Editor's note: This is the third installment of a 14-part in-depth look at spring practices from throughout the Southeastern Conference from the SEC writers of the Rivals.com network. Up today are the Arkansas Razorbacks.
FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. | Bret Bielema's first season at Arkansas did not go as planned, something he attributes building a program that will last without a quick fix.
Bielema had tremendous success at Wisconsin in leading the Badgers to three Rose Bowl appearances in three seasons before leaving for Arkansas. While the Razorbacks enjoyed success in Bobby Petrino's high powered pro-style passing game, the transition year with a lame duck staff and interim head coach John L. Smith ruined any hope of keeping the train rolling, and the whole culture had to be changed.
The SEC appears to have been a little tougher than Bielema envisioned when he took the job, and Arkansas' talent level was also probably lower than he expected. Nine straight losses later, Bielema has gone a different direction on defense, a unit that was near the bottom of the SEC in every major statistical category. This year's defense with new defensive coordinator Robb Smith will focus on attacking the line of scrimmage where as last year there were more read concepts involved.
"Robb really takes as offensive an approach to defense as you can," Bielema said on Wednesday. "It's not going to make us blitz more or anything like that, but it allows the corner to play his base technique more aggressively."
One reason Bielema sighted coming to Arkansas was to be able to pay assistants to keep them from taking lateral positions for more money elsewhere. But three coaches left Arkansas after the season, including defensive line coach Charlie Partridge who took the head coaching position at FAU. Two other coaches, defensive coordinator Chris Ash and cornerbacks coach Taver Johnson, made more lateral moves to the Big 10 with similar titles.
Bielema did not put up much of a fight to keep either, and sources say Johnson was encouraged to look at other opportunities. But when Alabama came after offensive line coach Sam Pittman last year, Arkansas' top recruiter, Bielema and the UA came up with $225,000 more to keep Pittman and then added another $50,000 for good measure to bring his annual salary to $550,000.
Arkansas ranked third in the conference last season in rushing (208.7 yards per game) but was last in passing offense and second-to-last in passing efficiency. The Hogs were the only team in the league to finish under 50 percent passing for the year.
"The starting quarterback position, you can say whatever you want, it's entirely different than any position on the field," Bielema said. "They get too much blame when they lose, and they get way too much credit when they win.
"When we have everyone working together, everyone doing the right thing every single play, we're tough to stop," junior quarterback Brandon Allen said. "I think this summer getting everything right, we're a tough offense when we're clicking."
The season kicks off at national champion runner-up Auburn before the Hogs head to Lubbock (Texas) to face up-tempo Texas Tech two weeks later. The Red Raiders won their first seven games last season before struggling down the stretch. The Razorbacks also host last year's 23rd ranked BCS team in Northern Illinois before the conference slate kicks into high gear.
FIVE QUESTIONS ABOUT ARKANSAS
SEC SPRING WRAP-UPS
MISSISSIPPI STATE BULLDOGS
OLE MISS REBELS
SOUTH CAROLINA GAMECOCKS
TEXAS A&M AGGIESS
What's the biggest thing we learned about Arkansas this spring?
Arkansas has more playmakers and options at receiver with the additions of true freshman Jared Cornelius and junior college transfer Cody Hollister to go with the return of injured senior Demetrius Wilson (ACL) and the addition of quarterback-turned-receiver Damon Mitchell. Junior Keon Hatcher should be the team's starting flanker after filling that role the final three-quarters of last season.
Cornelius should still be in high school but has already locked down the starting slot position with shifty moves and routine acrobatic catches. Hollister just seems to catch everything near him and should be an asset on third downs. Arkansas lacked players like both of them last season.
Arkansas' starting quarterback will also have friends at tight end. Hunter Henry was a star as a freshman with 28 catches even though he played all year with fluid buildup in his knees. He looks faster and will be joined by emerging sophomore Jeremy Sprinkle and quarterback turned tight end A.J. Derby as regulars at the position.
Last season if Arkansas needed a big play, they had to look to the running backs. Aside from Hatcher who had a tendency to be loose with the football, there was not after-the-catch threat at receiver last season and there was not a single possession receiver on the team like Hollister.
What's the biggest question Arkansas answered during spring ball?
The coaching hires Bielema made on defense appear to have things headed in the right direction. Sometime between Bielema's hire and the end of the SEC slate, there was a decision to change the defensive philosophy from more read concepts that Ash preferred to a defense that would attack the line-of-scrimmage and roll the dice a little more often.
That philosophy also seems to be more characteristic of what linebackers coach Randy Shannon would like to have done. He is the only returning defensive coach. To join that way of thinking, Bielema hired Clay Jennings from Kansas State as defensive backs coach. He found a former NFL coach who was at a small college in Rory Segrest who believes in challenging the line of scrimmage. And Bielema found a defensive coordinator in Smith, an assistant coach with the Tampa Bay Bucs last season who believes in pressing cornerbacks and playing offensive defense.
