Arkansas’ new head coach Bret Bielema relishes a challenge.
He let the assembled media at SEC Media Days in Hoover, Ala. know that clearly when the topic was broached about the media’s preseason SEC poll.
“I do excel in situations where people think very, very little of us. For those of you (media) that want to, vote us lower. I mean that with all my heart. Then just sit back and watch,” Bielema said. “I do know this: we have a team that’s very hungry, a group of coaches that are very gifted (and) we have a staff that is very talented and a lot of years to back that up.”
That talented staff began the transformation of the Razorbacks before ever stepping on the practice field with the expertise of strength and conditioning coach Ben Herbert.
“Coach Herb has a big emphasis on nutrition,” senior center Travis Swanson said. “He has come in and he has taught us how to eat and how to eat healthy. It is just completely different how we take care of our bodies. It has had a positive effect on all of us. Our bodies have transformed. I feel like a lot of people are going to be shocked when they see that first game.”
Herbert came over with Bielema from Wisconsin after 11 seasons working in the same position. He didn’t just bring a new menu to the Arkansas football program either.
“It has been great working with Coach Herb. He breaks weight lifting down to a science,” senior defensive end Chris Smith said. “All of our guys are grinding and getting better every day.”
With a nutrition and weight lifting base laid, the other coaches could go about molding the team on the field into a Bielema team. It is a team that will look different from the last few years as the Razorbacks will reign in the air attack and look to pound the ball on the ground more.
The change has gone smoothly.
“I don’t think it (the new offense) was hard to grasp at all. I think we have one of the most coachable teams in America,” Swanson said. “We have grasped his philosophy, his work ethic and what he wants out of a team. We are embracing him.”
Senior fullback Kiero Small also picked up on it quickly thanks offensive coordinator Jim Chaney’s schemes.
“Coach Chaney wants us to know one or two plays very well opposed to knowing a lot of plays semi-well,” Small said. “That is one of his big things is focusing on what we do. That is one thing that I really liked when he came in to the program. We are going to do what we are going to do and we are going to force teams to stop it.”
Chaney comes over from Tennessee after four years in the same position, but simpler schemes are something Bret Bielema has employed for years at Wisconsin.
“I knew I had a good (rushing) team (at Wisconsin) when we played Michigan and we ran the ball 28 times in a row,” Bielema said. “That is when I knew we had a good rushing football team. People lose vision on what is a good rushing offense. A good rushing offense is when it is fourth and one and they know we are going to run over right tackle and that is what we do.”
Defensive coordinator Chris Ash keeps things similarly simple on the defensive side of the ball after coming over from Wisconsin with Bielema.
“Coach Ash is an intense guy,” Smith said. “He isn’t going to put in anything fancy. Everything in the spring was very vanilla. We can just go make plays. That is all he tells us is to go make plays. That is what we are going to try and do, make plays behind the line of scrimmage.”
Swanson has enjoyed growth as a center under the tutelage of offensive line coach Sam Pittman, who is also the recruiting coordinator and associate head coach. Pittman coached an offensive line at Tennessee last season that allowed just 0.67 sacks per game, which was good for fifth in the NCAA.
“He (Pittman) is very defined in what he teaches,” Swanson said. “He will tell you to do the slightest thing and you do it and you see how much it helps. Everything becomes contagious. He is a master of his craft.”
Swanson is a center that Bielema says could be the best he has ever coached.
The defensive line is the most experienced unit and could be one of the best in the SEC, but even they have learned from the new regime. Charlie Partridge came with Bielema from Wisconsin and has changed the way the defensive line prepares.
“Coach Partridge is just really good. He turned the whole defensive line in to film junkies,” Smith said.
Taver Johnson stayed on for his second season at Arkansas and is coaching the cornerbacks. Barry Luney Jr. moves up from the high school ranks to coach the tight ends. Michael Smith, a gifted recruiter, came over to Bielema’s staff to coach the wide receivers after 11 years at Kansas State. Randy Shannon, who brings three national championships as a player and coach, will handle the linebackers. Joel Thomas rounds out the staff as the running backs coach. He held the same position at Washington for the past four seasons.
Bielema assures that this staff is in it for the long term goal of getting the Razorbacks back on top.
“As a group of coaches we have guys that want to work together to win games. Nobody is looking for a resume. Nobody is looking for that next opportunity,” Bielema said. “We are looking to try and make things great where we are at.”
The first season could be rough for the Razorbacks with a tough schedule and a team of players geared to run a spread attack switching to a ground game.
Though Bielema sees some opportunity to success right away based off of work in the offseason.
“Our kids have changed,” Bielema said. “If you take all of our offensive linemen and all of our defensive linemen, they have all changed their bodies. It has been done the right way and they look good. I am excited to see how that change is going to carry over in to football this fall.”
The public will get a chance to see just how much they have changed when the Razorbacks open up at 3 p.m. on Aug. 31 against Louisiana-Lafayette.
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