Arkansas Taking Open Date Refresher Course

FAYETTEVILLE -- The secret to Georgia's late-season run to the 2003 Southeastern Conference Championship Game was -- no kidding -- a day at the pool.

It sounds unusual, but coach Mark Richt said it was the best solution for his tired team, which had been handed a crushing, 16-13 loss by rival Florida.

The Bulldogs were beat up and had two weeks to prepare for Auburn. They couldn't afford another loss in the middle of the Eastern Division title chase. And they had to find a way to eliminate the weariness that had overtaken players.

So the Bulldogs spent one practice splashing around in a university swimming pool.

"I thought that kind of helped us get fresh again and get ready to play," Richt said Wednesday, looking back at the open date. "You never know what it takes at that time of year. You just kind of look at your team and see what they need.

"What we needed more than anything there was rest and morale."

There's no magic formula for orchestrating much-needed improvement during an open date, but the decision to spend one day swimming paid off for the Bulldogs. They bounced back to record a 26-7 win against Auburn and eventually earned their second straight trip to the 2003 SEC Championship Game.

Arkansas is hoping for similar results two years later. The Razorbacks (1-3, 0-2 in SEC) haven't gone swimming or tried any other unusual, morale-lifting measures during their first open week. Instead, the Hogs are using the time before Saturday's game against Louisiana-Monroe to sharpen up, making sure a team littered with weaknesses in three losses doesn't lose confidence or fall into the deep end.

"I think it's a chance to clear your soul and your mind and go back and talk basic fundamentals," defensive coordinator Reggie Herring said about the open date. "It's time to regroup and focus. Get guys healed. Get your mind and your spirit healed.

"At the same time, it's time to work on some fundamental things that need attention. After four games you're able to stop and assess and say, 'What do we need to work on to get better for the next stretch?' It gives you time to do that."

Practice Makes Perfect
It has been important for a team that has had to address several areas of concern.

In fact, coach Houston Nutt called it a "critical" two weeks last Sunday.

Arkansas' defense bounced back from the 53-point loss against top-ranked Southern California and turned in a solid performance at Alabama, but must eliminate careless mistakes, improve tackling and avoid surrendering big plays. The offense, which turned in its worst passing performance against the Crimson Tide, knows it must improve through the air before stepping back on the field.

"In this case, the negative part about having a bye week right now is that our offense can't get back on the field next Saturday and wipe this taste out with a solid effort like our defense was able to do," quarterbacks coach Roy Wittke said. "The positive thing is that you have a little bit more time to study and to maybe tweak some things as long as you're not trying to overanalyze things.

"In some cases, something drastic may need to be done (during open weeks). But we're not in a situation where you're going to start from scratch and overhaul something. Based on what we've seen, we don't believe we're in that situation."

Shoring up weaknesses and correcting mistakes that have run rampant have been areas of emphasis. Scrapping ideas, making wholesale changes and adding several pages to the game plan is not.

Receiver Cedric Washington said that would be overwhelming. It also could set the Razorbacks back even more. The junior said the goal the past week has been gaining confidence in the things Arkansas has worked on throughout the season.

"It's not so much adding little things (in the open week), it's perfecting what you've been doing," Washington said. "We've been so close on so many plays. Just like the two SEC games that we've already lost. We were right there.

"Vanderbilt, we lost the game in the matter of a minute. You were winning one minute, and next thing you know, we lost. Alabama, we had them. A little false start penalty here. A missed block there. We've gone from the (Alabama) 15 to the 30.

"Little things like that, if we perfect, I know we'll go where we want to go."

Former Arkansas quarterback Clint Stoerner said Washington has the right idea.

Stoerner, who started as a sophomore at Arkansas in 1997, said improvements can be made. But wholesale changes would likely hurt the offense.

"If you take a guy like (Green Bay's) Brett Favre, who has been in the system for 10 years, you can throw wrinkles in all day long and he still knows his basics," said Stoerner, who visited Arkansas' Tuesday practice. "That's the ideal situation. But when you've got young guys that come in, a rookie quarterback or a young quarterback that hasn't played much, it's in your interest to get him reps.

