It's an odd position the Arkansas football team finds itself in Saturday afternoon when Louisiana's Ragin' Cajuns come to town. It's the SEC Razorbacks playing the respect card.
The Hogs are the clear favorite, but they have spent the last eight months hearing how far they've slipped – from national top 10 this time last year to dead last in the SEC West even after bringing in a coach with a .739 winning percentage.
There are some Arkansas fans still with high hopes for the season, perhaps listening to new coach Bret Bielema at one of his 70 offseason speaking engagements explain that he didn't want to tell 19 seniors that a rebuilding project in the works.
Bielema was at it again Wednesday night during his weekly radio show. When he mentioned that freshmen like Hunter Henry, Alex Collins, Brooks Ellis, Drew Morgan, D. J. Dean, Dan Skipper, Denver Kirkland, Melvinson Hartfield and Korliss Marshall were in the plans, it wasn't because returning players were deficient but because these freshmen are that outstanding.
"I don't want to win in three years, I want to win now," Beilema said.
It's really been a constant theme from Bielema. He has pointed out that his first team at Wisconsin wasn't thought to be ready to win, but it did, including a victory over Arkansas in Orlando.
The last eight months have been about getting the Arkansas team bigger, stronger and more equipped to play Bielema's style. That means a lower pad level across the board, including the running backs.
There were some on board when he arrived with the proper mindset and tools to play what Bielema calls American football. Kiero Small might be the best example, voted captain by teammates after spending last year on the sideline with a broken foot. However, Small is more known for breaking face masks and has put about 20 in the trash over the last two years.
Bielema and running backs coach Joel Thomas like to talk about how they'll use Small, more than the down and dirty blocker that was his trademark in Bobby Petrino's passing offense. He's going to get the ball against the Ragin' Cajuns, all promise.
Asked about distribution of carries in the first game, Bielema said, "I hope Jonathan Williams gets the highest number and the most yards, but we've seen from that first scrimmage on that Alex Collins can sometimes get a big number on one carry. But who knows, Kiero Small might get the most. He is gifted with the ball in his hands. He is one of our best players."
That's probably where we'll start our first key in the first Top 10 list for the season, one of our favorite features. It's probably the most important key in a Bret Bielema offense, can the running backs get untracked and who leads the charge.
1, Backfield Power – Where does it come from? Jonathan Williams has been the man all offensive coaches have pointed to as the leader of the group at running back. He was more of a one-trick pony last year, the unaccounted for man in the passing game for wheel routes and mis-direction counters. He wasn't a smash-mouth runner. He's gained strength in his legs and looks the part as a Bielema back now. He has learned to run with lower pad level and he'll try to be more of a north-south guy. Alex Collins, the Florida freshman with national recruiting stars, will get his touches, too. He's as advertised, silky smooth and a patient runner. Bielema and Thomas have asked him to lower his pad level because "in this league, if you run straight up and down, someone is coming to smoke you." That was from Thomas, who said Collins probably won't truly understand that until a game or two. Small is the fullback in every sense of the word, but there may be some formations where he stands up at the back of the formation and takes a crack at an off-tackle hole.
2, Quarterbacks – It never changes, quarterback should be one or two in this list. Arkansas is breaking in Brandon Allen while UL has a game changer pulling the trigger in a spread, perhaps the best quarterback in the Sun Belt in run-pass operator Terrance Broadway. Both teams hang their hat on avoiding turnovers. Broadway did it in game action, Allen only in scrimmages so far. Allen did make it through an entire 10-game high school season without throwing one interception, a remarkable accomplishment. Can he do it against the Cajuns? Does Allen adjust to what the new defense installed by James Willis at UL can throw at him? Surely there are some wrinkles that haven't been seen with a new coordinator. Allen will be asked to keep it simple, using the power running game to setup play-action and bootleg passes. Does Allen keep it clean? That's a tough challenge for a sophomore starting his first season opener.