The result this spring was more big plays and more enthusiasm from the players. Throughout the eight practices that were open to the media this spring, the defense seemed to have an edge over the offense, particularly and surprisingly in halting Arkansas' standout rushing attack when the first teams faced off in scrimmages. While a defense like that is prone to giving up big plays as well as making them, for the most part Arkansas' offense had to earn what they got this spring.
Which questions still linger?
There are still concerns at quarterback among fans, but the coaching staff believes in incumbent junior Brandon Allen. He was the best quarterback this spring, but one gets the feeling that is because he has so much more experience than redshirt freshman brother Austin Allen or true freshman Rafe Peavey.
Arkansas trimmed the quarterback rep list to those three players midway through the spring. While each Allen had highs and lows and Peavey showed great potential to go with the most inexperience, no quarterback looked like the next big thing. With more familiarity, Peavey seems to have the most potential to be that.
Brandon Allen got off to an awful start in the final spring scrimmage in going 5 of 11 passing for 21 yards and 2 interceptions before warming up and finishing 7 of 8 for 87 yards with a touchdown.
He injured his shoulder last season and it may have affected him the entire season. According to members of the team and not Brandon Allen or the coaches, it was an issue all year. Arkansas' top backup at quarterback last season was a walk-on, so there were not many options even though it appears he was not at full capacity.
Razorback fans should hope that was the reason Allen struggled so badly in the middle of the season. He was definitely limited in practices each week, and the reported 'bruised shoulder' is nothing more than the result of a more serious injury inside the shoulder that was never disclosed. The first two games before he dove into the end zone against Southern Miss and landed awkwardly, he had completed 24 of 39 pass attempts (61.5 percent) for 355 yards with 5 touchdowns, though it was against Louisiana-Lafayette and Samford.
When he returned two games later during the meat of the schedule he did not eclipse 50 percent passing the next five games and Arkansas lost each match-up convincingly.
The last three weeks of the season, Allen's completion percentage starting rising. The Hogs lost by 10 at Ole Miss with Allen connecting on 56.3 percent of his passes. Then they lost by 7 against Mississippi State with Allen hitting 58.8 percent before losing at LSU by 4 with Allen connecting on 65.5 percent.
Nobody is asking for a trophy for those losses, but that is notable improvement. Allen's shoulder may have been getting healthier towards the end of the year, and several young players along with older players finally getting acclimated to a new system could have all played a role in Arkansas' modestly improved play in the final weeks. A sore shoulder does not explain his first half performance in Arkansas' Red-White Scrimmage, however.
The next big question concerns the offensive line. While left tackle, right guard and right tackle seem pretty much set, coaches are still looking for someone to nail down the starting spots at left guard and center.
Which players stepped up this spring?
Sophomore running back Korliss Marshall was explosive and established himself as running back '1C' along with 1,000-yard rusher Alex Collins and 900-yard rusher Jonathan Williams. Marshall started off at safety but moved to running back last fall and had a limited offensive package that might as well have been toss left and toss right. In 2014, he'll get more than 17 carries and will produce more than the 146 yards (8.6 yards per carry) he accounted for last season. In the Red-White Scrimmage, Marshall rushed 6 times for 99 yards (16.5 yards per carry) with 2 touchdowns and a long run of 59 yards.
On defense, there is an impressive group young defensive ends who are ready to make their mark. Senior Trey Flowers is entrenched on the weak side, but there is a great battle for the opposite starting spot between supersized sophomores Deatrich Wise, Brandon Lewis and JaMichael Winston. Sophomore defensive tackle Darius Philon started much of last year and seemed to get more and more disruptive every day. Arkansas' cornerbacks get an honorable mention for improved play in the more pressing, attacking scheme that has been implemented.
Which players need to step up during the summer?
Redshirt freshman safety De'Andre Coley still looks a bit thin at 6-foot-1, 191 pounds, but he hits like a ton of bricks. Coley made great strides in the spring, but he is still gaining experience and is running with the second group. He has the talent to take a starting spot but needs to add some more weight cook a little more this summer before he is ready. He started or finished every spring scrimmage with a big hit or an interception and has a chance to be a starter this coming season with a great off-season and camp.
Left guard Grady Ollison has done something to aggravate the coaches on the field. This does not appear to be an off-field issue. He was the starting right tackle last season before a bad ankle injury sidelined him. Afterwards, the coaching staff made wholesale changes on the offensive line and when Ollison got healthier he never re-entered the starting five. He came into the spring as the starter at left guard but a few practices into it coaches started working other players there. Pittman said he didn't feel Ollison was pushing spring starter Luke Charpentier, and Bielema has said there is a 'Good Grady' and a 'Bad Grady.' He also said Good Grady is their starting left guard.