team. Both quarterbacks will redshirt.
"I've seen Ricky throw about six passes," Bielema said. "But our defensive guys saw him a lot and commented on his ability."
Cole Hedlund has earned the placekicker job, but Adam McFain and Lane Saling are still working to win the kickoff job, along with deep snapper Matt Emrich.
"It may be a soft of placekicking position by committee," Bielema said.
Bielema said he asked new staff analysts Eddie Williams (North Carolina, TCU) and Carl "Bull" Reece (Missouri, LSU, Texas) to evaluate the roster along with administrative assistants Bobby Allen, E.K. Franks and Daniel Bush.
"They just had numbers, not names," Bielema said. "That may have been awkward to have the father of two quarterbacks in the room. One of the things I had a scout tell me, if I didn't know the quarterbacks, I'd have a hard time knowing which Allen had been the starter for a lot of games here. That's a good thing for Austin."
As far as the defensive line, Bielema said a lot was made last year of Trey Flowers and Darius Philon. But the defensive line has not been "up to snuff" during his time at Arkansas. He stresses defensive line play as much as offensive line play.
"Now we have eight to 10 in the defensive line," he said, adding that DeMarcus Hodge and Taiwan Johnson are much improved.
"Those two, DeMarcus and Taiwan, are in a league of their own," he said. "Jeremiah Ledbetter is a nice surprise at defensive end."
On the linebackers, Bielema said there may be a lot of situational substitutions, noting Brooks Ellis could still play middle linebacker ins some situations. Josh Williams, who backed up Ellis in the middle last year, worked at strongside in the spring and in camp, but also will play some inside linebacker alongside Ellis in 5-2 looks.
"Brooks makes great pre-snap reads," Bielema said, comparing him to Martrell Spaight at the weakside linebacker form last year.
"Brooks played some will last year and he'll play some mike this year. We'll move him around in certain situations. We'll also play Khalia Hackett and Dwayne Eugene. Dre Greenlaw has been a nice surprise. We'll redshirt the other two freshman (Kendrick Jackson and Derrick Graham)."
Freshman cornerback Ryan Pulley has had an impressive camp, but will miss a couple of days of practice after the death of his grandfather.
There were lots of highlights in the offensive line, Bielema said, but noted that true sophomore guard Frank Ragnow continues to turn heads with his play. Bielema predicted that Ragnow might be his first "high" first round pick before he's done at Arkansas.