The Arkansas wide receivers have the ability and the experience to expose a secondary. It didn't happen this spring They tried.
The lone big play in the passing game when the top two defensive units were on the field was a Austin Allen pass to Keon Hatcher for 27 yards that ultimately resulted in a touch back because of a fumble through the back of the end zone.
Allen has seen that all spring. The starting quarterback doesn't think it's a matter of receivers like Dominique Reed, Jared Cornelius, Cody Hollister, Drew Morgan, Deon Stewart, La'Michael Pettway and Hatcher lacking big-play ability. And, there have been a few big gainers this spring.
What's happened is that new secondary coach Paul Rhoads has tightened up the seams, eliminated busts and created some confidence in the back end players in the Arkansas defense.
"The guys back there (in the secondary) say Coach Rhoads is one of the best teachers they've ever been around," Allen said after the Red-White Game on Saturday at Reynolds Razorback Stadium.
"I see our guys playing with their eyes in the right spots. They've been solid all spring."
"No," Allen said. "We've got some older guys and they aren't making mistakes."
Really, the mistakes were hard to find. There were no procedure penalties against the starters. There were no fumbles or interceptions by either team. There was one Austin Allen pass that was batted around in the secondary, the only thing head coach Bret Bielema could fault about the quarterback's play.
It was ones against the ones all spring and on this day, it was mostly vanilla on both sides. I didn't see any blitzes, stunts or anything fancy on the other side, like draws or screens. But Bielema gave the ones a break by making it "ones against the world" in the Red-White Game.
That meant the top receivers were pitted against cornerbacks Ryan Pulley and Willie Sykes. There wasn't much there as the defensive backs closed quickly. Skyes sparkled.
"The defensive backs played really well," Allen said. "Skyes was all over the place. I think that's a guy who has really taken a step forward this spring. They played well in the secondary."
Hollister gave Sykes props, too.
"We've had our battles this spring," he said. "He and I fought in the last practice. But we are like family. We are making each other better. Willie has done very well. He's going to really help us this year."
Bielema was asked about the lack of separation for wideouts in the spring game.
"The DBs played as they are coached," Bielema said. "Paul has them engaged with their technique and their eyes.
"What jumps out at you is their footwork at the line of scrimmage. We've recruited well there. I also think the linebackers have done a better job of funneling the receivers. The (linebackers and secondary) is working together."
It left Austin "a little frustrated" about the way he played. His stats weren't bad. The fourth-year junior from Fayetteville completed 13 of 19 for 141 yards. But not only did he not have an interception, there were no touchdowns. Hatcher should have had one, fumbling at the goal line.
"We were in the red zone in the first half and we didn't get anything," Allen said. "Last year, we had one of the best red zone offenses in the country. That's where we need to be."
Well, that's not exactly how the offense started the season. They struggled in the red zone early in the season. It was in the second half when they were almost perfect. The lone red zone failure in the last seven games came with a blocked field goal against Mississippi State.
There was a missed field goal that ruined the game's opening drive. Cole Hedlund, solid all spring, missed wide right from 42 yards. Later in the first half, Hedlund also missed two in a field goal competition with Adam McFain and Lane Saling later in the first half. He was good from 33 and 33, but had a 43-yarder bounce off the right up right. He also missed from 48, wide right. McFain and Saling also had one miss each.
Bielema said he challenged the kickers after that series of clunkers. He said his words are no printable.
"Basically, I told them we'd just go for it on fourth down if they couldn't do better," Bielema said.
McFain was good from 51 yards later in the second quarter. Hedlund answered with a 48-yarder to end the first half.
Then, in the kicking competition midway through the second half, Hedlund was good from 28, 33, and 48 before missing from 53. McFain was good from 28, but a bad snap ruined a 33-yard chance. Saling was good from 28 and 33.
"They started out shaky, but they responded after I lit them up," Bielema said. "You have to take those rapid fire sessions with a grain of salt. That's not like a game."
Bielema had a story about the growth of Hedlund and it didn't have anything to do with football. He joined three other football players -- all regulars -- on a camping trip to Devil's Den for a recreation class.
"The other three guys didn't make it through the night," Bielema said. "They got scared and ended up sleeping in their cars. The only one to stay in his tent was the man child, the powerful 5-8 Cole. I do think he grew up this spring."
The rebuilt offensive line did alright, although the probable starter at right guard didn't participate. Brian Wallace "jammed a toe" on Tuesday. He missed the final three workouts of the spring. Zach Rogers, the backup center, stepped into his spot in the starting line.
"Wallace probably could have gone," Bielema said. "But we didn't want to hinder his recovery."
It was hard to judge the running game because starter Rawleigh Williams was in a green jersey and was whistled down at first touch. It was easier to zero in on the play of the newcomers on the left side of the offensive line, tackle Colton Jackson and guard Hjalte Froholdt. They did fine.
Bielema said there were some running plays called to the left just to grade Jackson and Froholdt. There were several pulling chances for Froholdt,
"I wanted to see him on the move," Bielema said. "I think he's doing well. He's big, strong and has his feet underneath him. I think he has the ability to pull. It's not easy because you have the tendency to get too wide where there isn't anyone out there. I think he can be very good. What we see is that he can accelerate."
The first O-line gave up three sacks. The twos gave up five. Obviously, that's still a work in progress.
"That's a tough thing because some of those would not have been sacks," Bielema said. "The defense touches them and yells sack and the whistle is blown. The spring game is very frustrating for the coaches because you don't know how to handle that for the SEC Network. There is a little give and take.
"As far as offensive line play, Rome was not built in a day. I do know that there are times when you modify things you can call. If we had the best five offensive linemen in the SEC, we could call anything."
Allen still thought he could have done better with the time he was given.
"I have to be better," he said. "I've got to continue to work to give our team what they need."
Bielema said there were a couple of drops, one each by Hatcher and Reed.
"He did well," Bielema said. "There was one throw he tried to make into a tight window in the red zone that I would have rather seen go to an alternate route."
What's obvious is that there is a lot of trust in Allen with Bielema and the rest of the team.
"He was voted onto the Hog Council and that's by the players at his position," Bielema said. "So the quarterbacks trust him."
Allen said it's now his job to organize the summer workouts. He said they start Monday.
"We'll have a throwing session on Monday," he said. "I've tried to be the one to get everyone together."
The next job is to try to find some seams and busts in the secondary. They are becoming tougher to find each day.
Bielema said the spring practices are interesting because when something doesn't work for one side, it means the other side did something well. On this practice, it sure seems like that someone on the other side was mostly in the defensive secondary.