Communication between players and coaches has improved in a dramatic way since Bret Bielema became head coach at Arkansas. Gone are the days when players were afraid to walk through the football offices.
That's a reference to what it was like when Bobby Petrino was head coach. Players didn't want to be around the coaches. If they were in an office of the head coach – or even in an assistant's office – it was a sure sign that they were in trouble.
That's not the environment that Paul Rhoads found in his first two weeks on the job as Bielema's secondary coach. Players come through the offices freely. He's not had a hard time establishing communication and it was with ease that players filled out a form that he's used for several years to learn more about his players.
“I want to know their name of their girl friend, their birthday,” Rhoads said. “I want to know their favorite restaurants here and their favorite restaurants back home. I have a number of questions that are asked on the form.”
Then, when he went over the forms, there was time for players to ask questions about their new cornerback and safety coach.
“I gave them a introduction of where I've been and what I've done, where I'm from,” Rhoads said. “Then I allowed some time for them to ask questions.”
So how did that go?
“It was the same as always,” Rhoads said. “They didn't ask any questions about me. Nobody went down that road.”
Maybe they've got it all down. Players probably knew most everything from some Google research after Rhoads was named secondary coach. It's pretty easy to get all of the answers almost immediately. And, there is enough YouTube video of Rhoads, the former Iowa State coach, to get a player excited.
Players knew what they were getting and had to be pumped. Rhoads is a coach who is much like their head coach. Like Bielema, Rhoads wears his emotions on his sleeves. All of that is easy to find on the Internet.
It appears he's a perfect fit on this staff. He's having fun getting ready for the start of spring drills, set for March 29. There will be four straight weeks without any breaks with the spring game on April 23.
NCAA rules allow coaches to work with players on the field (without footballs) on a limited basis as far as agility drills. For sure, they can work on stance and fundamentals. There is also large amount of meeting time available.
Rhoads said there are 17 in his meeting room. He’s seen personalities began to ooze, including senior corner D.J. Dean.
“I think it’s a very attentive group,” he said. “They are improving on a daily basis. This is not a pat on the back because I’m new because I’m learning them as much as they are learning me. I do think I’m a teacher and they come to work each day and have shown their personalities.
“I can tell you that they have been well coached here. I've seen that on tape. They were taught extremely well and they were responsive to their coaches. I've seen the way they listen when (defensive coordinator) Robb Smith coaches them and how they respond. It's very good.”
Dean, one of the better players on defense, is recovering from foot surgery so he’s missing workouts. He’ll be limited in the spring. Rhoads wants to make sure one of the leaders of the defense is engaged even when he’s not out there.
“Just because Dean is not out there, he’s going to be behind,” Rhoads said. “He does have a (vocal) personality. I just want to make sure he is listening because I’m a new coach with a new way of doing things. There is some new verbiage.”
Some of it will help against spread teams. Rhoads said some of it is subtle.
“For example, there is a tendency to call it the three-step passing game,” he said. “It’s not three steps. It’s a throw as soon as they take the snap. I changed the term to the hot pass. It happens right now, not in three steps. It’s those flat areas passes, the hot areas. Robb embraced that.”
Rhoads said the thoughts behind defending the spread must be systematic.
“It’s my responsibility for us to learn it,” he said. “There must be a buzz about it. We must be more disruptive.”
Rhoads will start with the basics. He said he’s a fundamental coach who stresses technique first.
“We will start with stance,” he said. “We will look at the little things, movement and where eyes are supposed to be.”
It's been interesting for Rhoads to watch the interaction between Bielema and Robb Smith, the defensive coordinator. He knew they shared an Iowa background.
“I was not aware of the closeness of the two,” he said. “But when you find out that they were roommates, then you start to get an idea of that. It's one thing to be friends, it's another thing when you lived together.
“They have an absolute trust in each other. They believe in the abilities of the other. That has stuck out in my two weeks here.”
It's been just two weeks, but the days have been long. They have been stringing together 15-hour sessions getting ready for the spring.
“We've got a lot done,” Rhoads said. “We know exactly what technique we are going to teach. It has been long days, but there is always something to study. We have some personalities here that can't walk away.”
Smith is one of those.
“Yes, he's a grinder,” Rhoads said. “Very intelligent. He's got an unbelievable memory. He has tremendous recall to plays, situations and game plans.
“We were meeting this morning and Robb pulled out a game plan from when he was at Tampa. There were tips, reminders and just very time consuming things to prepare. It's demanding to prepare that kind of game plan, to know what you want to emphasize to the kids to enhance the way they play.”
