Will Bret Bielema Fire Robb Smith or Kurt Anderson?

The Hogs head football coach discusses the prospect of coaching turnover a couple weeks ahead of the Belk Bowl

 

One of the reasons Bret Bielema chose to leave Wisconsin for Arkansas was to get a bigger budget for his assistant coaches.  In theory, this would allow him to hang onto top assistants for longer.

So far, after four regular seasons, the Arkansas coach hasn’t quite seen the continuity he wanted. After one season, his defensive coordinator (Chris Ash) and defensive line coach (Charlie Partridge). After 2014, the RB and linebacker coaches (Joel Thomas and Randy Shannon) left for  jobs elsewhere. And last off season it was his ace offensive line coach, Sam Pittman, running backs coach again (this time Jemal Singleton) and the defensive backs guy, Clay Jennings.

For whom will the revolving door revolve this off-season? It’s not a question of “if” but “who.” On Thursday, he essentially admitted to sports talk host Bo Mattingly there will be some staff turnover after the Razorbacks’ upcoming December 29 Belk Bowl, which the Hogs are a 7-point underdog to Virginia Tech. Read more about online sportbook betting at Betphoenix.ag.

“It’s a part of the world today,” Bielema said of coaching changes. “The way the markets are, the way people have money now, whether you want changes or don’t want changes, they’re kind of inevitable. It’s part of college football these years.”

Given how erratically the offensive line and defense as a whole played this year, it will be interesting to see what happens with o-line coach Kurt Anderson and d-coordinator Robb Smith, who has gone from savior to goat in the past three seasons.

Bielema discussed more on Sportstalk with Bo Mattingly.  Here are some choice excerpts:

On recruiting 

In the front end, the first thing you can do to develop this is get the right guys to develop. I remember after I sat my first year, especially after the first Spring, we had signed a class I felt fairly strong about, the guys we got involved in. Maybe we had been recruiting them previously, or we got here and took over recruitment, but one of the things I was severely disappointed in as we signed a number of junior college players that really just after a short amount of time I could tell they weren’t going to help us. There would guys that had been previously recruited, and just really didn’t fit the mold for what we’re looking for. We went out and got some guys. There’s been some things that’s been good, but there was a number of guys in that class that just didn’t pan out…

I figured from that point forward if we take the junior college player, I want it to be someone that we’ve pretty much done all of our research on, I’ve known for a long time, and know exactly what we’re getting.

On why he seems to be recruiting, on the whole, better offensive players than defensive players:

I think the numbers are smaller. I really do. The number of size and quality and quantity of, especially the defensive line, are a little bit harder to find. I think in general we probably undersigned a little too much at the linebacker position when we first got here. If I had to do it all over again, I probably would’ve signed a lot more of that body type or been a little bit more detailed in that process. Defensive line wise, I’ve had some guys that unfortunately just haven’t performed up to the level that we wanted. Some guys that unfortunately got injured. Tevin Beanum has had some struggles and hasn’t fully develop, and get where we needed to be. There’s been a number of guys I feel we were right there closing in on them, just weren’t able to close off the deal in recruiting. It’s been a part we’ve been really trying to stress and analyze last year.

I think for the most part too, our offensive guys have had a few surprises along the way. AJ [Derby] being a classic example. First we’ve got to take a look at what we’re doing. Obviously, personnel’s another conversation, but you’ve got to make sure we’re putting our players in a position to have success. I think the one part that I’ve learned through coaching defensive football is when guys are lined up, and they’re secure in what they’re seeing, what they’re reading, and what they’re believing, they have a tendency to play a lot faster, play a lot more tough, a lot more toughness, a lot more efficiency. I think that part has to be real, what we’re asking them to do, and then the second part of it is once we ask them to do it, can they physically do it.

On the increasing pace and scoring of college football:

It’s one thing to line up and say, “We’re going to do this, this, and this,” but if they can’t do it or do it with consistency against good competition. You’ve got to rework what you’re asking them to do. The numbers are staggering when you look at the world of college football. I was with a couple of coaches a couple weeks ago in New York, some head coaches that had defensive backgrounds, and we all commented about how much of a different game it is now with RPOs and some of the rules that govern college football. It’s amazing statistically how much the numbers have changed overall. You’re always going to have a couple defenses that are above and beyond really normal standards and put up some really special numbers, but for the most part within all conferences, the numbers are staggeringly higher.

On tinkering with the three-four defense.

I think the part that I’m gonna try to get into after the bowl game is just putting our players that we’ve recruited as well as the addition of new players in a position to have success. One, I think it’s just life in the SEC. I do think we’re a little bit more up and down here than we’ve ever been in my career actually, and to be quite honest since we’ve come here we’ve always had a steady progression forward and never really taken any steps back. I think this year we did beat three teams ranked in the top 20: TCU, Florida, and Ole Miss, but on the same account we lost to a couple teams ranked and obviously one that wasn’t. That is something we can’t allow to happen.

I think the part I really felt good about going to that Missouri game, sitting there and feeling good about it until you get to the eighth win at the end of the year, you’ve had steady improvement for three years … Not that we aren’t there now, but to be a 7-1 team, now try to get to 8 in the bowl game, and keep moving down the right path. It does hit close to home. I know everybody … Because Arkansas is the show of the state, and there’s no pro teams, we get a lot of opinions and a lot of ideas thrown our way. I know this, we’re in so much better place now than we were four years ago, especially with the players we’ve got coming back; regardless of what happens during the outer season with staff and the growth of our program. I know we’re on the path to where we need to be. That part’s exciting. I think our schedule lays our really cool for us in the year ahead, and I know our guys will be excited to get back on track.

 

Bret Bielema On Jeremy Sprinkle’s Future As a Potential First-Round NFL Draft Pick

Below is the second of a two-part transcription of Bret Bielema’s 2015 season recap. You will learn about an emerging Chicago-Arkansas recruiting pipeline, injury updates on Josh Williams and Dominique Reed and Bielema’s dream of opening Ye Olde Egg Nog Shoppe  (above photo is courtesy of Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, Inc.).

