FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas Razorbacks Coach Bret Bielema was listening to some of the team’s seniors Thursday as they discussed the opening of the first practice for their final season of college football.
Bielema said he brought up the subject of the team’s freshmen and asked the veterans for their thoughts about the group.
“All together at once they said, ‘They’re fast,’ and that jumped out to them, and I think it jumped out to us,” Bielema said on Monday to open the Razorbacks’ second week of training camp.
Bielema brought up the story after talking about the defensive backs in the signing class, a group that includes cornerbacks such as Chevin Calloway, Kamren Curl, Jordon Curtis and “a couple of other guys that are just pretty impressive athletes and look good,” he said.
Bielema added that he was hoping the seniors would mention the outstanding academic work the freshmen had put in this summer.
“I was glad with what they said, but I was getting more toward that entire freshman class through summer school got only A’s and B’s,” Bielema said. “Not one kid got a C,D or an F. That’s not very common.
That’s a mature group of freshmen.
“Usually I have one guy who can’t figure out how to log on to his computer.”
Bret Bielema, who is entering his 12th season as a head coach, said this is the first time he hasn’t waited to have players select team captains until shortly before the season.
The Razorbacks voted on team captains at the end of spring drills, picking senior quarterback Austin Allen, senior center Frank Ragnow, senior defensive back Kevin Richardson and junior safety Santos Ramirez.
Bielema said in his seven seasons at Wisconsin and first four seasons at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville, he waited until two weeks before the season to pick captains because he didn’t want the vote to be a popularity contest, and for freshmen to have their say.
“To me, sometimes new eyes are the best eyes,” Bielema said. “They literally can tell who really, truly does lead. Who kind of has a voice. They’re not necessarily going with the most popular, which as you get older I think it’s easier to start voting for your buddy.”
Bielema said he changed the format last spring because he wanted to have team captains going into the summer.
“We have a lot of really good kids who say all the right things and do all the right things but were not great communicators, so I really wanted to force the hand of our leadership committee,” he said. “To me, we got four great ones. Those four guys have really been a great voice for us all summer. I wouldn’t trade them right now for the world.”
Virtually all the offensive and defensive linemen have been wearing helmets with extra red padding on them as a means of reducing the impact of collisions.
There are pros and cons to wearing the padded lids.
“It’s a little hotter,” center Frank Ragnow said. “But if it’s going to protect our heads and everything, I’m all about it.”
Defensive coordinator Paul Rhoads said the reason for wearing the padding makes sense.
“You know, it’s the world we live in today,” he said. “Everybody that plays this game, it’s a choice that they play, but it’s our responsibility to protect them. If this is a great opportunity to protect them on the number of hits they receive, especially those guys up close to the ball, it’s absolutely the right thing to be doing.”
New punt returner?
Senior receiver Jared Cornelius has 28 punt returns for 269 yards the past three seasons, but he’s likely to cede those duties when he returns from a sore back.
Coach Bret Bielema said the focus is to get him ready to play receiver when the season opens.
“If Jared was cleared and ready to go, I think the last position I’d put him on right now … would be punt returner,” Bielema said. “I’d want to get him on the line of scrimmage first.”
With Cornelius out, Bielema said the top candidates to return punts are senior cornerback Henre Toliver, redshirt freshman Jordan Jones, and newcomers Chase Hayden, De’Vion Warren and Gary Cross.
Junior Cole Hedlund, who has been the team’s top place-kicker at various points during the previous two seasons, is competing with sophomore Connor Limpert and freshman Blake Mazza for the No. 1 job.
Hedlund hit 14 of 22 field goals and all 83 extra points the past two years.
Limpert kicked off 43 times last season and had nine touchbacks. Bielema said Limpert improved his leg strength in the offseason and has looked good on kickoffs in practice.