FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas coach Bret Bielema was busy retooling his staff this season after three assistants left the program for new positions.
None of the changes came from his offensive staff. So Arkansas defensive coordinator Jim Chaney believes it’s a big advantage with spring practice underway.
“Stability amongst the staff, I don’t know if it can be rated,” Chaney said. “I mean, It’s overwhelming. I don’t know how you put a number on it, but it’s incredibly important that everybody knows one another and knows what the goals are and knows how it needs to be done. I don’t know how you rank that, but in the big picture it’s incredibly important as far as the stability in the staff to have success.”
Chaney, Sam Pittman (offensive line), Joel Thomas (running backs), Michael Smith (receivers) and Barry Lunney Jr. (tight ends) are in their second spring at Arkansas. The staff is working with most of Arkansas’ key contributors from 2013, too.
The Razorbacks must replace two starting offensive linemen and lost two of its veteran receivers, but has nearly everyone else back. Arkansas quarterback Brandon Allen said the familiarity has made a big difference so far.
“It’s night and day. It’s completely night and day,” Allen said. “I’d say last spring there were so many different mistakes and just mental errors not being familiar with the offense. And now we cut back on a lot of that.”
Said running back Jonathan Williams: “Everybody’s able to recall what we did in the past year. I feel like we can move forward.”
Of course, there’s plenty of improvement that must be made after the group struggled to move the ball through the air last season.
Arkansas was ranked 114th in the nation in passing offense (148.5 yards) and 116th in completion percentage (49.8). The Razorbacks also were 12th in the SEC in scoring offense (20.7 points) and 11th in total offense (357.2 yards).
But Chaney said another year of experience – with familiar faces – can only help as Arkansas moves through its first week of spring drills.
“We talk about it all the time,” Chaney said. “You know everyone in your room. You know their personalities a little bit better and they know the offense better. … I hope our kids have a good understanding of the big picture and what we’re trying to accomplish. I think they do. I think they get it a little bit more than a year ago.”
Arkansas plans to open up quarterback competition this spring, but returning starter Brandon Allen is logging more of the repetitions the first week.
“We’re not evenly distributing. Right now Brandon is getting a little bit more,” Chaney said. “I’m just trying to get a good look at everybody in the room and just see where everybody is at and evaluate the talent and understanding of what we’re trying to do. We’ll continue down that path for a little while. As long as we possibly can or until we make some decisions on what we want to do.”
Brandon Allen said he has been getting first-team work, while A.J. Derby and Austin Allen have been working with the second-team offense. Damon Mitchell and newcomer Rafe Peavey have been working with the third-team to open the spring.
“It’s definitely a competition at the QB spot,” Brandon Allen said.
Center Travis Swanson and tackle David Hurd are preparing for the NFL Draft, leaving Arkansas looking for two new starters for its offensive front this spring.
Offensive line coach Sam Pittman said his first-team group to open spring practice consists of left tackle Dan Skipper, left guard Grady Ollison, center Luke Charpentier, right guard Denver Kirkland and right tackle Brey Cook.
Skipper started eight games at guard last season, but has moved back outside.
“It’s different out there, because you have more space to cover,” Pittman said about Skipper’s return to tackle. “But we obviously recruited him to play left tackle. After the first two days, he’s got some technique things he needs to correct, but there’s not anybody that’s going any harder than he is at it. And he’s very talented and very athletic, so we think we have him in the right spot.”