On the recruiting reach of the Hogs’ new offensive line coach, a native Chicagoan: 

There’s a lot of good players in the Midwest that have been very successful. Not only in the Midwestern colleges, but also in the SEC. I think we play against Alabama and there’s a [Ross] Pierschbacher kid that I remember came out of Iowa that we all wanted. He’s a very good player for Alabama right now. There’s players up there, Frank Ragnow comes out of Minnesota.

I think about our offensive line. Someone thought they’re all southern kids. You had a tackle from Miami, a guard from California, a center from here, a guard from Minnesota and a tackle was Denver. We’ve got them all over the country and that’s just what we’ve got to continue to do.

On the appeal of playing for Arkansas to kids in Chicago

Bret Bielema: I do. I think the kids love the SEC. We wen 8-2 in bowl games. Kids realize that stuff. There’s more kids playing in the Senior Bowl from the SEC than any other conference. Those things matter and it makes a difference.

On how many new scholarship players Arkansas will likely sign:

Bret Bielema: I think we’re going to get to 24 for sure. I think I’ll probably go to 25, to be quite honest. The by-product of having 3 juniors come out is you have 3 more scholarships become available. We had a couple scholarship players graduate early like Reeve Koehler. When he leaves out that presents an opportunity. All those things I couldn’t forecast a year ago at this time.

Bret Bielema: My vision is to do 12 offense, 12 defense and 1 coach’s discretion. The last 3 coach’s discretion have been 3 kids from Arkansas that have been — Korliss [Marshall] obviously loved to indulge in some things we couldn’t — but he was a good player. The next one was Josh Liddell. I think those guys have proved their worth and what they’re capable of doing.

On his starring role in the new reality TV-style series “Being Bret Bielema”

Bret Bielema: Really, the presentation. Thad and some people had kind of gotten together. I think it started with Chris, did it not? Some people said, “Coach, there’s some things about you that don’t ever get out there.” I haven’t done anything. All I do is slip on a mic and just be me. I’m getting beaten up left and right with my college buddies. Recruits love it. The amount of hits that I’ve gotten and the responses that I’ve gotten from recruits and coaches and donors. It’s amazing to me, but it’s also been a lot of fun. I don’t know where it’s going to end. I think they’re going to pop on the road with me for a couple days. We’ll make sure to follow the … because there’s certain things that you’ve got to do.

I watched the first one a while ago. I hadn’t seen the second one until I had enough people telling me all about it, so I watched it last night. They’d cut some things. I was just having some fun with some K State people there. Just different things. They’re doing a really good job with it…. I’m a big guy in the eggnog thing. If you’d ask my wife, I just think it’s ridiculous we can only have eggnog one month out of the year. Anybody that’s been around me knows that’s one of my pet peeves in life.

I am going to open an eggnog store. I think that’s a good thing…

On Josh Williams‘ health

Bret Bielema: Unfortunately, Josh had another procedure. He’s lost a pretty significant amount of that calf muscle. It’s unfortunately one of the bad parts of our profession and part of our job. He’s really going to struggle to get back to a point of walking and doing things functionally again as a normal person. Hopefully, he’s going to be able to play football again someday, but it’s probably a long ways away from that being able to happen. We’ll address it.

He wasn’t able to go home until last week. He had been in the hospital again when we were in Memphis. He didn’t join us until Wednesday or Thursday afternoon. Unfortunately, just a lot of by-product off of that surgery.

Right now, he’s not ready for Spring ball and I don’t expect it to be for Spring. Let me tell you if he could get cleared for Fall football I’d be the biggest, happiest fan of Josh’s in the world. I just don’t know if it’s going to be possible. It’s a bridge that we’re going to have to cross together. If he can’t do, I’d be the first to hire him as a linebacker assistant and let him be involved in every way possible. He has truly been one of the greatest blessings for us. He’s a A-B student. He does everything right. He can play all 3 positions. He’s an absolute coach’s dream.

On tight end Jeremy Sprinkle’s potential:

Bret Bielema: Well, [Jeremy] Sprinkles going to be the first to tell you. He hasn’t even scratched the surface. He’s probably the most creative touchdown celebration, but that’s about all he’s got as a No. 1 spot right now. I think we can get him to 260. I think he could be 10 pounds heavier than he is. I think he’d be the first to tell you he was committed 75% of the time. I need a full 100% commitment out of him because if he can give me a year of his life like he’s never had, I’ll give him the next 30 that are pretty good.

I was talking to one NFL coach who had watched our game the day before and their head coach and him and a couple other of their VP’s were there with their GM and they said, “Can we get both those tight ends to play for us tomorrow in the NFL?” Hunter and him have got all the things that you want. I think we could probably have two of the best tight ends in back-to-back years that anybody could produce, but I need a bigger commitment out of Sprink. I mean from diet to sleep to behavior to accountability to responsibility to everything. He’ll get it. His dad and I will get it. I guarantee it.

On overall position depth:

Bret Bielema: I think linebacker depth is a concern of mine in the Fall and Spring so one would tell you that an ideal shooting number for us is 4. I’d love to get 3 high school and a JUCO. The magic number on defense for sure is kind of 3 to 4 at every position. On offense, even though we lost only 1 tight end, he’s a great one, but we signed a number of tight ends a year ago. Wide receiver, we got a fix number. Running back is intriguing because obviously losing 2 backs in the NFL draft — it’s fun to talk about but it’s really not great to live through.

But Kody, Rawleigh, I think the emergence of hopefully J-Day, I think we’ve done a nice job in recruiting. We’re in some of the most elite backs I’ve ever been involved with and they’re saying a lot of really good things. Those things are yet in front of us. It should be a fun two weeks. We’re fixing ready to hop in the last two weeks of recruiting. It’s probably one of the more enjoyable times for me as a head coach – just to get some finality to certain situations.

Continue reading Bret Bielema On Jeremy Sprinkle’s Future As a Potential First-Round NFL Draft Pick

Why LSU & Arkansas Players Mock the Notion of a True Rivalry Between Them

http://www.hogdb.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/10/1910-Arkansas-LSU-Program-Edited.jpg
Despite the presence of seed, LSU-Arkansas could never really take root. via HogDB.com

Twenty two years after leaving the Southwest Conference for the SEC, Arkansas still doesn’t have a true conference rival. On paper, it should have been LSU, a perennial conference title contender (like Texas) bordering Arkansas (like Texas) that like Texas once prevented Arkansas from winning a national championship.

