Bielema: Transition from Big Ten to SEC going well … so far
[dropcap]I[/dropcap]t’s been just over five months since Bret Bielema jumped from Wisconsin to Arkansas, and other than his house being full of unpacked moving boxes, he seems to be settling in pretty nicely.
He’s received a glowing reception at alumni events across the state, and a record crowd of 51,088 turned out as the Razorbacks wrapped up spring ball with Saturday’s Red-White game.
Meeting with the media Monday for his post-spring wrap up, Bielema was clearly pleased with his team’s progress. If given the chance, he said there’s not a lot he’d do differently since taking over.
“To me, there are four major parts of your program,” he said. “There is winter conditioning, spring ball, summer conditioning, and how you handle the fall. We’ve been through the winter conditioning program. We’ve gone through spring ball.
“I wouldn’t go back and change anything there … I really liked the way we handled spring practice and the attitude that our kids approached it with.”
The focus for the next eight weeks shifts to the weight room, followed by summer conditioning. Then comes the hard part.
Arkansas opens the season with four non-conference games before a four-week stretch from Sept. 28 to Oct. 19 in which the Razorbacks play Texas A&M, at Florida, South Carolina and at Alabama. Welcome to the SEC, Coach.
Coming off a 4-8 season and a with new coaching staff, Bielema isn’t surprised that Arkansas isn’t the talk of the college football world. It doesn’t bother him; in fact, he embraces it.
He sees lots of similarities between the Razorbacks and when he replaced Barry Alvarez in 2006.
“Going into fall, it reminds me a lot of when I took over at Wisconsin,” he said. “Now, we finished that season 12-1, but we started the season ranked like 65th or 68th in the country because everybody thought we lost a lot of good players and had a new coach that they didn’t know a lot about. That same thing now, but we are playing in not just the best conference but the best division in college football.
“I don’t think a lot of people have their eyes on Arkansas right now. That’s a position that we really like.”
If year one with the Razorbacks goes anything like his first season at Wisconsin, Bielema will remain the toast of the town across the state. In the meantime, he offered a not-so-subtle reminder that the only game he’s coached at Arkansas was against his own team.
“It’s always easy to be liked when you’re undefeated.”
Allen is No. 1 QB
The coaches released a post-spring depth chart, and though the battle won’t be settled until the fall, sophomore Brandon Allen got the nod over junior Brandon Mitchell at quarterback.
Last season, Allen (6-3, 212) appeared in five games and made one start, finishing the year 21-of-49 passing for 186 yards and a touchdown. His ability to take care of the football and avoid negative plays was the difference during spring ball.
“Brandon Allen, from the first week to the game on Saturday, made progress all the way along. The last two weeks have been exceptional,” Bielema said. “Brandon Mitchell does a lot of good things as well. The one thing that we can’t do is we can’t turn the football over. We can’t create negative plays on our own, and I think Brandon Allen did a better job of that and has progress in a way to put him in that position.”
Mitchell, a 6-foot-4, 230-pound redshirt junior, moved to wide receiver last season and caught 17 passes for 272 yards. Bielema hasn’t ruled out the possibility of some special packages at quarterback to take advantage of his athleticism, and/or a move back to receiver.
“With Brandon Mitchell at quarterback, he definitely has some special gifts that we can use,” he said. “If there’s another role, another position we can use him at, we’ll work together on that.”
Happy with his staff
Only two of Bielema’s on-field assistants at Wisconsin — defensive coordinator Chris Ash and defensive line coach Charlie Partridge — joined him at Arkansas, along with strength coach Ben Herbert and director of operations Mark Taurisani.
He spoke with “a couple” of his former offensive assistants about joining him at Arkansas, but not offensive coordinator Matt Canada.
“Let’s put it this way, I brought the coaches with me from Wisconsin that I wanted to bring with me and establish myself down here,” he said.
Bielema felt it was important to bring in some influences from other geographic areas. He’s been “blown away” by how well the staff has jelled.
“To get this group together, they are a really good group of guys,” he said. “They enjoy the game and they enjoy being around our kids. I think that rubs off on (the players).”
NFL film study
“One of the things that I love and I know our defensive coaches in particular and (offensive coordinator) Jim Chaney does this, is give the guys some pro cut-ups. Some teams that we are trying to do the same concepts. If you see an NFL guy doing it, you tend to buy into it a little bit better, or want to be engaged with it.”
Focus on lifting, eating right
Bielema gives players an eight-week buffer both before and after spring ball to focus on weight room development.
“Coach Herbert has done a big sell job on me on this one,” he said. “If your body is given an eight-week window to change, it will change.
“With development and nutrition, we tried to give them eight weeks on the front end before we started spring ball and now we will go into another eight weeks into the summer. This is the time when our guys grow as much as anytime in their entire careers.”
Areas of strength
Coming out of spring, Bielema said the Razorbacks’ strongest position groups are the defensive line (both ends and and the tackles) and safeties. The three starting linebackers have no starting experience, but played really well in the spring and were a positive surprise. He says there’s talent at cornerback, but that the depth “needs to continue to build and develop.”
On offense, he’s excited about the running backs on campus, as well as the two freshman backs coming that have a chance to play as freshmen. He was also pleased with the way the offensive line, tight ends, fullbacks came together to block in the running game.
Photo credit: Samantha Baker / Arkansas Democrat Gazette