The kicking game doesn't generally come up as coaches are asked about spring football drills. Some don't even work much on many aspects of special teams since there are only 15 days of practice.
After a year in which kicking game mistakes cost Arkansas games, Bret Bielema is going to hit on quite a few areas of special teams during spring drills, including a heavy amount of competitive situations to find a placekicker.
“I've already told our three kickers that we are only inviting two to fall camp,” he said. “So those three – Cole Hedlund, Adam McFain and Lane Saling – know that one of them is out this spring. I'm trying to put pressure on them.”
That was in response to a direct question I asked Wednesday at Arkansas' pro day in regards to special teams. Bielema said he was unhappy with several areas of the kicking game, including kickoffs. He can't mention incoming walk-ons by name, but it's clear that the Hogs covet Allen, Texas kicker Connor Limpert. Limpert is a preferred walk-on for fall camp.
“We've got to do a better job with our kickoff coverage,” he said. “We worked hard last year on putting the ball into a pocket (of coverage) and I don't think we did that. I know we can do a better job there.
“One thing that hurt, McFain was never healthy. He had the strongest leg of our group of kickers. But he wasn't healthy at any point.”
McFain suffered a pulled leg muscle during a frisbee golf game just before the start of fall camp. Hedlund and Saling took turns on kickoff duties. Hedlund handled placements. There were four blocked kicks during the season, including one late in the loss to Mississippi State.
“We are changing how we handle protections,” Bielema said. “We are going to do a better job of protections.”
With staff changes, there are new assignments in special teams. Jemal Singleton had the title of special teams coordinator last year. With Singleton gone to the NFL, Bielema said he did not assign a title this year. He said it was a matter of split responsibilities anyway.
New offensive line coach Kurt Anderson will have a hand in protections for placements. Rory Segrest will continue to coach the kickers. He's done that at the NFL level. New defensive backfield coach Paul Rhoads will handle kickoff coverage.
“Paul asked for that,” Bielema said. “That's an area he's handled in the past. I'll continue to handle the punt team. Barry Lunney will handle punt return.”
Rhoads has been on campus for three weeks and has already had a “tremendous impact,” according to Bielema.
“He's a teacher,” Bielema said. “I've seen that. I knew he was going to be a tremendous addition to our staff. His experience as a head coach is huge for me. There are just things that he's done that you can't put a price tag on. He's handled all of those accountability issues. He's just been through the things that I have to handle as a head coach and has a tremendous understanding.
“As a secondary coach, he has a wealth of knowledge. And, he understands how to teach it.”
Rhoads has much experience defending spread offenses in the Big 12 during seven years as head coach at Iowa State. But it goes back further than that, to his days at Pitt when the biggest rival was West Virginia and the spread offense run by Rich Rodriguez.
“I asked Rich Rod who gave him the most trouble,” Bielema said of the current Arizona head coach. “He didn't hesitate. He said it was Paul when he was at Pitt. He talked about the time Pitt knocked them out of the national championship game.”
Indeed, Rhoads was defensive coordinator under Pitt head coach Dave Wannstedt when the Panthers upset No. 2 West Virginia, 13-9, to end the 2007 regular season.
One thing that Rhoads has tweaked is just some basic terms to reference part of the coverages required against spread teams. Rhoads, in an interview for the April issue of Hawgs Illustrated, said the way the flats are referenced has changed. Defensive coordinator Robb Smith allowed Rhoads to change some of the lingo in the calls.
“For example, there is a tendency to call it the three-step passing game,” Rhoads 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.”
So we've covered two of the areas that must be upgraded for Arkansas to improve on an 8-5 season, special teams and becoming more disruptive against the spread. Rhoads is in the middle of both of those pushes. That's going to be at the top of my watch lists when spring drills begin on March 29.
First, there is spring break. Rhoads will use part of it to retrieve at least one of his three Harley Davidson motorcycles from Ames where his wife is packing. He's already purchased his on campus parking permit for the bike. He'll ride it to work.
“I pack my rain gear every day and I do ride it to the office,” he said, noting he's already researched some scenic highways for an off day ride. “Some people play golf, I burn gas.”
Rhoads explained that he plans to sell one of his motorcycles. But don't think there will be any extra room in the garage. He's preparing for a shopping trip. He's located the area bike shops.
“No, if I get rid of one,” he said, “it's OK for me to buy a new one.”
That's his kick. Well, he likes kick coverages, too.