  Plus, the annual LSU-Arkansas series has had perks Texas-Arkansas never did: a regular spot on national TV during Thanksgiving weekend, the Bellagio of college football trophies in the 200-pound Golden Boot and no in-state rival like Texas A&M to stir Texas fans’ deepest passions (well, no Aggies for a while, anyway).

 On top of all that, LSU-Arkansas has recently produced games every bit as competitive and entertaining to watch as the great Hog-Longhorn showdowns of the 1960s. And it’s likely this Saturday’s game in Fayetteville, for which Arkansas is a 1 point favorite according to SportsBettingAcumen.com sites, produces yet another thriller.

  “It’s a rivalry game,” Arkansas coach Bret Bielema told me in an interview for SB Nation. “The boot represents more than just a victory. It’s a battle between two states, something our fans take a lot of pride in. Obviously with LSU being the last game of the year there’s been a built-up rivalry here that we will hope to continue.”

   Bielema lauds the rivalry aspect of the game in public, just as previous Arkansas and LSU coaches and players have. It’s no secret, though, that the enmity true rivals have for each other has been lacking here.

   Take it from Matt Jones, the former Razorback quarterback responsible for the “Miracle on Markham,” possibly the series’ most memorable moment – a 31-yard Hail Mary pass to DeCori Birmingham with nine seconds left in the 2002 game that sent Arkansas to the SEC Championship game. The year before, Jones was on the opposite side as Arkansas lost a 41-38 contest sending the Tigers to Atlanta. “You knew it was a big game for whatever reason but there never ever seemed like there was a connection between Arkansas and LSU,” he says. “It was almost like it was a little bit forced on you.”

Jones says many of his teammates felt the same, as did LSU foes like running back LaBrandon Toefield. After college, Jones and Toefield were NFL teammates in Jacksonville, Fla. “We always joked” about how the series was played up, Jones says. Many LSU players “didn’t see it as a rivalry at all,” he recalls Toefield saying. “It was something the media put out.”

    Carter Bryant, an Arkansas native and LSU grad, is part of the media. Now a radio host in El Dorado, Ark., he’s covered Tiger football for four years and doesn’t understand why the rivalry hasn’t caught on more. “It means a good deal to people in south Arkansas and north Louisiana because of proximity,” he says.

    “But to the people of south Louisiana, it means little compared to other rivalries with trophies. LSU has pushed the Ole Miss rivalry over the years with the Magnolia Bowl trophy. Alabama with [Nick] Saban history has created a fascinating narrative plus instant classics. Every other team in the SEC West outside of Mississippi State is probably viewed as more heavily anticipated and vitriolic matchup in the minds of LSU fans.” That includes Texas A&M, which has supplanted Arkansas as the Tigers’ season finale. Not coincidentally, annual primetime showdowns with Texas A&M will help generate more profit for the SEC most years than an Arkansas matchup would.

  For now, Arkansas fans are as likely to hate Alabama, or Ole Miss, as LSU. Or even an SEC East program.  “The team that I hated the most was Tennessee,” Jones recalls. Jones, who grew up in Van Buren, points to one experience as the reason. He recalls as a nine-year-old hunting with his father and walking onto a cabin in the woods. Inside, people were watched TV and cheered. On the screen, the unranked Razorbacks were pushing the No. 4 Volunteers to the wire on the road. He’ll never forget the euphoria that followed watching Arkansas kicker Todd Wright’s 41-yard field goal sail through the uprights with two seconds left to give Arkansas its first victory in Knoxville, Tenn.

   Tennessee, though, already had Alabama and Florida as nemeses. Another SEC border state, Mississippi, had two in-state rivals. “Everybody kind of had a rival but us, so we had to manufacture one,” former Arkansas coach Houston Nutt says.

    Enter David Bazzel, an entrepreneur who has found a niche promoting Arkansas college athletics. Bazzel loves gold, and he loves football, and from all that love sprung the idea for this:

lsu-arkansas-the-boot-2012-570x379

Bazzel’s Golden Boot trophy, which depicts the two states’ outlines, debuted in 1996. He hoped its record-setting 4-foot plus height would help the game attract national attention and produce better competition. “It’s about playing for something, whether it be a paper clip, a rubber band or empty Coke can,” he says. In this case, “it just so happens to be a 200-pound trophy.”  He adds: “I wanted it to develop into a fun trophy game, not particularly a rivalry.”

Historically, most trophy games, of course, are based in rivalries. But that’s changing as power conferences create trophies for series involving program with little shared history. Usually these series involve states that don’t share borders,  like Nebraska-Wisconsin or South Carolina-Texas A&M, but the situation with Arkansas’ next SEC-sanctioned rival is different.

That would be Missouri, which replaces LSU as Arkansas’ regular season finale.

Bret Bielema: Darkhorse Candidate for Michigan’s Opening?

hokepointbielema

In the last seven years, the University of Arkansas has had arguably the most turbulent stretch of head coaching changes in all pro or college football. Razorback fans will certainly accede to this. The following word associations shall forevermore rub salt into their psychic wounds: Nutt, text gate, Malzahn, Mustain; Petrino, Dorrell, motorcycle, neck brace, red face (not from shame); John L. Smith, awkward, national, laughing, stock.

From a public outrage standpoint, though, none of the above fallouts would match what would happen if Bret Bielema left Fayetteville after this season. The idea that Arkansas’ most recent coach would pursue greener pastures after only two years seems far-fetched. But not far-fetched enough for one long-time Ohio State football writer to spend a full column on.

TheOzone.net’s Tony Gerdeman recently laid out a case for why Michigan should hire Bret Bielema to replace its current embattled coach Brady Hoke. Hoke, in case you haven’t heard, makes Will Muschamp’s tenure at Florida look more secure than a Chuck Norris handshake. This year (Hoke’s fourth) Michigan has lost four of six games including a 31-0 drubbing to Notre Dame – the first time the program’s been shut in 30 years.

