BELLA VISTA — Arkansas defensive coordinator Robb Smith spent his two-week hiatus traveling across the Midwest in what he called a “Griswold summer vacation.”
There was a stop in his wife’s hometown in Western Iowa. They visited friends in Iowa City. They went to theme parks in Kansas City, attended a baseball game in St. Louis and traveled as far east as Pittsburgh, Smith’s hometown.
Smith said the family time was great. But he’s eager to get back to work.
“This is what we do,” Smith said before the Northwest Arkansas Razorback Club’s golf scramble Friday. “We play and we coach football. I know my wife is ready for me to get back so if training camp started tomorrow that wouldn’t be a bad thing.”
Arkansas coach Bret Bielema and his staff — fresh off two weeks of vacation time — returned to the office earlier this week to begin final preparations for the start of preseason camp. Players report next Sunday and practice begins Aug. 4.
The summer hasn’t exactly been slow, especially with new NCAA rules permitting coaches to have limited sessions with players during the offseason for the first time. But the end of the summer couldn’t come soon enough for a group that has spent the offseason working to make sure last season’s struggles aren’t repeated.
“I think any time what took place last fall, you always want to have a chance to redeem yourself and get back out and get going,” Arkansas offensive coordinator Jim Chaney. “That’s kind of where we are as a staff.”
Bielema assembled a staff that had accumulated 174 years of experience, three national titles, 29 conference championships and 20 All-Americans during their careers. But not much went right during a 3-9 season. The offense struggled to move the football, while the defense rarely stopped opponents.
The latter led to three changes on the defensive staff, including Smith’s addition as defensive coordinator. But the offensive staff remained intact and Chaney said there were plenty of lessons learned as Arkansas prepares for 2014.
“I’m not sure that every year doesn’t have the same amount of learning,” Chaney said. “Sometimes you learn in a positive way and sometimes you learn in a real tough way. Football is a wonderful sport. There are a lot of moving parts, very humbling in a lot of ways to coaches and to players alike. So you take that, you own up to your responsibilities — good and bad — and make yourself a better coach.”
Arkansas tight ends coach Barry Lunney Jr. said the staff had plenty of time to reflect on 2013. They dissected every aspect of the struggles.
“I think that’s what any professional does,” Lunney Jr. said. “I think you spend a lot of time reflecting, good, bad, indifferent, you reflect. What did we do that was good? What did we do that could be better? That starts at the top, and I couldn’t be more impressed with how coach (Bielema) has done that. He’s really challenged us to look. We’ve dug deep in self-scouts and studies of ourselves and studies of our opponents to really reflect. I just think it’s Year 2 of us understanding who we are better. We understand who we are, and what we’re going against, better.”
The other important element — Chaney believes the players understand as well.
There have been improvements in the classroom and the limited work on the field throughout the summer. The NCAA’s rules didn’t allow for full-scale practice work, but the interaction between staff and players helped with familiarity.
“The attitude is so different and that’s always a refreshing thing,” Arkansas receivers coach Michael Smith said. “You can see the kids starting to really buy in to what you’re trying to preach. A lot of questions that I think I had coming out of spring have been answered. But there’s still a lot of questions that I’m going to find out about here in the next few weeks, and see if we really made the progress that’s necessary to compete in the SEC.”
There’s no guarantee the progress will lead to wins on the field. In fact, prognosticators aren’t predicting it. Arkansas, which is coming off back-to-back losing seasons, was selected to finish last in the SEC West again at SEC Media Days.
But that hasn’t changed the outlook for Arkansas’ staff as they get back to work.
“What took place last year is a learning experience,” Chaney said. “And I’m about over having to talk about it. So that’s a good thing.
“We learned from it, we move right on and we continue to grow.”