Rhoads knew there would be defensive thoughts from the head coach.
“The first influence is what he does on offense, the fact that it's a ball control system, with the ability to possess the football,” Rhoads said. “You are going to play less snaps and that's the influence of a defensive ball coach.
“There are sound principles. You stop the run. Limit big plays. Create ball disruption. Those three are pretty good hooks. Bret is at the root of that.”
Those are simple thoughts. Rhoads said there is a simple thought as far as his goals for the spring.
“It’s one word, improvement,” Rhoads said. “I’m talking about improvement in every aspect, for the secondary and the defense overall. Our (secondary) room wants to improve.”
Specifically, there are things Rhoads wants to “tweak” as far as technique and stance.
“We already tinkering with it, enhancing certain things.”
There was no question that Rhoads would take both corners and safeties, although Smith also has experience with safeties. It was not going to be split.
“Robb and I both think it’s good to have corners and safeties in the same room,” he said. “There are more and more teams that split it and have two coaches in the secondary. But I think communication in the back end is essential and to have them in the same (meeting) room is important.
“We do have an advantage to have Mark Sheridan (as graduate assistant) who can help and also there may be times that Robb takes one of the positions in a period in practice if I want to work on some finer points with one position or the other. But I think to have them as one group is important. I think to have Robb as a walk-around coordinator is important. It’s an advantage.”
Rhoads sees more advantages everywhere he looks at Arkansas. The facilities have blown him away. He was convinced there were special things happening at Arkansas even before the job was open.
Rhoads was on a trip to watch his son compete for Iowa State at a Fayetteville track meet before secondary coach Clay Jennings left for Texas. There was no opening at Arkansas. He called old friend Jeff Long, his athletic director at Pittsburgh. Long suggested a tour of campus.
“My wife and I spent several hours with Jeff,” he said. “One of the first things he did was take us to the Jones Center to see the academic center and the dining hall. It was pretty clear he was proud of it.”
Rhoads said he's not seen anything like it.
“It's one stop shopping for the student-athlete,” he said. “You have the combination dining center, the academics, the vastness of it, the number of computers and so many specialists to help your students. It was very well designed.
“We had recruits on campus this past weekend and they were blown away. I think they saw it as unbelievable. The parents did, too. And, when they go to other places, they will have a full grasp of how good it is because I don't think there is anything else like it.
“Everyone has good stadiums. Everyone has good weight rooms. But no one has the full package, like this. They'll realize this as they go to more places, especially the parents, and find out it's not all the same.”
Rhoads is just beginning to explore the new Virtual Reality technology in place at Arkansas.
“That was the other thing that just blew away the recruits,” he said. “I was able to get a little idea of what we have in the VR technology as it was being shown to them as part of the recruiting tour. I'm going to get more training with it now.
“I'm excited about the VR. It was something we did not have (at Iowa State). I wasn't aware of exactly how it worked until I got here. We were going to explore that this spring at Ames.
“What I can tell already is that it's going to be valuable for your secondary, especially safeties. You see formations, understand alignment and the splits (of the linemen and receivers). It's amazing stuff.”
Rhoads has coached defenses his entire career. He was a secondary coach before he was a defensive coordinator before his seven-year stint as head coach at Iowa State. He's been highly impressed by the tackling system in place at Arkansas as installed by Smith.
“Most coaches have egos,” he said. “They think they are pretty good at something. I've always felt like I'm a pretty good teacher of tackling. I've been a part of defenses that tackled well.
“But what Robb has in his (tackling) system is above and beyond exceptional. It's so good and important.
“Tackling is very under appreciated. I think it makes a difference. You win and lose with tackling. It's a big part of playing great defense.”
Just like the emphasis on tackling, Rhoads loves the bricks that have been put down by Bielema.
“Bret has put down such a marvelous foundation,” Rhoads said. “The kids know the importance of a degree. It comes from the top. Everything is fully in place to make that happen.”
Rhoads hopes that his perspective as a former head coach can help keep some things off of Bielema in that regard. He wants his players to be in Bielema's office for fun things, not because they have missed class or caused problems.
“I think that's one of the perspectives that I have that can help Bret,” he said. “I hope it does. I've sat in that chair. I know what he doesn't want to have to deal with.”
Right now, more players are coming through the offices of the coaches to talk about their favorite restaurants, those things that are on that get-to-know-you form Paul Rhoads loves. And, just maybe more players are going to ask questions about their new secondary coach.