Gerdeman argues since Bielema has already found success in the Big Ten (he had a 39-19 conference record as Wisconsin’s coach), he could do even better with a far richer program like Michigan. Other potential candidates have also been successful, but they don’t represent a return to the glory days of the Wolverines patriarch Bo Schembechler like Bielema could.

“He is the perfect fit for a program that wants to play football the way their ancestors played — between the tackles and on the ground. Few coaches have the track record that Bielema has when it comes to playing the type of football that Michigan thought they were getting with Brady Hoke. If they were to land Bielema, then they would finally be on the right track toward establishing the identity that they so badly want to portray.”

Finally, and most importantly, Bielema “is smug, arrogant and he hates Ohio State. If that’s not a Michigan Man, then I don’t know what is,” Gerdeman writes.

No doubt, Bielema hates himself some Buckeye. Any time, any place:

At Wisconsin, he beat Ohio State only once in six tries but Hayes Almighty what a loss! The Badgers’ 2010 win ruined Ohio State’s national title shot. Fourth-quarter issues plagued Wisconsin in many of those losses, as they have so far in the Hogs’ two SEC losses against Auburn and Texas A&M. If a fourth quarter meltdown proves the difference in Arkansas’ Saturday showdown against No. 7 Alabama, Bielema will start facing the same kind of local scrutiny he felt from Wisconsin fans and media during his last months in Madison.

Gerdeman then considers whether Bielema would actually want to leave Arkansas even if Michigan showed interest. He starts talking money, and this is where his argument breaks down.

He points out the Wolverines’ assistant Doug Nussmeier makes $200,000 more at Michigan than he did at Alabama, and insinuates the Wolverines have deep enough pockets to lure practically anybody they want to Ann Arbor.

This is Big Ten-centric thinking. Yes, Ohio State and Michigan make much more money off football than most SEC schools, but that doesn’t mean they are investing the same percentage of their “profit” (revenue-expenditures) into football as schools in the middle of the SEC pack like Arkansas. Additionally, the numbers below show that Arkansas is on par – and in some cases superior to – Michigan when it comes to investing in its football program:

Arkansas

Michigan

$99,770,840 Athletic Dept Total Revenue* $143,514,125
$92,131,933 Athletic Dept Total Expenditures $131,018,311
$3.2 million avg. per yr / 6 yrs** Head FB coach contract $3.25 million avg. per yr / 6 yrs
$3.2 million Head FB coach salary 2014 $2.3 million***
$3,205,000 circa Feb. 2014 FB Staff Salary 2014 $3,072,000 circa Dec. 2013
Jim Cheney, OC, $550,000Robb Smith, DC, $500,000Sam Pittman, OC, $500,000 Highest Paid FB Assistants Greg Mattison, DC, $835,000Doug Nussmeier, OC, $830,000

Yes, Michigan has shown it’s willing to pay its very top assistants more money than most other schools. And yes, with $25.3 million coming into its football program as donations from an enormous alumni base, it would be willing to pay off any buyout clause necessary to get the coach it wants – including Bielema’s $2.5 million price tag.

But those aren’t nearly strong enough reasons for Bielema to uproot after a mere two years getting acclimated to the SEC. His primary reason for coming to Arkansas was to get a shot at the big boys. The burning competitor in Bielema wants to know how he measures up as a head coach against the very best.

If he, his staff and his recruits try their best, and after five or six years they don’t measure up, then he can one day retire knowing he at least didn’t shy away from his sport’s greatest challenge. Gerdeman wrote Michigan’s imminent opening would give Bielema “an opportunity to get the hell out of the SEC, specifically the SEC West. Coaching in the SEC is too hard because every school is always trying to win.”

Sorry, but no.

The fact every SEC school is “always trying to win” is the main draw to coaching there in the first place.


*The most recent data reported as of summer 2014.

** Both coaches’ contracts are loaded with a mind-numbing array of opportunities to earn more.

*** Last year, Hoke banked well over $4 million dollars but that was because of a $1.5 million “stay bonus” paid following the season and a $1.05 million payout for “deferred compensation,” according to mlive.com.

Bret Bielema Embraces the Gecko, Breaks with All Kinds of Convention

Think the modern big time college football coach is entirely beholden to the corporate powers backing him? You best think again.
Think modern big time college football coaches are entirely beholden to the corporate powers backing him? You best think again.

For someone hailing from the breadbasket of America, Illinois native Bret Bielema sure knows how to cut against the grain.  The second-year Arkansas head football coach has most famously eschewed the up-tempo philosophy adopted by so many of his peers to build a fearsome, old-school running game that has transformed the Razorbacks into the nation’s best slow-down* offense, and sixth-best overall.

The question of how good 3-1 Arkansas really is will be answered this Saturday when Hogs, who have cracked CBS Sports’ Top 25, take on undefeated, No. 4 Texas A&M in Arlington, Texas. Buoyed by an unexpectedly strong defense, the Aggies have crushed each of their four opponents including South Carolina on the road. In his third season at Texas A&M, head coach Kevin Sumlin has his up-tempo Aggies clicking on all cylinders, churning out 612.5 yards a game under the direction of quarterback Kenny Hill, as surprising an Heisman Trophy candidate now as Johnny Manziel was almost two years ago.

Arkansas is a 9 point underdog but whether it wins or loses on Saturday, one thing’s for sure: Bielema’s not changing tact any time soon. He’s not falling in line with the Malzahn and Sumlin-ites around him. Indeed, sometimes he’s contrarian without even intending to be. For evidence, look no farther than his post-game press conference after Arkansas’ 52-14 decimation of Northern Illinois last weekend.

In it, Bielema’s does his thing, talking in rapid fire fashion and making reporters chuckle with quick asides, when he starts praising his team’s special teams effort. He lauds kickoff specialist Adam McFain, an unrecruited walk on who’s on the brink of also becoming Arkansas’ long-range field goal kicker. Then, with the signage of Razorback athletics sponsor Farm Bureau Insurance behind him as usual, he describes a couple defensive special teams formations unveiled against the Huskies because “we knew they would take some chances in the kicking game.”

