The leadership change has been dramatic. The Razorbacks were without a rudder last year. John L. Smith's charge was to allow the coordinators to coach the team and he stayed out of everything. So they went from a dynamic leader to a team with no leadership at the top.
But the change is different just from style of play. Arkansas was finesse last year, featuring a passing game that had no running game and turnovers dominated every move. Arkansas lost 31 turnovers last year. They've limited those problems this year with a focus on ball security and safer passes. There has been one pass interception so far. There have been three lost fumbles (tight end Hunter Henry, running back Jonathan Williams and punt returner Javontee Herndon).
The focus is on a downhill running game and that has led to improvement on defense against the run. The offensive line plays with a much lower pad level, as does the whole team. The team is about 15-30 pounds bigger per man after adapting to Ben Herbert's strength and conditioning program, the same stuff that Bielema emphasized at Wisconsin to produce a wave of NFL draft picks on the offensive and defensive line.
Arkansas faced extreme heat in the first two weeks and had no problems with dehydration or cramping. Not one player missed a snap because of any issues of that type. Heat wasn't an issue last week, nor will it be this week, but the conditioning of this team is much improved. That speaks to the leadership from the top.
The offense features lots of formation looks based on the availability of five tight ends. True freshman Hunter Henry had five catches in the opening game, but has drawn more coverage of late and that's helped the running game. One of the big plays so far has been the toss sweep with both Alex Collins and Jonathan Williams and those tight ends have done well in their blocking. Swanson and fullback Kiero Small are two of the best players on the team. Their blocking on the perimeter -- with Swanson as a pulling center -- has been the bread and butter for the team. Small missed last season with a broken foot. He's broken over 20 facemasks with his blocking. Those are the two players under the radar that make this team go.
Defensively, the emphasis has been clear, simpler and more basic schemes with more attention to tackling and fundamentals. The opposition hasn't been much, but the Arkansas defense appears improved. The defensive front, the strength of the team last year, is even better this year and it's hard to pick someone in the front four to double team because all four are outstanding. Ends Trey Flowers and Smith and tackles Byran Jones and Thomas would play for anyone in the country and are eyed as potentially going in the top three rounds of the NFL draft. Jones, Thomas and Smith are seniors and Flowers is a junior.
The Hogs have improved most in the secondary where safeties Alan Turner and Eric Bennett have been sure tacklers one season after failing to do anything well. The Hogs have not given up the big play in the passing game and have rarely let receivers run past them. Cornerbacks Tevin Mitchel and Will Hines are steadier if not flashy. Mitchel was out with a concussion and gall bladder surgery most of last year. Hines played as a true freshman and was burned often, including by Rutgers.
The linebackers are improved after the addition of Randy Shannon as assistant coach. The former Miami head coach developed walk-ons into All Big 12 performers last year at TCU and has helped the Arkansas linebackers, one of the weaknesses of the team for several teams. They still aren't a strength, but they have made more plays this year.
2.) Can this Arkansas offense be as explosive as what Tyler Wilson ran last year?
That's probably not the goal right now, so the answer is most definitely no. But it may not have to overcome as many lost yardage plays, penalties or turnovers. But there is still great ability to hit the big plays, most definitely at running back with Jonathan Williams and Alex Collins. Both were star recruits out of high school and can go the distance.
The passing game does feature big-play capabilities. The play-action passing game with Brandon Allen at quarterback will go deep out of play action because of the emphasis in the running game. How much of that will be there under A.J. Derby, if Allen can't play because of injury, is anyone's guess.
3.) Is there any legitimate concern with Brandon Allen's health for this game?
Yes, I'd say the plan going forward is to prepare AJ Derby to play quarterback. There won't be any announcement on Allen during the week. Bret Bielema made it clear Monday that quarterback interviews would not happen this week and he'll try to manage that story line. So based on that, I'd most definitely think Allen is injured. If he played another position, he'd probably play. But a bruised throwing shoulder for a quarterback is not the same as any other position. I'd be surprised if Allen played this week, but there isn't going to be an announcement to confirm those fears this week.
4.) What kind of crowd will Arkansas bring? What are fans saying about a rematch with Rutgers after last year?
Fans always talk some about rematches, so there is some of that. Arkansas fans are scattered around the country and there is a nice alumni group based in New York City. It's the first game there for them and they will buy tickets. To say it's going to be more than say 3,000 would be a surprise. For SEC road games on the east coast -- South Carolina and Florida -- there is usually 2,500 to 3,000 in Razorback red. There will be a few Hog hats in the stands and a few pig noses.
5.) What happened against Samford?
Arkansas scored the first 14 points and the last 14 points. In between, there were penalties and turnovers and dropped passes. Arkansas dominated the last 20 minutes, running 32 plays to six for Samford. Arkansas did not throw a pass in the fourth quarter and killed the last 7:35 of the clock with one possession of smashmouth. It was a case of the Hogs shooting themselves in the foot in the third quarter, on both sides of the ball. Samford was limited to two three-and-outs for 11 total yards on its last two possessions after gaining a 21-17 lead.
6.) What have you seen early from Cedar Creek, N.J. quarterback Damon Mitchell? Mitchell is a candidate to redshirt at this point. He will likely make the trip. The two freshmen quarterbacks -- the other being Allen's younger brother Austin -- are both traveling. Mitchell was mentioned Monday by Bielema as a valuable prospect. He's helped with the scout team, especially in the opener when the Hogs feared Louisiana-Lafayette run-pass star Terrance Broadway.
Bielema said there was some time spent early in camp to prepare Mitchell to play with a special package, but that seems to be on the shelf at this point as the Hogs try to prepare all of the backups to play with Brandon Allen's injury. The focus now is on the regular offense, which is a pro-style running attack with the use of multiple tight ends.
The first scrimmage of camp was open. Mitchell worked briefly with the third team and had trouble with the passing game. He was not accurate, but he also didn't have much protection with that offensive line. He did look like a blur when he took off on a scramble. But that's the only look the media has had of Mitchell since the rest of practices have been closed.