3, Down and Dirty Inside – This is the way Bielema wants to play. He thinks it's what's up front that counts. Is Arkansas solid in the offensive line? It's been advertised as the most improved area of the team, along with Allen and the linebackers. It's been beating against a good defensive line. Perhaps they've turned into the strength of the team. If so, it should be able to win some one-on-one battles up front against a Sun Belt team. That's as big a key as there is in this game. It might should be in the top spot in this list. Does Arkansas win the war up front? Can the likes of Travis Swanson, advertised by Bielema as "pulling center," mash some people ahead of Williams and Collins? What about Brey Cook and Mitch Smothers at guard? They are bigger, stronger and advertised as solid players. Can they whip anyone in the middle? They've been going against good players at defensive tackle in Byran Jones, Robert Thomas, Darius Philon, LaMarcus Hodge and Taiwan Johnson during a nasty camp. You can flip that around on the other side of the ball. UL's strength in the offensive front is the inside. Broadway likes to scamper through the middle if the pocket collapses. Can the Hogs contain the UL quarterback with domination in the middle of the pocket? It's a big part of the game.
4, No Option – The Hogs must play the read option well. The only way to do that is to dominate in the front so the linebackers are clean to make plays, particularly Braylon Mitchell and Jarrett Lake and the others that assistant Randy Shannon will deploy in what may be a rotation of eight or nine. Shannon told his linebackers that he'll play everyone and then go with the hot linebackers. That means Austin Jones will start in the middle, but Brooks Ellis will get chances. On the outside, Daunte Carr, Martrell Spaight, Robert Atiga and Price Holmes (in the nickel) get snaps. Carr has also played inside and Spaight has been cross trained there of late. On a hot day, all will be needed. The perimeter is where the stress falls against UL's read option. The linebackers and ends are going to see the crossing action of the backs designed to throw off assignments and make keys tough to maintain. That's Mitchell and Lake at linebacker and starting ends Chris Smith and Trey Flowers. The Hogs also want to play freshman ends Deatrich Wise, Brandon Lewis and JaMicheal Winston. But can those young ends adjust to any new tricks Broadway has added? The Hogs have to mute the option. They have no other choice.
5, Big Plays – It's been a big part of what Broadway does. He'll show the option look, then fade into a position to find one of his two big, tall receivers over the top. Can Rohan Gaines and Eric Bennett, the two UA safeties that coordinator Chris Ash says are much improved, get the job done and eliminate the big plays that swamped the Hogs early last year. Bennett and Gaines were never close in those early games when they were flipping sides in the Paul Haynes system. Ash simplified things and locked Bennett at free and Gaines at strong. Both have done better at alignment and assignments since then, but how does it work against a different offense. Even Ash admits it's easier when you see the same offense every day. Flip that around. Can Allen hit the Cajuns with some home runs? Where do they come from? Is it Javontee Herndon going deep? Is it Eric Hawkins, the flyer that Bielema said emerged in the last two weeks after going on the shelf in the spring and summer because of academic worries? Who wins the big-play battle while avoiding the key turnovers?
6, Mesh – That's a small word for a big deal. UL returns it's coaching staff intact for Mark Hudspeth. They actually have more SEC experience than Bielema's staff in some ways. They've played in the Swamp together. Chris Ash, Bielema's veteran defensive boss, knows things will be smoother later in the year after this staff has worked together and made adjustments with players and know how everyone – coaches and players – react to each other in the heat of battle. They've practiced every situation anyone can imagine, but there is still going to be adjustments made on the fly. So how will all of the new Arkansas folks mesh? How will they handle adversity, and there is always some? Bielema addressed that several times in the last two weeks. He said the championship teams are the ones who do adjust to adversity and rise to the challenge. There will be some Saturday. The Cajuns are battle tested and won't be scared of an SEC team or stadium. So how will be the game management and operation be for Bielema in his first Arkansas game. He said he's not nervous, but anxious. He feels excitement and knows players and his coaches are in the same situation. Offensive coordinator Jim Chaney said he's got butterflies because he's so excited to see Brandon Allen play as a quarterback. That sounds like a good thing and Chaney said when he stops getting those feelings it's time to get out of coaching and into fishing.