The first is “a punt safe look” he tells the reporters is called “Allstate.” As in Allstate Insurance Company.

Then, with that Farm Bureau signage still behind him, he praises freshman cornerback Henre’ Tolliver for making a clutch tackle of Northern Illinois’ quarterback on a 4th-down running attempt. So what was the defensive formation called on that play?

Geico. Yet another insurance company not named Farm Bureau.

geico

The Hogs used this "Geico" formation to stymie Northern Illinois' fake punt kick attempt.
This Geico formation insures against fake punt success.

Bielema and his staff could have easily labeled one of their formations “Farm Bureau,” but I find the fact they didn’t to be marginally refreshing. Major college football is such big money these days, with so many corporate ties, it’s nice to see that the names of coaches’ plays and formations don’t have sponsorship tie-ins.

Not yet, at least.  As long-time Arkansas sportswriter Nate Allen noted, Razorback athletics have “operated in increasingly corporate fashion since 2008 when Jeff Long replaced longtime athletic director Frank Broyles.” Indeed, the University of Arkansas recently trademarked the “Hog Call,” its sports teams’ nearly century-old cheer.

Such revenue pursuit, of course, follows in line with other major college football programs because every other school – especially in the brutal SEC West – is pouring more and more tens of millions of dollars into its most lucrative sport. But the business logic is sound: With enough winning, those tens of millions of investment can lead to tens of millions of profit. That’s why Texas A&M looms as a pivotal game for a rising Arkansas program. Bielema knows, too. He said last weekend his players have shown “a certain mentality and attitude that has not been here since I’ve been here.”

If that translates into the Hogs’ winning on Saturday by slowing the nation’s most deadly offense**, and in the process shocking pundits around the nations – then the players’ deeds will match their already sky high confidence.  And, so long as SEC wins result, Arkansas’ corporate sponsors should hardly care what’s written on the pages of a playbook.


*Arkansas ranks as far and away the nation’s most deadly methodical offense (which takes into account the team’s % of drives with at least 10 plays), according to the number crunchers at Football Outsiders.

** Texas A&M has the nation’s most efficient offense, when measuring ” its actual drive success against expected drive success based on field position.”

Via Football Outsiders

Want to know what the hell the above abbreviations mean? Here’s some light shed, thanks to Football Outsiders:

  • OFEI: Offensive FEI, the opponent-adjusted efficiency of the given team’s offense.
  • OE: Offensive Efficiency, the raw unadjusted efficiency of the given team’s offense, a measure of its actual drive success against expected drive success based on field position.
  • Ex: Explosive Drives, the percentage of each offense’s drives that average at least 10 yards per play.
  • Me: Methodical Drives, the percentage of each offense’s drives that run 10 or more plays

N.B.  You’ll notice above Arkansas’ record is 2-1, not 3-1. That’s because stats from Arkansas 73-7 win over FCS foe Nicholls State don’t count here.  The numbers above are filtered to eliminate games against FCS opponents, first-half clock-kills and end-of-game garbage drives and scores.

How All Those New Arkansas Football Coaches Bond

Few coaches tower over Bret Bielema. Rory Segrest is one of them.
Few coaches tower over Bret Bielema. Rory Segrest is one of them.

Arkansas football’s struggles last season are well chronicled. Mention of its nine losses, winless conference record and back-to-back 0-52 shellackings to the hands of South Carolina and Alabama are sure to darken the mood of even the most optimistic Hog supporters. But there’s at least one fan not falling into line here. “Some people look at a 3-9 record as a downer,” says head football coach Bret Bielema. “But I find it more exhilarating than anything you could ever find.”

 Wait, what?

 Bielema points to the improvement Arkansas showed in its last four games, when it played opponents increasingly tighter and ended the year with  a four-point loss to No. 14 LSU. Over that span his players executed better and cut back on the mental lapses which had plagued the young team earlier in the season. The Hogs finished as the SEC’s least penalized team vs. other Southeastern Conference foes.  These early signs of a turnaround also give a master recruiter like Bielema a selling point. They help form a narrative appealing to the competitive nature of the top high schools players he most wants to sign. In essence, he wants them to buy into the prospect of building a legacy rather than preserving one. Hog coaches emphasize to recruits the part they could play in helping lead Arkansas to its first SEC title. Bielema says he tells recruits: “If you want to come and be apart of something at Arkansas that’s never been done before, and you want to build off the foundation of a 3-9 record, then I got something for you.

   For Arkansas to win a championship, its defense – which last season ranked No. 76 nationally and No. 9 in the SEC – must improve. Up front, three of four starting defensive linemen have left but All-SEC Trey Flowers returns for his senior season. As for linebackers, Bielema adds:,  “I do think we have a good group that we can piecemeal together. I think Brook Ellis showed us some good things. I think Martrell Spaight and Braylon Mitchell – those three guys will probably be your top three candidates” for starting positions.

  Bielema predicts the secondary, which ranked as the SEC’s worst pass defense against conference foes, will “absolutely” improve from 2013 when it allowed SEC opponents to complete more than 70 percent of passes. He cites added size, strength and quickness as one reason, along with more aggressive tactics that include challenging wide receivers more often at the line of scrimmage. There’s also an infusion of ideas from new defensive backs coach Clay Jennings, who was hired in February from Texas Christian University.

  On the field, Jennings is charged with shoring up the defense’s weakest area. Off the field, he’s expected to go on the offensive in the program’s most important out-of-state recruiting territory – Texas. It takes only a glimpse at the best teams in program history – including the 1964 national championship squad – to confirm this. For its most recent signing class, though, Arkansas coaches signed only two of the roughly 25 Texans they had recruited.

  Bielema’s confident that percentage will rise. He sent five staff members to recruit Texas last winter and believes the fruit of those efforts will be seen in upcoming signing classes. And Jennings, a Waco, Tex. native with a decade’s worth of coaching experience in the state, should strengthen Arkansas’ pull there, Bielema adds. “Any ties he has, we’re going to lean on those.”

