FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas coach Bret Bielema spaced out spring practice, determined to maximize every opportunity to work with his team.
So the Razorbacks, who went 3-9 last season, began practice March 16. After three days on the field, they took time off for spring break. And when they returned, Arkansas scheduled three practices a week over a four-week period.
The lengthy schedule ended up stretching over 42 days. So it’s no surprise there was plenty of anticipation among players for the spring-ending Red-White game.
“It feels like we’re the only team still going,” Arkansas running back Jonathan Williams said last week before Saturday’s Red-White Game.
Arkansas’ spring finally ended with Red’s 61-22 win against the White in front of an estimated crowd of 30,000 in Razorback Stadium. It capped a spring in which Bielema believed Arkansas was “light years” ahead of where it was a year ago.
Now that the spring is over, it’s time to take a look at some of the progress by evaluating five questions posed when practices began March 16. Here’s a look at how many of those questions were answered and which ones remain as Arkansas breaks until fall practice begins in August:
1. Will anyone challenge quarterback Brandon Allen?
Arkansas’ open competition at the position never amounted to much this spring.
In fact, Brandon Allen took every repetition with the first-team offense during the Razorbacks’ open practices. The junior — who was healthy and more confident in his second spring in the system — did more than enough for Arkansas coach Bret Bielema to announce he was clearly the Razorbacks’ best quarterback and would be preparing for his second season as a starter in 2014.
While Allen did show more command of the offense, not everything went smoothly in the passing game. Especially last Saturday. Allen and the first-team offense struggled to move the ball during the first half of the Red-White game, leaving some concerns about the offense moving into the summer. But Bielema remained optimistic last week, saying Allen and the offense regrouped in the second half.
The real race, for now, is for the No. 2 job. Austin Allen and Rafe Peavey were battling for the spot the second half of the spring after Arkansas moved A.J. Derby to tight end and Damon Mitchell to wide receiver. The Razorbacks must have more confidence in their backup in case Allen is injured or ineffective next season.
“They’re a long ways away from being SEC ready,” Bielema said about the backup quarterbacks. “But both of them are kids that learn very, very well. They want to be successful and they’re quarterback junkies. I know they’re in with Jim (Chaney) all the time, as much as they can. We do have a lot of growth at that position to take.”
2. How will the new-look staff impact the defense?
Arkansas’ restructured defense, which included defensive coordinator Robb Smith, secondary coach Clay Jennings and defensive line coach Rory Segrest, was one of the biggest curiosities of the spring. It didn’t take long to tell there was a different mentality among the group, either, as they worked their way through the month.
The Razorbacks were more physical and aggressive on the practice field than in 2013, when opponents roughed up an outmanned unit. There was success getting to the quarterback with pressure packages and a secondary that challenged receivers more than in the past. Ball disruption and sound tackling were philosophies preached and repeated all spring with improvement in both areas.
Players were comfortable with what was taking place, too. Cornerback Carroll Washington was excited about Smith’s “wicked schemes,” which turned players loose from various positions. Linebacker Braylon Mitchell said the defense this spring is the most physical he has been part of throughout his career.
“The defense has become way more physical from the D-line to the linebackers to the DBs,” safety Alan Turner said. “I feel we have become more physical from the point of attack and getting hands on the receivers as a whole and playing faster.”
Time will tell if it the spring success means much this fall. But if nothing else, the Razorbacks believe they have a chance to be much more stingy defensively in 2014.
3. Who is going to replace Travis Swanson?
Arkansas knew replacing a four-year starter at center wouldn’t be easy and 15 practices showed the complications. The Razorbacks don’t have a definitive starter, although Mitch Smothers will enter the summer with the first-team job.
Senior Luke Charpentier began the spring at the position, but has been moved to left guard. Cordale Boyd was given a chance to produce as well, but is working with the second team. Smothers, who started the spring as a guard, took the reigns midway through the spring and held the first-team spot the final two weeks.
“I like Mitch,” Allen said. “We’ve kind of gotten into the groove now, just getting used to him. We’ve moved people around the line from the beginning and we’re kind of getting a mold of what we want. I’m happy with Mitch. He’s doing a great job.”
But Allen shouldn’t get too comfortable with Smothers at center this summer. Arkansas has made it clear it will take a look at newcomers like Sebastian Tretola and Frank Ragnow at the position when they arrive for fall camp. So expect the competition for a critical position on the offensive front to continue in August.
4. Are any newcomers ready to contribute?
Arkansas had four signees — quarterback Rafe Peavey, receivers Jared Cornelius and Cody Hollister and cornerback Chris Murphy — on campus for spring practice. Each showed potential, working through college practices for the first time.
Murphy spent most of the spring working with the third-team defense. He showed promise, but may have trouble cracking a rotation that includes Washington, Tevin Mitchel, Jared Collins, Will Hines and D.J. Dean next season.
Peavey had moments as well while learning the offense and will get a chance to compete with Austin Allen for the backup job in fall camp.
Cornelius and Hollister are the two likely to make an immediate impact in the fall as they work at a position still looking for playmakers. Cornelius spent much of the spring working in the slot with the first-team offense and coaches raved about his speed and quickness at the position. Hollister – a junior college transfer – used his size, strength and experience to pull in a handful of scrimmage receptions as well.
Both receivers were relatively quiet during the spring game. But there weren’t many Razorbacks who made big plays in the passing game. Bielema said after the spring game, though, both receivers are capable of taking receptions away from veterans.
“The good news is, 81 and 1, if those (other) guys don’t want to catch it, those guys do,” Bielema said. “They’ll play a lot of football for us. I don’t care who you are or how long you’ve been here, you drop passes you’re not going to play.”
5. Who is ready for a starting role on the defensive front?
Arkansas entered the spring with three starting spots open along its front with the departure of seniors Chris Smith, Byran Jones and Robert Thomas. Defensive end Trey Flowers didn’t scrimmage this spring, either, leaving plenty of opportunities.
Sophomore Deatrich Wise certainly took advantage of the spring, proving he could cause problems for opponents next season. Wise abused the second-team offensive line during the Red-White game, collecting eight tackles and five sacks.
Brandon Lewis also worked with the starters during the Red-White game and had a solid spring. The Razorbacks also used the starting duo of Darius Philon – who was hard to block throughout practices – and DeMarcus Hodge for the finale.
Flowers and Philon should anchor the defensive front next season. Wise will likely have a starting spot, too, if he continues to progress. But Segrest said Arkansas continues to sort out roles on a defensive front that includes JaMichael Winston, Tevin Beanum, Taiwan Johnson, Ke’Tyrus Marks and will add newcomers like defensive tackle Bijohn Jackson in the fall.
“We’re not set on anything,” Segrest said. “During the season we’re not going to be set on that. We do have some guys we feel like right now are starters. Trey obviously has been working with the ones. D-Wise has been working with the ones. But the bottom line is, we’re going to get into camp and see who’s performing the best, and there are going to be about four guys on the field, whether it’s end, tackle or wherever else. I want to make sure we have the best guys out there.”