7, The Look – That may sound funny, but what will it all look like might be a big key for Arkansas fans. There has been consternation from some that Bielema will look too much like Houston Nutt's teams. There will be some of the smashmouth that Nutt got locked into sometimes because of voids at quarterback and wide receiver. The good news for Bielema is that Chaney seems to be sure handed in picking quarterbacks. There are four on campus now, two more committed and more in the recruiting pipeline. And Chaney knows the passing game. He's a spread man who raised his hand quickly at a chance to prove that he can also roll with the ground game, in Bielema's pro system that churns out NFL offensive linemen. But what will it all look like? Chaney says the early-season pass protections can hold back the passing game. He said late in camp that protections were developing nicely. Center Travis Swanson went a little further, calling them "on track and they'll develop better as speed of the game hits." Maybe that's exactly what Chaney means. Will the look from Saturday be far enough along? Or is it going to take four games, like Chaney warned, for the passing game to click? Will that be too late?
8, Talent – Is there enough at Arkansas right now? Or is the overall ability closer to the Sun Belt than the SEC? That might be answered Saturday. Where is the speed for this Arkansas team? Barry Switzer told me the week after the loss to Louisiana-Monroe last year that you don't want to play Louisiana teams because they possess so much speed. Can Arkansas mash on the Cajuns enough to neutralize any speed they may bring from Lafayette? Bielema seems to think there still is talent at Arkansas, but this is a team that has lost Joe Adams, Jarius Wright, Knile Davis, Chris Gragg, Dennis Johnson and Ronnie Wingo in the last two years. That's a lot of speed and ability.
9, Fresh Help – How much is there? Hunter Henry and Alex Collins were top-rated players nationally when they were signed. It's believed that they are all of that and more. Henry played in the spread at Pulaski Academy and is still flexing wide like he did in high school when he rarely went to the conventional tight end spot. He's got some nastiness to him. He's got great hands. He has a knack for solving zone schemes and sitting in the open areas. How have Allen and Henry come together? Could he be the secret weapon everyone wonders might emerge? Can Collins be the X-factor, a great freshman that emerges as a top-shelf SEC back? It's hard to do as a freshman, but most agree that Collins is unique in mental ability as well as physical skills. Henry gets some help from another long, sleek freshman, fellow tight end Jeremy Sprinkle, a redshirt who was idled by a broken wrist last year. Tight end play is important in this offense. Watch for how Chaney deploys Henry and Sprinkle, both in the 6-6 range.
10, Offensive Tackles – Former walk-on David Hurd and former defensive end Grady Ollison will open the game at offensive tackle for Arkansas. Can you win with anything "former" at offensive tackle in the SEC. Or is it just a matter of time until Dan Skipper replaces Hurd and Kirkland takes over for Ollison. Bielema has produced some great offensive tackles, as his line coach Sam Pittman. The word out of camp is that Hurd and Ollison can get it done and that Skipper and Kirkland have helped their development. But if you want to watch a key for the season, watch Hurd and Ollison. They must be good players for this offense to work, both in protection and in the run game. Both are bout 20-30 pounds bigger and much stronger in the legs. Like the rest of the team, these tackles are big men, Ollison qualifying sometime this summer when he hit the 300-pound club for the first time in his life. He kept climbing all the way through camp when he finally topped off at 312 before deciding that 305 was his best weight for this season. He said he might play at 315 before he graduates. But how these big men play Saturday might determine both this game and how the season develops.
Extras – There are so many fun things to watch in the opener. Does Martrell Spaight "Spaight" anyone? Does Bret Bielema command the sideline and more importantly, the officials? And, I didn't even get into special teams. Spend some time in warmups watching Zach Hocker and Sam Irwin-Hill go through their paces. Both are ultra talented kickers for the Razorbacks. Check out Eric Bennett as he fields punts. What about kickoff men like Nate Holmes and others? What do these Hogs look like in pads? Do you think it's a bigger team? Do you see any fat guys? Do they look bigger in their legs, the goal for strength coach Ben Herbert when he arrived from Wisconsin? What about atmosphere? The pre-game music is supposed to be better scripted to hold energy before the kickoff. What about Bielema's idea of noise on UL's third-down checks? How does that work? Did you get a glimpse of the Fred W. Smith Center, the new operations center for football? Did you see the work going on next to Baum Stadium where the new indoor baseball/track center is underway? There is lots of new around the start of football season. And questions are about to be answered.
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