  Jennings is one of three new Arkansas defensive coaches. At the top is defensive coordinator Robb Smith, a 38-year-old who last year coached linebackers for the NFL’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Joining him is new defensive line coach Rory Segrest, who coached the same position at Samford University in Birmingham, Ala. “Rory’s a little guy,” Bielema says, tongue in cheek. “He walks into the room and he’s about 6-foot-6 with a size 18 shoe. I hired him because I didn’t want to be the biggest guy on the staff anymore.”

  Bielema is pleased with how his coaches have built off last season’s late momentum toward the April 26th Red-White Spring Game: “I’m excited about where our staff is right now. We’re really cranking into high gear.” He also knows the more his coaches trust each other, the faster their program will accelerate. To that end, he organizes mixers to help his new coaches get to know each other. For instance, Bielema reserved a suite for his coaches at a February 28th Hogs baseball game in Fayetteville. “My hope is that my [defensive] line coach ends up sitting next to my wide receivers coach and although they hadn’t known each other, maybe they get to know each other a little bit more. It makes things a little bit better.”

 Bielema also organizes other off-season outings that include players, too. He points to examples that naturally revolve around competition: bowling, slow-pitch softball, three-point shooting contests.

  Perhaps it’s appropriate these Razorbacks hone such skills together. Most onlookers, after all, consider them as long shots to win a lot of games any time soon. But that doesn’t faze Bielema. When he’s wooing recruits, selling them on his vision for a great turnaround, he need not ask them to strain their imaginations. They know the 2013 SEC championship game, after all, was played between Missouri and Auburn – two programs with a total of two SEC wins the year before.

The above article originally printed in the March/April issue of Arkansas Money and Politics

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Trey Flowers Keeps Pursuing His Dream of Chasing His Razorback Dreams

trey flowers
All-SEC Trey Flowers pursues quarterbacks and, apparently, transhuman forms of consciousness.

Press releases.

God bless the fine sports information men and women who have to crank ’em out and the coaches and student-athletes who have to say something, anything really, to make them look more official.

It’s a fairly standard process that keeps the entire sportswriting-industrial complex humming along. Sometimes, though, there’s a glitch in the system. Somebody’s not quite on their “A game” when it comes to clearly thinking about what to say, or to write.

The result can be words that stretch the limits of logic to a breaking point. Case in point is today’s press release from the University of Arkansas  that nearly sent my mind into a metaphysical tailspin. The statement declares star defensive end Trey Flowers is returning for his senior season to anchor the Razorbacks’ line. “I’m very excited for Trey and not just his immediate future, but for everything down the road,” Arkansas coach Bret Bielema pronounced.

Bielema should be excited about Flowers’ immediate future. Not only is the Alabama native returning as a second-team All-SEC player who has superb on-the-field awareness, but it’s possible he’s tapped into another dimension altogether.  Bielema said Flowers told him he’d decided to forego entering the 2014 NFL Draft because “he wanted to maintain and pursue his dream of playing and chasing his dreams here at Arkansas for another year.”

Pursuing a dream of chasing dreams? I don’t exactly know what that means. I’m pretty sure it means there’s a lot of dreaming going on. Beyond that, if I had to guess, I’d say it Bielema is trying to tell us young Trey also has the ability to meta-dream, a quality typically ascribed to techno-saviors of mankind who can flit between alternate realities and download their consciousnesses into avatars – you know, that sort of thing.

Bottom line: Flowers is still very much plugged into the program at a time when it desperately needs him. And that’s something for Hog fans to cheer about.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cqxwtEdxOCw&w=420&h=315]

Proof I’m not a dirty liar:

Flowers Announces Return For 2014 Season

FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. – Arkansas defensive end Trey Flowers announced Monday he was returning to the Razorbacks for his senior season after considering early entry into the NFL Draft.

“I have made the decision to stay at Arkansas for my senior season,” Flowers said. “Coach Bielema was very supportive throughout the process and helped me and my family navigate this decision. I still have goals on and off the field I want to accomplish at Arkansas, beginning with graduating, and want to continue pursuing those. On the field, I am excited about the program being built and wanted to help the Razorbacks back in 2014. Even though my draft grade was good, I believe another year with Coach Bielema will help improve my draft status. I am looking forward to another season at Arkansas, where we have support from our administration, some of the best fans in the nation and a bright future for the football program.”

A second-team All-SEC selection in 2013, Flowers finished the season with 44 tackles, including 13.5 for loss with 5.0 sacks, three forced fumbles, one interception, two pass breakups and five quarterback hurries. His average of 1.23 tackles for loss per game ranks second in the SEC and 35th in the NCAA, and his tackles for loss total is tied for third in the conference. His tackles for loss accounted for 58 yards lost, the ninth-highest total in the SEC. He recorded 9.5 tackles for loss in conference play, which ranked fourth in the SEC. The Huntsville, Ala., native also is tied for second in the conference and for 23rd in the country with three forced fumbles.

Through his first three seasons as a Razorback, Flowers has recorded 122 tackles, 32.0 for loss with 12.0 sacks, 17 quarterback hurries, three forced fumbles, seven pass breakups and one interception. He is tied for 11th on Arkansas’ career tackles for loss list and is tied for 16th on the school’s career sacks list. In addition to his All-SEC inclusion in 2013, he also was named to the SEC All-Freshman Team in 2011. The economics major has earned recognition on the SEC Fall Academic Honor Roll and the Razorback Honor Roll for his work in the classroom.

“I’m very excited for Trey and not just his immediate future, but for everything down the road,” head coach Bret Bielema said. “I went through this process, going back to last spring when I first sat down with him and his parents to talk about exactly where he was and where we thought we could get him. Then we’d have a decision to make. I really kept them in the loop as much as we could. I talked to his parents several times throughout the course of the year. Trey came in as I expected after the end of the regular season and we sat down. We filled out the information. We did a telephone conference with his father. I said we’d wait for the grades. We got our grades in, and I believe I was notified on Jan. 1. Last Friday afternoon I flew over to Alabama and myself and Coach (Ben) Herbert sat down, went through about 15 documents with Trey and his mom and dad, the information that I gathered for him to make an informed decision. Thankfully he notified us shortly thereafter and said he wanted to maintain and pursue his dream of playing and chasing his dreams here at Arkansas for another year. He’ll be able to get his degree and hopefully move his draft status that much more for the future.”

