Razorbacks to grind through pivotal week of practices

Arkansas freshman running back Devwah Whaley / ArkansasRazorbacks.com

The challenge is now on for the Arkansas Razorbacks. This will be the toughest week of their preseason practices.

With two weeks left until game-week preparations begin for the Sept. 3 season opener with Louisiana Tech, all the newness has worn off of training camp. The first day of practice, the first day of full pads, and the first full scrimmage are all in the rear-view mirror.

There really isn’t anything to look forward to now until the game, and it’s the better part of three weeks away.

While the Razorbacks are in shape, that big ol’ 800-pound gorilla known as fatigue will likely make an appearance in the Hogs’ training camp. While it’s still early, some players will already be dealing with nagging aches and pains. Some of those pains will be bad enough to sideline a player, while others create just enough of a distraction to draw focus away from a player’s assignments.

But, fatigue isn’t only physical. Mental toughness comes into play as the grind settles on their shoulders. All the players have time for now is eating, sleeping, practicing, meeting, and trips to the training room if needed.

Expect Hogs head coach Bret Bielema and his staff to push the players hard this week and then begin to taper off next week to allow the Hogs to regain their legs. The coaches will be demanding. They not only want to see the strain, but also the execution and attention to detail that so often is the difference in winning and losing in close ballgames.

The Razorbacks won some close ballgames last year. The overtime victories over Auburn and Ole Miss immediately come to mind, but the Razorbacks also left some business on the table.

Texas Tech and Alabama whipped the Hogs last year, but the Toledo, Texas A&M and Mississippi State games all turned on mistakes that boiled down to faulty execution and a lack of mental toughness in crucial situations. The Razorbacks must do their best to flip that script this season if the program is to continue to progress in Bielema’s fourth season.

Stress, adversity, struggle — whatever you want to name it — not only reveals character, but it also forges it. During this no-man’s-land of a week, the Hogs will begin to reveal their character, and also forge it together as a team. It would be interesting to be able to watch the team evolve and react this week if only practices were open.

Fully open practices are an unrealistic expectation today with technology that allows information or sometimes misinformation to be disseminated as quickly as someone can type. But I really would like to be a fly on the wall this week to see how the Razorbacks handle their business.

By all accounts, the Hogs had a very productive, even impressive scrimmage last Saturday. It will be interesting to see if these Razorbacks will pat themselves on the back, or if they are hungry enough to keep driving for improvement.

While practice has already yielded a number of position shifts, this week we should be able to tell how those players performed based on if they stay at the new spot. For example, will Randy Ramsey stay at rush end or will he go back to linebacker? With three sacks on Saturday, I’d guess he’d stay at end. A move back to linebacker for Ramsey would say more about the performance of the second-string linebackers behind starters Dre Greenlaw and Brooks Ellis than it would about Ramsey’s play at end.

After the coaches review the film, it wouldn’t be surprising to see more switches along the offensive front and possibly in other areas. If Saturday’s starting five of Dan Skipper and Hjalte Froholdt as left tackle and guard, Frank Ragnow at center and Zach Rogers and Jake Raulerson at right guard and tackle sticks, then we can assume coaches liked what they saw. If the players are moved around again, then it’s a clear sign Arkansas continues to search for the right mesh.

It’s hard to know where the team stands in the eyes of the coaches. The Hogs could go another full week of work before establishing which players remain with the varsity and which ones move to the scout teams.

When the scout teams are organized, it’s a signal that the coaches have nailed down which Hogs they believe are ready to help right now. But it doesn’t necessarily signal the end of the experimentations or player development. If you remember, it took Dominique Reed a month to work himself into meaningful playing time last season.

This will be a meaningful week of practice for the Razorbacks. What happens on the practice field might just give us a clue as where our expectations as fans should be set. I remain optimistic for a breakout season from Bielema’s Razorbacks. After this week, maybe I’ll have a better gauge on whether my optimism is justified or not.