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.

 

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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