 

Exclusive Q&A: All-SEC Travis Swanson, Coaches Bret Bielema & Sam Pittman

Future first rounder? (Courtesy: Arkansas Democrat-Gazette)
Future first rounder? (Courtesy: Arkansas Democrat-Gazette)

I wrote a feature article for SYNC this week about Arkansas center Travis Swanson, who has developed into one of the SEC’s best offensive linemen and is the centerpiece (in nearly every metaphorical or literal way imaginable) of Bret Bielema’s offense.

I wasn’t able to fit a few interesting tidbits into the story, so I throw them out now:

How Swanson Can Improve

By the way Bielema raves about Swanson, you’d think the guy was already the nation’s best college center of the last few years. “I’d be very, very surprised” if he doesn’t lead the SEC in pancake blocks this season, Bielema told me, despite the fact Swanson’s career highlights so far don’t exactly scream “Shawn Andrews 2.0”

Yes, T-Swan is good. Very good, in fact. But he’s not yet a Rimington Award winner and he hasn’t yet made a first team All-American.

The fifth-year senior can still stand to improve some.

How?

His offensive line coach, Sam Pittman, said Swanson has already learned to play with with explosiveness and “pop” since winter (it helps he’s put on 10 pounds of muscle while shedding body fat).

“Now it’s more about shoulder leverage, hand placement – on a tight nose – things of that nature that we’re working on,” Pittman said.

The leverage issue is something other NFL Draft analysts have also mentioned.  “When he tries to generate push he tends to lean too much and it made him easy to shed for guys like Kirby Ennis of A&M and Isaac Gross of Ole Miss,” writes Tom Melton. “There were times that Swanson really seemed to struggle with speed and quickness in the run game, and that was particularly evident against Ole Miss when Isaac Gross regularly beat him despite being listed as a 6’1”, 255 pound true freshman defensive tackle.”

Rob Rang of NFLDraftScout.com adds: “He understands blocking angles and generally seals off opponents from the action effectively in the running game but can be beaten inside by quickness and too often drops his head on contact when blocking on the move, leading to experienced defenders occasionally swimming over the top to break free.”

Swanson wasn’t particularly explosive in the run game last year. If he drastically improves there – which Bielema obviously believes it will – there’s no reason to think he couldn’t break into the second or even lower first round.

NFL analyst Chris Mortensen spoke to two NFL scouts he knows and told me that at this point Swanson projects as a second or third round guy. Bielema told me: “That ranking doesn’t even come close, in my opinion, to what his actual ability his, They [scouts] haven’t seen what we’re gonna do with him yet,” he said. “We’re gonna do some center pulls. We gonna do some stuff where people are gonna say ‘Wow. This guy has really got something.’”

Good days are comin' again, many believe. (Courtesy: Arkansas Democrat-Gazette)
Good days are coming again, Hog players believe. (Courtesy: Arkansas Democrat-Gazette)

Sorry, Mike Anderson

Bielema said one reason Swanson projects as first team All-SEC this season is that he has outstanding footwork. “His feet never leave the framework of his body. Travis is probably 6-5, but he plays like a guy who’s 5-10.  His feet stay under his body. As people get longer, they tend to play with longer strides so it’s the players who grow taller and yet don’t over stride that become successful.”

“[Former Wisconsin player] J.J. Watt, defensive end, he’s a 2nd year player and the best defensive player in the NFL, he’s 6-6 but his feet never play out of his box,” Bielema said. “That allows you to play under control,”

I mentioned to Bielema that the opposite situation plays out in basketball, where it’s typically better for players to “get wide” and use a long reach.

This literally got Bielema out of his seat and – with somewhat surprising alacrity – into a defensive basketball position.

“Basketball coaches are the worst freaking thing to ever happen to football coaches,” he said as he got into a crouch, arms spread wide. “Because their breakdown means this. How many football players you ever seen like that? If your ass is behind your heels, you’ll never play football. But in basketball, your ass is to be behind your heels all the time. That’s the breakdown position.”

“But in basketball you can’t run anybody over. In football, you have to be able to withstand pressure and fight.”

I Want To Pancake Block the Petrinos 

If you’re like me, you dig stats. Not just the normal boilerplate stuff, but the more advanced stuff.  More = good.

Not so under the Bobby and Paul Petrino regime. The former Arkansas Razorback coaches didn’t disclose stats for offensive linemen. If like me you want to know how Swanson’s pancake blocks and grading percentage improved from year to year, tough luck – the Petrino-era coaches didn’t pass these numbers on to the rest of us.

I’ve been told the new staff will keep better track of these numbers and will share some of them with the public. They should. Especially since a few of them have built reputations as developers of future star NFL linemen.

Swanson As Sensei

Travis arrived on the Fayetteville campus in 2009, the same year that Arkansas’ last great center – Jonathan Luigs – left. Swanson said he didn’t have the benefit of an experienced center to show him the ropes during his redshirt freshman and freshman years.

He credits other offensive lineman – DeMarcus Love and Ray Dominguez -as well as Ryan Mallett with showing him to be vocal and assertive as a leader. Nowadays, he’s eager to pass on his knowledge and serve as a mentor to younger O-linemen on this year’s team:  “I’m gonna try to help the younger guys understand because when I was younger I didn’t really have that.”

Swanson got thrown to the wolves early. He made his first SEC start on the road against a strong Georgia team and as a freshman eventually secured the starting job of a team that made the Sugar Bowl.

The interior defensive linemen Swanson deals with are some of the best in the nation. I asked him who have been the toughest to block  in his career and most of them come from early in his career: Auburn’s Nick Fairley, Ohio State’s Cameron Heyward, Mississippi State’s Pernell McPhee, LSU’s Marcell Dareus and Drake Nevis.

Family Style

Since moving to Fayetteville from his Houston-area  home, Swanson has gone full circle with his housemates.

In 2009, he room with Bryan Boehner.

Last year, Swanson lived  with teammates Brey Cook and Luke Charpentier in a big house. This year, just like in Texas, he’s living with his younger brother – a UA freshman.

swanson and holder

For more about Swanson’s life, including his biggest off-field news of the year, check out this SYNC article. 

