FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas’ spring-ending scrimmage in Razorback Stadium didn’t generate the same type of buzz from a year ago, when Bret Bielema’s first team scrimmaged in front of an announced crowd of 51,000.
In fact, there was an estimated 30,000 in attendance — a sharp drop from the previous spring — to watch the Red beat the White 61-22. But Bielema didn’t take it as a sign his program is heading in the wrong direction.
“I try to look at it in a positive light that there’s a lot of people that showed up and gave great support to the program,” Bielema said. “I think in the world of college football, we’re always trying to compare numbers where I just try to compare feelings, and I couldn’t be more excited about where we’re going.”
Bielema’s optimism was evident as he wrapped up the spring during a press conference last Wednesday. Arkansas may carry a nine-game losing streak through the offseason and has plenty of unanswered questions remaining after 15 practices, but the man in charge believes the Razorbacks’ progress has been significant.
In fact, Bielema has said several times this spring the Razorbacks are “light years” ahead of where they were a year ago when he arrived to take over a program struggling from the scandalous departure of Bobby Petrino in April 2012.
It’s clear Arkansas is still dealing with the ripple on the field after going winless in conference games and finishing 3-9 under Bielema last season. But Bielema insists the foundation of what he wants to accomplished is in place after the rocky ride.
“I’ve been to Razorback clubs all over the state, and the people that are attending those things are very, very positive,” Bielema said. “Everybody wants to win, and everybody is entitled to their feelings and their urgency to do that, but I can’t speed up the process of getting what we need to do to win. I’m excited, I think these guys in the room are excited. Their teammates are very, very anxious because we know that we’re a better team than we were a year ago at this time.”
Familiarity, comfort and confidence were the most used words throughout Arkansas’ spring.
It’s the second season for key players like quarterback Brandon Allen, running back Jonathan Williams and tight end Hunter Henry in coordinator Jim Chaney’s offense. The Razorbacks emphasized the passing attack throughout the spring and believe there was significant progress even though the first-team offense struggled to move the ball against the second-team defense in the Red-White Game.
Allen said that showing — which included a first half in which he went 5-for-11 from 21 yards with 2 interceptions — wasn’t indicative of the spring strides. He believes it will be evident as the Razorbacks continue to work this summer.
“When we have everyone working together, when we have everyone doing the right thing at every single play, we’re tough to stop,” Allen said. “We’re a tough offense when we’re clicking and we have all 11 guys on the field doing what they’re supposed to. So I think for us to be successful we need to have that.”
There were even more strides taken defensively for a unit roughed up by opponents throughout 2013.
New defensive coordinator Robb Smith instilled an aggressive mentality to a group that offered little resistance last season. The Razorbacks dialed up more blitzes in scrimmages, forced turnovers and made things different for the Arkansas offense.
Bielema said the biggest improvement came from Arkansas’ cornerbacks, which adapted to Smith’s schemes that called for tighter coverage at the line of scrimmage.
“I think to be in press coverage helps us to be in the play more,” Arkansas cornerback Jared Collins said. “We all have a mentality that we can lock down receivers and playing press has helped us mentally as well. It’s fun to cover a guy.”
Collins and the rest of the Razorbacks still won’t get to show how much they’ve improved for another three months when Arkansas opens 2014 on Aug. 30 at Auburn, which played in the national championship game last season.
Arkansas’ summer strength and conditioning program will begin soon, kicking off another key period for the program. Not much is expected from the Razorbacks next season as they face a schedule ranked among the toughest in college football.
But Henry said that gives the Hogs “a chip on our shoulder.”
“There’s not much expected from us from the outside world, but we have a lot expected from us, just personally inside of all of us,” Henry said. “This summer we’re going to continue work hard and in fall camp. We’re going to be ready Aug. 30.”
Bielema believes the spring was another clear sign the Razorbacks have pushed last season behind them. He’s eager to see them continue to move forward as well.
“I’m probably more confident today than I’ve ever been that this is a team that takes every day for what it is, has gotten themselves better,” Bielema said. “Nobody wanted to go 3-9, but the results of last year’s season are nothing more than a great motivator for this year. And for me as a head coach, that’s not going to waiver.”