Hogs take SEC stage
Last year’s results drive change, they say at media days.
HOOVER, Ala. — Bret Bielema might be a softer man personally at home after becoming a first-time father Saturday.
But he knows his fifth edition of the Arkansas Razorbacks have to be tougher in every aspect to make progress in the SEC West.
Bielema and the Razorbacks kicked off SEC media days Monday and tough talk — after a 7-6 season that included a series of blown second-half leads — was on the agenda. “We talk about it all the time, you know,” defensive back Kevin Richardson said. “We want to raise that bar from the standard we had last year. That was our standard. We left our standard as losing games in the second half, and we want to raise that bar and be able to finish games.”
The most recent memories for the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville were second-half meltdowns after leading Missouri 24-7 at halftime and leading Virginia Tech 24-0 at halftime. The Hogs were outscored 56-0 in the second halves of those games combined in losing 28-24 in the regular-season finale at Missouri and 35-24 to the Hokies in the Belk Bowl.
Bielema and his coaching staff took a hard look at the team’s shortcomings, which included the inability to pound out first downs in short-yardage situations in several games and a porous run defense, and made changes to winter conditioning and spring drills.
“First, you have to understand why things happen, which isn’t always easy,” Bielema said. “You have to look at it on film and you have to analyze it as coaches, so we addressed a lot of that before the players had a chance to be around us in January, February, March.
“Then in spring ball we did some things to re-emphasize doing things later in practice when you’re tired. We did individual drills at the end of practice, rather than at the beginning. Things like ball security, things on defense like breaking on balls, tackle security. We did a bunch of stuff in the latter part of practice, rather than just the front end.”
Winter workouts were tougher physically and mentally. Spring practices included an emphasis on strong finishes and being tougher.
“We wanted to establish a run game in spring ball where if it’s third and 3 we don’t need to throw the ball, we can get those three yards on the ground,” quarterback Austin Allen said. “So just the type of physicality we have to have where that’s the type of people we are. We’re not just going to be a finesse team and all that. We want to run it up in there and be really physical.”
Center Frank Ragnow was even more explicit when talking about the 35 sacks allowed by the Razorbacks and the hits Allen endured.
“It’s honestly embarrassing and unacceptable what happened last year, and I don’t want it to happen again,” Ragnow said. “That’s one thing … as a front I’ve really tried to emphasize during the offseason is that it’s not acceptable for him to get hit. It’s not acceptable for him to have pressure in his face. We should hold ourselves to the standard where he’s never getting touched, and if he is touched it’s on very, very rare occurrences.”
Bielema said the necessary improvements in the Razorbacks’ run game and defense against the run worked hand in hand during spring practices.
“Two things that Coach [Hayden] Fry taught me a long time ago about running the football is if you want to win games, you got to run the football and stop the run,” Bielema said. “And last year offensively at times we weren’t able to run the football effectively because of good defenses, and defensively there were times where the game got away from us in stopping the run.
“So there’s two huge points of emphasis that kind of fed off one another, so in the spring I could really emphasize on that and work off it.”
Bielema talked up the switch to a 3-4 defense under new coordinator Paul Rhoads.
“I think the 3-4 allows us, just by pure math you’ve got 11 guys on the field and eight guys now will be on their two feet,” he said. “You got eight guys on two feet being able to change and run. You naturally become more athletic with the 3-4 scheme with athletes on the field.”
Bielema, who has a 25-26 overall record and a 10-22 SEC record at Arkansas, said he’s s feeling more comfortable in his fifth season for a couple of reasons.
“First, I think every player in this program I’ve been a part of recruiting them, so I know their story, I know their background, I know their history,” he said.
“That is worth a lot, man. You’re in critical moments and you can reflect on something, you can tell a story, you can call on a person to help you. You know what their capabilities are more so than their incapabilities. You know what they can push themselves through.
“Plus I think our roster is stronger than it’s ever been, especially switching to the 3-4 and allowing us to have just three D-linemen on the field with more linebackers and DBs helps us.”
Bielema, who wore a pink tie Monday in honor of his new child, said he’s gotten little sleep since his wife, Jen, gave birth Saturday to Briella Nichole, the couple’s first child.
Accounts vary as to whether Bielema was able to nod off on the plane to Hoover.
“He got a nap on the way over, then he got a nap when we were sitting in the Buckingham Room,” Richardson said.
“I didn’t blink an eye,” Bielema said. “K-Rich is delirious. We had the SEC Network on the plane with us, so they were rotating us through. I know we were giving everybody heat on the plane.”
Said Allen: “He stayed awake the whole time, which is kind of surprising to me. That’s such a special, special time in his life right now. He just kind of has a smile, and there’s something about him where nothing’s going to bring him down or anything.”
Ragnow said it’s been fun seeing Bielema “attack” his role as a father.
“We were bugging him about it, asking questions,” Ragnow said. “Asking him how much sleep he’s gotten, so it’s been fun to bother him about it.”
Bielema said he’s got family time set up for the next couple of weeks before things turn toward improving the Razorbacks’ fortunes in the SEC West.
“I’m excited about it,” he said. “I kind of have some football stuff sprinkled in there, but I am excited because we planned on the baby coming on the 17th, so I’ve got a couple of days here to fine-tune it.
“But as we get close to that other start time, it’s harder not to put your mind there.”
Arkansas Coach Bret Bielema hit on several issues regarding the Razorbacks at Monday’s SEC media days in Hoover, Ala., but he spoke at length about his team avoiding the kinds of second-half meltdowns that plagued it toward the end of last season, particularly in the Belk Bowl loss to Virginia Tech.