FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas coach Bret Bielema got a good idea from offensive coordinator Jim Chaney before spring practice last Sunday.
Chaney had gone back to watch film of Arkansas’ first practice last spring. At first, Bielema wondered why Chaney would do that to himself. It was sloppy. And ugly.
But Bielema was curious, so he followed Chaney’s lead and took a peek.
“Practice in pads last year, as much as I thought it was great at the time, I look back on it … There wasn’t a competitive nature,” Bielema said.
Bielema said that wasn’t the case this week, when the Razorbacks kicked off spring drills with three practices. The coach summed up the first week during a 30-minute press conference Friday afternoon and believes the competition was evident. It included Thursday’s full contact work, which included its share of feistiness between offensive and defensive players who butted heads before spring break.
Bielema, who looked back on the first week of drills Friday, saw it as a good sign in his second season with the program. The Razorbacks are showing more fight as they try to bury the frustrations from last season’s 3-9 performance.
“I’m just glad they’re getting feisty, to be honest,” Bielema said.
One of the most notable moments came when tight end Hunter Henry and safety TQ Coleman had to be separated after trading shoves during team drills. Offensive tackle Brey Cook and other defensive players got involved during the minor scrum.
It never got out of control. But Bielema said that type of fire, toughness, emotion and energy are what Bielema expects. And it’s much improved from last spring.
“I think it was like our eighth practice and we had converted a defensive turnover into a touchdown and it was like lifeless, like nobody was doing anything,” Bielema said, looking back on last spring. “I went berserk. I’m like, ‘You’ve got to play the game with emotion and celebrate.’ A lot of the defensive players said, ‘Hey, they didn’t know how to because in practice there wasn’t a lot of defensive celebration allowed. So we took a while to kind of get that going again.”
Of course, a feistier team is only part of the rebuilding project.
Arkansas also has to improve on both sides of the ball.
Bielema believes there has been progress through three practices.
He specifically pointed to Arkansas’ cornerbacks — one of the team’s biggest weaknesses last season — as the area of surprise through three practices. The returning group of Tevin Mitchel, Will Hines, Carroll Washington and Jared Collins worked with new defensive coordinator Robb Smith during individual instruction.
“Those guys have been pretty stout for these first three practices,” Bielema said. “I’m excited to watch them. That’s obviously some kids that had transition a year ago.”
There’s need for growth at linebacker, too, after a less-than-stellar 2013 season.
Arkansas had inexperience at the position last spring, but returns Braylon Mitchell, Martrell Spaight, Brooks Ellis and Otha Peters. Mitchell said Thursday that the group must become more physical and position coach Randy Shannon is leading the way.
“Coach Shannon has us going and hitting the sled after practice every day,” linebacker Braylon Mitchell said. “He’s preaching to us about being more violent and making us strike the pad until we feel that we struck it to the best of our ability.”
Offensively, Bielema said running back Jonathan Williams has impressed with his added strength and speed. Alex Collins is bigger, too, as Arkansas tries to improve his production between the tackles. Then there’s Korliss Marshall, who is getting his first extensive work as a running back after getting a few carries last season.
The group is working behind a retooled, which includes Grady Ollison at left guard and Dan Skipper at left tackle. Skipper was a starting guard throughout Southeastern Conference play, while Ollison finished the year as a reserve tackle.
“Dan, I thought, each practice has gotten a lot better,” Bielema said. “(Thursday) was really intriguing for me, because he put the pads on and played as good as he’s played all spring. He’s a guy that I think naturally fits in at the tackle position. We moved Grady from tackle to guard just to give him a chance to own that position and he’s really done some good things.”
The Razorbacks tested both sides of the ball with Thursday’s practice.
Players were challenged to be physical during inside-run drills early in the practice. There was extended 11-on-11 work later, too, which produced competition – and even some chattering between players – to liven up the workout.
“A lot of energy,” Arkansas secondary coach Clay Jennings said. “Guys running around and talking a little trash to each other. I think for the most part, those guys aren’t afraid to taste their own blood, so we’re pretty excited about that.”
Bielema said it’s an indication that the program is growing in preparation for 2014.
He believes players more “trust and faith” in the staff as the Razorbacks complete their first week of their second spring under Bielema.
“They do what we ask them to do now more than ever,” Bielema said. “I always tell our guys you look for indicators, just the behavior in the class room and the behavior in the way they conduct themselves off the field, and the way they’ve responded to our philosophy in how they need to build their bodies up have been so much more than a year ago. Last year there was resistance so, this year there hasn’t been anything but unwavering support and that’s been a lot of fun to be around.”