"Don't overwhelm them. Let him rest mentally and perfect what he knows."

Risky Decisions
It's also echoed by SEC coaches like Richt, Auburn's Tommy Tuberville and Kentucky's Rich Brooks.

The three said fundamentals, techniques, and important skills like blocking and tackling are the main emphasis of open weeks. It's a good chance to get a jump-start on the next game plan, but Auburn doesn't add much during its open week because Tuberville doesn't want to "overcoach" his players.

"Sometimes you get in open dates and think that adding things is going to help you out when you're not doing the things right anyway," Tuberville said. "Next week in (Auburn's) open date, we'll look at all the things that we did good, all the things that we need to improve on and try to make all of them better.

"We don't go into it looking to add things. We go in probably more looking to cut things back."

But Tuberville doesn't take it easy on players. Auburn uses open date practices to fit in more live work between its first-team offense and defense.

It's risky because of potential injuries, but Tuberville said "just going against the scout team is not going to make you better." Kentucky coach Rich Brooks agreed, even though he experienced a few open date injuries during at Oregon (1977-94).

"Once or twice, I ended up trying to get a little too tough with them and did some scrimmaging and maybe lost one or two players we couldn't afford to lose," Brooks said. "What we're trying to do (at Kentucky) is somewhere in between that.

"We're working hard, but not as much in live, full scrimmage situations."

Richt chanced it this week, pushing the Bulldogs through full-contact, red zone scrimmage work during an open date practice.

He said Georgia has struggled in red zone and goal-line situations and needed the work. So Richt crossed his fingers and hoped the Bulldogs would emerge unscathed.

"The goal for us was to, 'let's look at ourselves," Richt said. "Where are we weak right now? Where can we improve the most?' You want to see where are the chinks in your armor. Let's try to fortify those. Let's try to get better at those.

"For us, it was red zone offense and defense. It was goal- line offense and defense. We felt like we needed a good dose of that to get that mental frame of mind in their heads so they could, hopefully, recall it when it happens again in a ballgame."

Working On It
That's what everyone hopes for after open weeks. But it doesn't always happen.

The Hogs have experienced both sides of the spectrum during Nutt's tenure, going 6-6 after open dates. Some victories triggered lengthy win streaks. Some losses snowballed into more disappointment.

The downtime hurt in 2003, when the Arkansas was 4-0. The Razorbacks lost 10-3 against Auburn, dropped two more games and finished 9-4.

"It was a bad time," Nutt said. "You sit around and listen to how good you are and what's going to happen with the national championship and all that. Then you get beat 10-3. As much as you try to fight against that, it's hard."

Arkansas started 1-3 in 2001 before putting together back-to-back wins against Weber State and South Carolina. They had two weeks to prepare for No. 17 Auburn and gave Matt Jones, then a freshman, a bigger role in the offense. He threw a touchdown pass, rushed for 99 yards and led the Hogs to a 42-17 win.

Wittke said similar performances are important if the Hogs intend to turn the season and reach a bowl game. Arkansas has focused on the passing game, emphasized fundamentals and rested banged-up players this week.

"You've got some minor nicks and bruises," Wittke said. "The kids are able to get refreshed mentally a little bit. It's a long, hard grind. We've got a lot of football ahead. We're in a position where we're going to have to play awfully well. It's amazing when you look at how people put together stretches during seasons.

"All it takes is two or three wins in a row and you gain some momentum."

No one will know if the Razorbacks improved until they play Louisiana-Monroe, Auburn and Georgia the next three weeks. Still, Nutt has noticed a much-needed "urgency to improve" he hopes will keep the Hogs from going "backward in a hurry."

Arkansas didn't try to wash away its three-game losing streak in an on-campus pool, but receiver Dedrick Poole believes the Razorbacks have accomplished plenty to feel confident enough to dive back into the season Saturday.

"You can't ask for a better week to have a bye," Poole said. "It's kind of like (losses) just start snowballing on us. Now we've got a chance to stop, regroup and kind of tune ourselves up in areas we were messing up on.

"I think it comes at a perfect time."

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