FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas coach Bret Bielema said earlier this summer he couldn’t wait to get his hands on the 2013 signing class.
He and the rest of the Arkansas staff finally got that opportunity Monday, when the Razorbacks held their first practice of preseason camp. Their first impression?
“We can’t be around them during the summer, but it was very evident that our kids had been coached very, very well by our players,” Bielema said.
Arkansas went through its first practice with a full roster behind closed doors Monday, kicking off a month of preparation leading into the Aug. 31 season opener against Louisiana-Lafayette. There’s a long way to go for members of the 25-man class to be ready to navigate 2013, but Bielema said he was impressed with day one.
He also credited Arkansas’ veterans — who are in charge of the player-led team functions during the summer — did what they could to prepare each one.
“I really challenged our seniors,” Bielema said. “I said, ‘Hey, I know this room wants to be great. I know the group of players that are returning want to be great. But there’s probably going to be three, four, five, maybe six kids out of that freshman class or the junior college transfers that can help us win a game.
“Don’t you want to see how good they can be?”
It’s no secret the Razorbacks could use help from newcomers at several positions.
The most likely spot is at linebacker, where Bielema has mentioned freshman Brooks Ellis and junior college transfer Martrell Spaight as players who will get early opportunities since signing day. The same is true for running back Alex Collins, who is expected to share ground game duties with sophomore Jonathan Williams.
But Arkansas won’t rule out getting help along its offensive line from newcomers like Denver Kirkland, Reeve Koehler and Dan Skipper. Quarterbacks Austin Allen and Damon Mitchell should factor into the depth chart as well, while tight end Hunter Henry is talented enough to earn early playing time.
“It will be interesting to see who gets out on that field,” Arkansas offensive coordinator Jim Chaney said last month. “Some of these freshmen … Who knows what’s going to happen with them?
“We recruited them, we liked them and we have to see how they do with pads on.”
Bielema said it will take more than that, too, this month. So he wouldn’t put a number on how many newcomers he believes will play in the fall.
“We’ll play as many as we think can help us win,” Bielema said last month. “A lot of people think it’s the physical ability, but most of the time with freshmen it’s how well can they handle the mental ability. How well can they handle coaches getting on them? How well can they handle the academic change that they’re going through? How they can handle they’re not at home and mom isn’t washing their clothes and getting them up every morning. How do they handle being a man in a new environment?”
The good news: Arkansas had five junior college transfers on campus to participate in spring drills. Most of the rest spent part, if not all, of the summer in Fayetteville.
Henry — an Arkansas native — said in June the experience was valuable.
“It’s definitely good just being up here early and getting used to the flow of college and used to the flow of being up here and working out and everything,” Henry said.
Arkansas will find out if they can get used to the grind of daily practices, too.
Bielema didn’t hesitate to put the newcomers under the spotlight at the end of the first practice Monday. He said Arkansas closed the workout with a 14-play, non-contact scrimmage that featured newcomers participating in their first practice.
Bielema said Allen ran the offense the entire period because Mitchell had a problem with his shoes. He noted that Collins is a “very gifted football player.” Bielema also said there are receivers who surprised and offensive linemen who impressed.
“I think some good things could come out of that class,” Bielema said.