LITTLE ROCK — When University of Arkansas coach Bret Bielema teed off Monday for the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame’s celebrity golf tournament, he noted it was his 53rd special event in Arkansas since he became head football coach.
And he doesn’t have a stump speech. He is pretty good with non-scripted, off-the-cuff comments. often using a dead-pan sense of humor, punctuated with a look-you-in-the-eye flair.
At first blush (and at second blush, according to some colleagues), what you see is what you get, something missing from UA coaches for several years. He’s straight-shooting, country-bred folk who seems to blend in nicely with the Arkansas culture, urban and rural.
During a news conference Sunday before a "Talking Football" dinner as part of the benefit for the Hall of Fame, Bielema commented on a variety of topics.
RECRUITING IN ARKANSAS: "I’ve been very impressed with the level of athlete," he said. "I’ve been blown away with the public school system in Arkansas. I went to new schools at Benton and Bryant the other day, ridiculously big schools. I remember going to North Little Rock’s gymnasium and watching basketball practice. This (seeing Arkansas high schools) has been an eye-opener for me. And the high school coaches in Arkansas have been unbelievable."
RECRUITING IN GENERAL: He said it will be Arkansas-based, four to five players a year, 6 to 10 in a rich year in the state. Certainly, UA will use connections in other states by their assistant coaches. But recruiting Texas is of extreme importantance. He said currently six coaches have various parts of Texas in their recruiting assignments.
"If a player from Arkansas is SEC caliber, we want him to play at Arkansas," Bielema said. "If he decides to go out of state, he needs to be reminded why he shouldn’t."
HUNTER HENRY: As a coach who loves to use the tight end, he said Hunter Henry, Pulaski Academy’s standout tight end who is one of the focal points of this year’s recruiting class, was the first phone call he made after his initial news conference as Arkansas coach.
"You’re talking about a preacher’s kid and that’s always a good thing to say," he said. "He’s also very athletic. I think he’s the shape of the future ... I visited with him the other day and he told me that at dinner the other night, his mom (both his parents are UA alumns) starting crying for no reason. I told him it only gets worse."
THE BACKUP: He said the Hogs will go into fall camp with A.J. Derby, a junior transfer from Coffeyville Community College who orginally signed with Iowa, as the backup to Brandon Allen. Bielema played for Derby’s father and said he has known the youngster since he was knee high.
"He was the guy who really attacked the classroom and learning side of our offense as well as anybody," he said. "He’s a real inquisitive kid. ... And obviously there was a comfort level with myself an his dad since we know each other very, very well, which is what brought him here."
MITCHELL: He said, after he and his staff determined Brandon Mitchell would not be named the starting quarterback after spring, he initiated transfer talk with the senior, who will graduate this summer, who has pro aspirations.
He said, after spring, he had a private conversation with Mitchell and he told him he thought he knew he was thinking about transferring. Once confirmed, "I told him, let’s work together. Let’s do it out in the open and not behind closed doors. Let’s put out a release and get some schools interested in him, which is what happened," Bielema said. "I think every kid should leavr with a great experience and for him to be able to graduate this summer and earn a degree and have a chance to go somewhere and be a starter as a senior, that’s totally understandable."
ALLEN: He said his communication skills on the field separated himself from the other quarterbacks.
"As a quarterback, you’re the field general," he said. "We can do a lot of things Monday through Friday as coaches, but Saturdays are about how a quarterback can handle the situation. ... Communication is a two-way street, not just the person talking but the people who are listening and understanding what is going on. He (Allen) separated himself in his ability to dictate what is going on in the huddle, the pre-snap communication and understanding anything else that breaks down on the field. He had a better pace of the game and the players played very well around him."
THE SUMMER: After the Southeastern Conference meetings next week, he said he will have a meeting with the players for the summer and will spend a week in the classroom, breaking down every SEC opponent on film in kind of a dress rehearsal (without on-field practice) of what a game week will look like in the team meeting rooms. The coaches will get a look at 600 to 800 players in June camps. He’ll then give his coaches three weeks off for vacation. He also plans to visit his parents for their anniversary in July.
(Sports columnist David McCollum can be reached at 501-505-1235 or firstname.lastname@example.org)