FAYETTEVILLE — Bret Bielema has decided on a "ones against the world" approach for Arkansas’ spring game.
It’s a fitting theme for the Razorbacks, who ended last season on a nine-game losing skid and feel like they have plenty to prove to the Southeastern Conference and the rest of the country.
Still smarting from last season’s disastrous 3-9 debut under Bielema, the former Wisconsin coach hired to rebuild a program in disarray following Bobby Petrino’s firing, Arkansas will conclude its spring with the school’s annual Red-White game on Saturday. The Razorbacks rode the excitement of Bielema’s hiring last spring to a school-record crowd of 51,088. That, however, came before Arkansas’ first winless conference record since entering the SEC in 1992.
The excitement surrounding Bielema — who promised to win the SEC upon his hiring — might have quickly worn off, but this spring has represented a renewal of sorts.
For the first time since 2011, Arkansas has enjoyed a spring without turmoil or turnover.
Two years ago, the Razorbacks were forced into the national spotlight thanks to the scandal-ridden Petrino. Last year, following an ill-fated trial season under interim coach John L. Smith, they took their first steps under the school’s prized hire, Bielema.
The growing pains were many for Arkansas, but this spring has seen a boost in comfort and confidence.
"It’s just a new team," running back Jonathan Williams said. "It’s a new feeling when we go out there, a new mindset. Last year, when somebody messed up, it was, ‘Here we go again,’ but you’ve seen leadership stepping up, guys taking control of the team."
Bielema hopes to better identify those leaders on Saturday. And while he hasn’t announced an exact breakdown of the rosters yet, his approach made it clear the first-teamers will see plenty of time together as they try and continue to regain the form that led the school to a 21-5 record in 2010-11.
Five things to watch as the Razorbacks conclude their spring:
ALL EYES ON ALLEN:
Last season went just about as badly as possible for quarterback Brandon Allen in his first season as the starter. From learning a new system under offensive coordinator Jim Chaney to battling a host of ongoing injuries, Allen’s struggles became the primary focus for many fans looking for someone to blame for the mounting losses. The junior, however, has returned with a vengeance this spring. His performance has been so strong that Bielema has already tabbed Allen the top option at quarterback, and many fans will watch closely on Saturday to see if he’s improved from last year, when he completed just 49.6 percent of his passes for 13 touchdowns and 10 interceptions.
While Arkansas’ offensive ineptitude generated much of the criticism at home last season, its defense was one of the worst in the SEC — finishing 12th in the conference with an average of 30.8 points allowed per game. Enter Robb Smith, the former Rutgers and Tampa Bay assistant who replaced Chris Ash as the defensive coordinator during the offseason. Smith’s impact has already been seen at practices and scrimmages this spring, primarily in a more aggressive and in-your-face approach by the defensive backs. Arkansas will have the opportunity to showcase its new approach, which Smith called as "a more physical mentality" on Saturday.
The Razorbacks figure to always field a top-notch running game under Bielema, one of the team’s few strengths last season. Arkansas was third in the SEC with an average of 208.7 yards rushing per game last season — led by the combination of Alex Collins (1,026 yards) and Jonathan Williams (900). Both return for next season, but it’s an up-and-comer who has given Bielema another explosive option out of the backfield. Sophomore Korliss Marshall split time between safety and running back last season, but he moved to offense full time this spring. He’s put together a collection of what Bielema called "freak-show runs" this spring.
KEEPING IT TIGHT:
Sophomore Hunter Henry is Arkansas’ leading returning receiver after a 28-catch effort last season on his way to second-team All-SEC honors. The tight end has had some unexpected help at the position this spring in former backup quarterback AJ Derby. The senior and former Iowa transfer made the move prior to the spring, and it’s paid immediate dividends for the Razorbacks — in the form of several highlight-worthy catches during practices. Bielema has compared Derby to former Iowa and NFL tight end Dallas Clark, and he could give Arkansas two of the top pass-catching tight ends in the SEC this season.
Arkansas has been relatively injury free throughout the spring, but a pair of notable defensive players will miss Saturday’s scrimmage. Senior defensive end Trey Flowers, who decided to return after considering the NFL, has been held out of scrimmages this spring as a precautionary move and won’t play on Saturday. Also, senior cornerback Tevin Mitchel — arguably the Razorbacks most improved player this spring — will miss the scrimmage because of a hamstring injury.