FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas coach Bret Bielema met with the Razorbacks early Saturday morning to run through his expectations for their sixth spring practice.
They had worked their way through the first week, which allowed coaches and players to get a feel for one another. They took their time installing packages on both sides of the ball and dabbled with some contact work earlier this week.
So Bielema wanted them to know it was time to take the next step.
“I want to play a physical style of football and it starts (Saturday),” Bielema said.
Arkansas conducted its first significant scrimmage work of Bielema’s tenure inside the Walker Indoor Pavilion on Saturday morning. The Razorbacks ran 74 plays that emphasized toughness and physical play, which Bielema insists must be the backbone of his new program as he tries to build an Southeastern Conference champion.
The results weren’t perfect. There were penalties, missed assignments and other mistakes on both sides of the ball. But Bielema — who watched his new team begin playing what he calls “big boy football” — said it was a good start.
“We’ve been building it, but we hadn’t pulled the pin and let everybody fly and run,” Bielema said. “(Saturday) was part of that and I was very, very happy offensively and defensively, the way that transpired. I was happy with the way they were hitting.
“But we did stress, for us to play football in the fall we’re going to have to learn to play well against each other and no cheap stuff or anything like that.”
The physicality was evident from the first series, when wide receiver Demetrius Wilson had to leave the field after being upended following an acrobatic catch.
There were other obvious collisions throughout the rest of the morning.
Linebacker Jarrett Lake delivered a big hit on receiver Julian Horton, jarring the football out of the senior’s hands and it was recovered by defensive tackle Robert Thomas. Walk-on running back Patrick Arinze battered his way to tough yards again and again, earning compliments from Bielema for his bowling ball style.
Safety TQ Coleman, a junior college transfer, showed no hesitancy in stepping in to lower his shoulder and cut down ball carriers in the open field.
The veteran defensive line was especially impressive to Bielema because of its ability to play physical and shed blocks. The group combined for a handful of sacks.
Bielema also said the offensive line — which was more likely to pass block under the previous coaching staff — has embraced a shift in philosophy this spring. The Razorbacks are trying to balance their offense, leading the way with a power ground game that sets the stage for play-action passing.
“Power downhill football wasn’t really part of what their past was,” Bielema said. “Just to learn how to do that is a process. You can’t tap a kid on the head and tell him he’s tough and train him in three weeks. It’s a conditioning thing that we’ll enforce.”
Arkansas players weren’t available for comment after practice, but the scrimmage was much different than the ones Arkansas grew accustomed to under former coach Bobby Petrino. There weren’t 125, 150 or 175 plays Saturday morning, gaudy offensive numbers or a plethora of touchdowns against a scaled-down defense.
Quarterback Brandon Allen completed 11 of 19 passes for 137 yards with a touchdown and interception. Brandon Mitchell was 7 of 14 for 112 yards and a touchdown. The offense produced two scoring drives and Bielema complemented Mitchell, especially, for grinding the second-team group on an eight-play, 75-yard scoring drive that produced a touchdown despite four penalties.
“Brandon Mitchell took the ball all the way down the field,” Bielema said. “It wasn’t exactly clean, wasn’t exactly pretty, but he made plays and got it in the end zone.”
Arkansas did turn in a 65-yard touchdown pass when Allen hit receiver Javontee Herndon for the scrimmage’s first score. Mitchell completed a 52-yarder to Eric Hawkins and also had a 40-yard pass negated by a penalty.
It was one of several penalties by the offense Saturday. Most of them were false start penalties by the offensive front and tight ends, which led to immediate punishments.
“There’s a lot to clean up,” Bielema said. “Everything starts for me playing clean football before the snap, during the snap and after the snap. So we’ll address that immediately. We did after practice there with some extra conditioning.”
But Bielema said the first scrimmage was a good building block for the Razorbacks, who have completed six of their 15 spring practices.
Arkansas will be back on the field Tuesday and are tentatively scheduled to hold another scrimmage next Saturday.
“We haven’t even come close to putting everything in there,” Bielema said of Arkansas’ plans on both sides of the ball through two weeks of work. “I don’t want to rush in and do a bunch of stuff halfway. I want to be simple and be great.”