Can Bret Bielema get the Razorbacks back on track?
From his ill-timed thoughts on player safety to his team’s epic struggles, Bret Bielema is the easiest target in the SEC.
But let’s be honest about his on-field challenges at Arkansas: He inherited a mess of a roster in December 2012 with a stealth move from Madison to Fayetteville.
This isn’t an apologist’s view. Privately, assistant coaches are saying it now as they said it a year ago. Bielema must put in serious work to resurrect the Razorbacks, who are fresh off the program’s first winless conference season since 1942.
“When he took over (at Arkansas), he had players that wouldn’t have made it at Wisconsin,” says a former Bielema assistant coach familiar with both programs.
Bielema did pretty well with those Badgers, finishing 68–24 along with three Big Ten titles. Bielema didn’t exactly dominate top-flight competition — he was 2–4 in bowl games and went 1–5 against Ohio State — but he almost always beat the teams he should have and took advantage of transitional periods at Michigan and Penn State.
His SEC challenge is more daunting. There’s no question which team will occupy the seventh spot in the preseason SEC West rankings — the one that lost eight conference games by an average of 21 points. That is shocking for a program that just three years ago was unpacking back-to-back top 10 seasons and a Sugar Bowl berth.
The handoff from Bobby Petrino to John L. Smith to Bielema was so clumsy (though unavoidable) that athletic director Jeff Long must recognize the extent of the rebuilding job that’s necessary in Fayetteville.
Defensive seniors will have played for three head coaches and four defensive coordinators.
Following Bielema’s ‘Never Yield’ mantra is only one factor in the climb to respectability. Bielema must manufacture a vertical passing game, establish the kind of defensive identity that carried the Badgers and bolster recruiting.
Finding Star Power
Bielema’s staff at Wisconsin coaxed standout performances from mildly recruited players such as linebacker Chris Borland and defensive end J.J. Watt. Finding those players is about talent evaluation and a little luck, but it’s also an inexact process. In other words, a two- or three-star diet in the SEC probably won’t work.
That’s why it’s crucial for Arkansas to improve on four straight years of back-end SEC recruiting (ninth or worse) while developing a few breakout players from the current roster.
Despite impressive defensive line play last season, the Razorbacks still ranked last in the SEC in scoring defense (in league games) because of the inconsistency in the back seven. Finding impact players at linebacker and cornerback will be huge, as if that weren’t obvious from LSU’s final-minutes win over the Razorbacks on an Anthony Jennings’ deep ball. These were the most depleted positions when Bielema took over.
In spring ball, Bielema was high on cornerbacks Jared Collins, Tevin Mitchel and Carroll Washington. The Razorbacks will return at least four impact upperclassmen in the secondary, and don’t be surprised if freshman safety Randy Ramsey plays early and often. One league head coach says Ramsey has All-SEC potential.
Middle linebacker Brooks Ellis and weak-side linebacker Martrell Spaight will have another year of starter’s experience. Otha Peters is finally healthy.
The defensive line is an advantage thanks to All-SEC candidate Trey Flowers off the edge and tackle Darius Philon, who had nine tackles for a loss a year ago. Those two can only do so much to aid Arkansas’ 25 touchdown passes allowed in 2013, second-to-last in the league.
On offense, Arkansas will need continued improvement from tight end Hunter Henry, who was productive yet erratic as a freshman with 28 catches for 409 yards and four touchdowns.
Keep an eye on early enrollee quarterback Rafe Peavey, who might push Brandon Allen for starter’s reps.
Can the Hogs Go Vertical?
Arkansas will have one of the league’s best rushing attacks thanks to Alex Collins and Jonathan Williams, each of whom could eclipse 1,000 yards this year. One problem: That’s about all the offense has right now, at least on paper.
Keeping more than seven defenders out of the box could be the difference between 3–9 and bowl eligibility.
Bielema is dedicated to the power-run offense with I-formations and play-actions. Alabama does this, too. Georgia does some of it. So does LSU. But those three programs have enjoyed stability at head coach and surefire top-10 recruiting classes anchored by 320-pounders who specialize in pancakes.
Arkansas might have a decent offensive line but not enough to offset the dearth of playmaking on the edge.
For four straight seasons (2009-12), Arkansas’ passing game produced a 3,000-yard passer, the only SEC team to do so.
Last year, Brandon Allen and his backups couldn’t eclipse 1,800.
Even the SEC is deviating from its traditional ways — most teams run a ton of nickel and dime defense — yet Bielema and Nick Saban still spin the oldies.
Allen’s 10 interceptions and a league-low quarterback rating (109.02) among starters of at least nine games suggest he’s not the answer. But obviously Allen aims to change that.
Wide receiver Demetrius Wilson was supposed to break out last year but tore his ACL before the season. He didn’t practice in the spring. Leading returning receiver Keon Hatcher could make a jump, but his 27 catches a year ago illustrate the team’s lack of depth. The Razorbacks need at least two receivers to emerge.
Collins is phenomenal. The running game will probably be, too. Doesn’t mean Arkansas will score enough. It needs more balance.
Reason for Hope
Mizzou and Auburn playing in the SEC title game was the best and worst thing that could have happened to Arkansas.
The respective Tigers vaulting from a combined two conference wins in 2012 to championship contenders the next reminded Arkansas that SEC teams, like in the NFL, can enjoy quick turnarounds.
But those two teams’ rosters weren’t Brazilian-model-thin like Arkansas’. Auburn had several top-five recruiting classes under Gene Chizik. Mizzou had dynamic playmaking and a stout defensive line.
Now, Arkansas fans might expect a similar ascension in Fayetteville, even if the rebuilding job is far greater.
A near-certainty is that Arkansas will improve. It has to win one conference game, right? A beast of an SEC West doesn’t help, but enough optimism exists for Bielema to sell it at booster tours and press conferences. After October blowouts by South Carolina and Alabama by a combined 104–7 score, Arkansas fought back. The Razorbacks had a chance to win their final three games.
When in doubt, play to your strengths — the offensive/defensive line and the running game. Then, develop a passing game, and Arkansas might have something.
That places the onus on Bielema to reignite his rep as a defensive specialist.
After all that, it’s still gonna take some time.
Written by Jeremy Fowler (@JFowlerCBS) of CBSSports.com for Athlon Sports. This article appeared in Athlon Sports' 2014 SEC Football Preview Editions. Visit our online store to order your copy to get more in-depth analysis on the 2014 season.