Bret Bielema opens his first spring practice as an SEC head coach
Fans in Fayetteville (and some uninformed SEC media members) had no idea how important Bobby Petrino was to the Arkansas program. After a heart-breaking offseason, the Razorbacks did little during the fall to prove they could survive without their fired head coach. The offense plummeted to 89th nationally in scoring and 49th in total yards following Petrino's ouster. The end result was the worst football season — eight losses — since entering the SEC in 1992. Needless to say, the one-year John L. Smith experiment didn't work so Arkansas turned to three-time Big Ten champion Bret Bielema to rebuild the program. In the SEC West, he has his work cut out for him.
Arkansas Razorbacks 2013 Spring Preview
2012 Record: 4-8 (2-6)
Spring practice dates: March 10-April 20
Returning Starters: Offense – 3, Defense – 8
Passing: Brandon Allen, 21 of 49, 186 yards, 1 TDs, 3 INTs
Rushing: Jonathan Williams, 45 car., 231 yards, 0 TDs
Receiving: Mekale McKay, 21 rec., 317 yards, 2 TDs
Tackles: Rohan Gaines, 75
Sacks: Chris Smith, 9.5
Interceptions: Three tied with 1
Redshirts to Watch: OL Jeremy Ward, DE Taiwan Johnson, DE Brandon Lewis, CB Jared Collins, RB Donovan Roberts, DT Darius Philon
JUCO Transfers to Watch: LB Martell Spaight, OL Jonathan McClure, CB Carroll Washington, S Tiquention Coleman
Aug. 31 Louisiana-Monroe
Sept. 7 Samford
Sept. 14 Southern Miss
Sept. 21 at Rutgers
Sept. 28 Texas A&M
Oct. 5 at Florida
Oct. 10 South Carolina
Oct. 19 at Alabama
Oct. 26 Bye Week
Nov. 1 Auburn
Nov. 9 at Ole Miss
Nov. 16 Bye Week
Nov. 23 Mississippi State
Nov. 30 at LSU
Offensive Strength: Pass catchers. Losing Cobi Hamilton will hurt, but five of the top seven receivers return this spring. Sophomore MeKale McCay and seniors Javontee Herndon and Julian Horton will be more than capable of filling the void left by Hamilton.
Offensive Weakness: Everyone else. Only three starters return to the offense and center (Travis Swanson) and tackle (David Hurt) are the only proven commodities. Quarterback, running backs, tight end and three-fifths of the line need replacing.
Defensive Strength: Defensive ends. Chris Smith and Trey Flowers are a solid duo coming off of the edge and will continue to get pressure on quarterbacks.
Defensive Weakness: Overall depth. Two solid ends return to the roster but the rest of the front seven needs replacing. Five of the top eight linemen are gone and four of the top six linebackers have departed. And the secondary underachieved last year.
Spring Storylines Facing the Hogs:
1. Be physical up front on offense. Bobby Petrino's system can be miscast as a high-flying spread offense. He always turned to the power running game to set up his quarterbacks, and the inability to run the ball was a huge factor in the Hogs' struggles a year ago. This team ranked last in the SEC in rushing and will face elite defenses in Alabama, Florida, LSU and South Carolina in 2013. Three starters are gone from the O-line as is the backfield tandem of Knile Davis and Dennis Johnson so there are big holes to fill. Bielema made his money in the Big Ten playing physical, power football and he has a star in center Travis Swanson to build around. Finding blockers and ball-carriers to support him will go a long way this spring to setting the tempo for the fall.
2. Find a workhorse tailback. To quote Steven Lassan from the SEC Spring Storylines to Watch: The Razorbacks were the SEC’s worst rushing attack last season, averaging just 118.7 yards per game. And the cupboard is looking a little bare for spring practice, as Knile Davis left for the NFL and Dennis Johnson finished his eligibility. Jonathan Williams is expected to work as the No. 1 back this spring and is still largely an unknown after recording just 45 carries last year. The sophomore did show promise in limited work but needs to have a strong showing this spring, especially with touted freshman Alex Collins arriving this summer. With a new quarterback taking over, along with Bret Bielema’s run-first mentality, the spotlight is on Williams to show he can be a No. 1 back. I couldn't have said it better myself.
3. Develop the talent in the secondary. A big chunk of those 409.9 yards allowed were passing yards. Most of the talent is back in the secondary minus hybrid safety Ross Rasner. The talent is there in the form of Tevin Mitchell, Rohan Gaines and Will Hines, but the production isn't yet. Developing this area of the defense through the coaching and practicing of sound fundamentals should improve what was the SEC's worst passing defense (285.8 ypg).
4. Rebuild depth in the front seven. The good news is the top two sack artists return to the roster in the form of Chris Smith (9.5 sacks) and Trey Flowers (6.0) while Otha Peters and A.J. Turner return at linebacker. That said, there is little depth behind them at end, tackle and linebacker. In a league predicated on being physical up front, particularly on defense, depth is imperative. Arkansas allowed over 400 yards of offense per game last year (409.9) and were gashed up front by powerful rushing attacks like Alabama, Texas A&M and Mississippi State. Finding a supporting cast for what could be a solid front seven will help keep Arkansas in games with a host of bigger, more powerful programs on the '13 slate.
5. Settle on a quarterback. Ryan Mallett and Tyler Wilson were two of the most productive quarterbacks in school history and Bielema's first big decision will come under center. Brandon Allen played five games a year ago with nondescript results as the backup to Wilson. Dual-threat athlete Brandon Mitchell got some garbage time as well. Knowing Bielema's run-heavy, pro-style attack, fans should expect Allen to earn the starting nod. The question then becomes is he ready to compete at an SEC level?
6. Get to know the new faces. The new coaching staff is just a part of the massive turnover taking place in Fayetteville. A host of new junior college transfers and redshirt freshmen will officially join the depth chart in an effort to ease Bielema into the SEC. Important voids at linebacker and offensive line could be filled by some of these new faces this spring.
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