Behind the Scenes Look at the Recruitment of Altee Tenpenny: My SBnation longform feature article

Beating out Alabama for top prospects is a Catch-22 for Arkansas.
Beating out Alabama for top prospects is a Catch-22 for Arkansas.

I’ve spent the last few months interviewing North Little Rock football player Altee Tenpenny and his inner circle about his recruitment.

Tenpenny, of course, has been the subject of plenty discussion in these parts. He committed to Alabama in January 2012, but it always held the door slightly ajar from the Razorbacks to make their case. When Bret Bielema came aboard as Arkansas’ new coach, with a reputation for showcasing top-notch running backs at his previous stint in Wisconsin, Tenpenny allowed that door to creak ever slightly more open.

But Monday night, with a Tweet declaring he was 100% committed to Alabama, Tenpenny slammed the door shut.

This morning, on National Signing Day, he used a pen and fax machine to deadbolt that sucker.

I still think Arkansas fans should pay attention to the story of his recruitment, however. There are so many interlocking parts to the whole process – from the coaches’ spiels, to the parents’ jobs, to the high school coach’s background and the way the media (yes, me included) not only report on this whole crazy carnival but to different degrees actually participate in it.

Every recruit has to deal with similar issues. You hope the teen has people who have his best intentions in mind to deal with a process that only becomes more pressure packed and scrutinized by the year. So, I was heartened to see that Tenpenny has good parents to help him distinguish between emotion-fueled propaganda and reasonable arguments. I know Hog fans don’t like the outcome, but they should still reflect on and pay heed to the process.

Tenpenny’s recruitment represents only the first battle between Bret Bielema’s Arkansas staff and Nick Saban’s Alabama staff. It may be a while before Arkansas can win on the field, but in the recruiting world Arkansas’ first victory could come as early as next February. Josh Frazier, a 6-4, 324-pound junior defensive lineman from Springdale Har-Ber, has offers from Arkansas and Alabama.

FLIPPING TENPENNY

Heading into his sophomore season at North Little Rock High School, running back Altee Tenpenny had never heard of a combine.

He didn’t know a summer circuit fitness test could rocket a previously obscure name onto the radar of every major college football program and secure the attention of top college football coaches. However, his high school coaches did, and in June 2010 they encouraged him to attend one. Tenpenny came back with a score of 90.91. “Everybody was looking at me like I did good,” he said. Indeed, at 15 years old, without a minute of varsity football under his belt, the native Arkansan’s score identified him as an elite athlete, the kind that made college football coaches and fans drool.

Read the entire 7,000 word article here.

Hunter Henry Q & A About Recruiting Process

Hunter Henry is committed to Arkansas, but still likes Alabama. Courtesy: Arkansas Life
Hunter Henry is committed to Arkansas, but still likes Alabama. Courtesy: Arkansas Life

Imagine you’re a teen. You’ve just come home from your first date ever, and sitting there waiting with plenty questions about your night is dear, old dad.
Mildly embarrassing, totally understandable. Naturally, you expect the scrutiny to wane over time.

Except that it doesn’t. After the next date, dear, old uncle waits beside dad. The time after that, you also find the guy from KATV is interested in where you ate dinner. And every time after that, it seems more media join the growing scrum.

Surreal, right?

A select group of high school football players actually aspire to something like this every February. For the best of the best, National Signing Day (Feb. 6) is a reward for years of summer camps, college campus visits and a courtship that includes Facebooking, texting and talking to coaches from around the nation. It’s also a culmination of the intense media spotlight they’ve  been under for months –  the day when our favorite sport’s stars of tomorrow make their final college choice public by signing a letter of intent, leaving all other wooers at the doorstep.

Imagine if every high school senior stood in front of her classmates and local media to announce both where she would be going to college and who was taking her to prom.
Nerve-wracking scenario, right?

A select group of high school football players strive to go through a similar rigamarole every February. For the best of the best, National Signing Day (Feb. 6) is a culmination of years of summer camps, college campus visits and a courtship that includes Facebooking, texting and talking to coaches from around the nation. It’s the day when our favorite sport’s stars of tomorrow make their final college choice public by signing a letter of intent, leaving all other wooers at the doorstep.

In Arkansas, many eyes will be on Hunter Henry, senior at Little Rock’s Pulaski Academy. Will this elite tight end – ranked as the nation’s best at that position by some outlets – choose the Razorbacks, to which he made a non-binding oral commitment last summer?

This would make sense, considering his father played center for the Razorbacks (and is now an associate pastor at Fellowship Bible Church), and his grandfather was an Arkansas basketball player.

But Henry’s still open to other schools. He insists his recruiting process is far from over. Here’s a look into that process, and the ups and downs  it brings:

Q: You’ve been committed to Arkansas since last summer, but are still considering other schools like Alabama. Give me a sense of what you’ve been going through.

A: The recruiting process can be hard. It’s a blessing, but at the same time I don’t think people realize how hard it really is just because it’s so stressful and you’re trying to pick a place that is going to affect the rest of your life. You’re going to so many different schools and they’re all so amazing … you build relationships with so many people – just really good, strong relationships, talking all the time and it’s kind of hard to say ‘no’ to some people.

Q. You’ve spoken a few times to Arkansas’ head coach Bret Bielema and offensive coordinator Jim Chaney. What do you expect your role to be on offense once you start getting major minutes?

A: I really don’t know. I’m not there, so I got to get on campus. Nothing’s given to me. I’m going to have to work for everything I get and I know that. I’m working extremely hard right now, and I’m just going to continue to work hard… whereever it is that I go, I just want to be a great tight end and a great person.

Q: You grew up in Atlanta in a family that bleeds Razorback red. Once you started seriously considering which college to attend, was it difficult to put aside your Hog fandom to make a clear-headed choice about what’s best for you?

A: It was. I would lie to you if I said it didn’t. It was hard sometimes, but I did really good at clearing my mind. You know, it’s a whole lot easier once you get into the process and you go to other places and you talk to other coaches, when you get out there and see what else is out there. I think that helps a lot and it opened up things just because I want to choose the place where I should be and the right place for me.

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