This is a busy week for Arkansas Razorbacks football players and an important week, just not on the practice field. It’s finals week on the hill.
As fans we dote or sometimes are a bit disgusted with the Hogs play on the field, but it’s really easy to forget the players do have to take care of the academics.
While their on-the-field work tapers off a bit, the stress level in the classroom increases, as all who have struggled through the end-of-semester process knows.
Even the best of students face uncertainty during finals. They often have more to lose from an average performance on a test and a slimmer margin of error to maintain an A.
While all Razorbacks fans had hoped for a better outcome than a 7-5 season, and the bad taste of that 28-24 Missouri loss lingers like the thought of three-week old Thanksgiving leftovers, one thing head coach Bret Bielema has done is stabilize academics with the football team.
That not only will help the Razorbacks earn their degree during their team on campus, but it also reduces the churn of players in and out of a program because of poor academic performance.
While the anxiety level among the Razorbacks will always be high during finals, the coaching staff has to sweat a lot less over the eligibility of players going into a bowl game. That’s good news, and it is a change.
Bielema could not mention names because of NCAA regulations, but he said once finals are over five to eight newcomers — a combination of freshmen and junior college transfers — would be joining the Razorbacks for the workouts leading up to the bowl game. The newcomers, however, will not be able to practice with the Hogs at the bowl site.
Christmas in Carolina
Speaking of bowl games, the Razorbacks will be spending Christmas in Charlotte, North Carolina for Belk Bowl preparations.
The Hogs (7-5) face the No. 18 Virginia Tech Hokies (9-4) for the first time in school history on Dec. 29 at 4:30 p.m. in a game that will be televised by ESPN.
Bielema said Monday that he didn’t savor the idea of playing the Grinch Who Stole Christmas, but that the bowl’s scheduled date dictates that the Razorbacks will fly to Charlotte on Christmas Eve after a workout on campus, and that Hogs’ toughest practice for the bowl will come on Christmas Day.
“We’ll get a good, hard workout in, and then we’ll go back to the hotel and make sure everyone gets a good holiday meal,” Bielema said. “We also have some entertainment planned for them because there’s not a lot going on Christmas Day.”
Santa Claus will actually arrive on Dec. 26 for the Razorbacks in the form of a $400 gift card from the bowl’s sponsor Belk department store.
“As you probably know, prices are slashed after Christmas so Dec. 26 is a good day to go shopping,” Bielema said.
There will be other bowl activities for the players through the rest of the week leading up to game.
Bielema said he ran into Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen in the Atlanta airport while both were out recruiting in recent days. Mullen’s Bulldogs played in the Belk Bowl last year, and relayed to Bielema who hospitable the bowl organizers were.
Shake it Off
Bielema said he has been impressed with the way junior quarterback Austin Allen had rebounded after an off performance in the Razorbacks’ season-finale loss to Missouri.
Allen, who played very well most of the season, had a poor performance against the Tigers, completing 24 of 39 passes for 348 yards, but throwing two interceptions and being sacked 4 times.
“He’s a resilient kid, and his taken ownership and leadership of the team,” Bielema said. “But we really go as he goes. And with that, we have to make sure everyone plays well around him and supports him with their play so that he can be successful.”
Looking back on the season, Bielema said Allen took a tough tumble when his knee was rolled up on a sack in the Auburn game. He did not miss a start because of the knee sprain he suffered because the Razorbacks had an open date the following week.
“It was a tough deal for him,” Bielema said. “It gets to you as a player. It affected him but he moved through it. A lot like his brother, (Brandon Allen) had to do.”
One of Allen’s understudies Cole Kelly underwent routine back surgery to correct an issue that held him back, Bielema said. The redshirting freshman quarterback had the surgery the week after the Missouri game. Bielema said the procedure was planned during Arkansas’ bye week in late October to correct an issue that had the 6-7 Kelly wincing with pain after throws. Kelly should be recovered from the surgery in time to begin off-season workouts in January.
Bielema confirmed that Bobby Allen, the UA’s director of high school and NFL relations, helped junior receiver Jared Cornelius and junior center Frank Ragnow complete and file paperwork to receive assessments from NFL teams about their prospects for this spring’s NFL Draft.
Bielema said six to eight teams would access players and give them draft grades to better inform them on whether it would be in their best interests to enter the draft as juniors or play another year.
Arkansas offensive coordinator Dan Enos took the opportunity to lightheartedly encourage both to stick around for another season, saying the Razorbacks needed them.
Speaking of the NFL, Bielema said he believed that senior offensive tackle Dan Skipper’s best football remains in front of him.
“He’s 6-10, 320 and looks like he weighs 280,” Bielema said. “He’s only going to get bigger and stronger.”
Bielema said that Deatrich Wise, who was held back this season by a hand injury, has looked more like himself in recent practices.
“He’s healthy and knows he has one more chance to show what he can do,” Bielema said.
In each of the last three seasons, Bret Bielema’s coaching staff underwent changes. That has not happened as of yet, and it may not. But, it is still early.
Bielema pointed out the coaching churn has not been as great all across the landscape of college football because there have not been as many moves with head coaches this year.
Speaking generally and not specifically about Arkansas, Bielema added that coaching moves would probably pick up after the bowl games.
So stay tuned. Coaches could be poached from the Hogs or possibly be encouraged to move on to other opportunities even though Bielema said directly after the Missouri game that he was not planning changes at that moment.
Arkansas defensive play was an issue all season, and Bielema mentioned one way he was thinking of addressing those problems Monday. He’s considering going back to his roots as a player and defensive assistant and running a 3-4 front.
“I’m tinkering around with doing a little 3-4 stuff in the future,” Bielema said. “I played in a 3-4. That’s what I originally started in.”
A 3-4 alignment gives a defense more flexibility in bringing blitz pressure from either side of the field. The Razorbacks did not blitz much this season and when they did, the pressure did not get to the quarterback quickly enough. Having two outside linebackers could help that as well as create better matchups in the passing game against spread teams.
“Any time you can create some flexibility, especially in your front seven, [it’s good],” said Arkansas defensive coordinator Robb Smith, who coached for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the NFL. “We did some things like that in Tampa with 3-4 packages, and it allowed us to alternate who the fourth rusher is and the various ways to bring the fifth rusher.
“I think all those ways are positives for us moving forward. I’m excited about exploring those avenues in the offseason.”
A 3-4 can shift into a 4-3 very easily by walking one outside linebacker up to the line of scrimmage or even into a 5-2 by walking up both outside linebackers. This could help the Hogs cause some confusion to offenses and create more opportunities to bring pressure from either side and remain balanced.
With Bijhon Jackson (6-2, 335), Austin Capps (6-4, 309) and Armon Watts (6-5, 293) the Hogs have the manpower to set up a solid rotation at the nose guard spot. Ends McTelvin Sosa Agim (6-3, 289) and Tevin Beanum (6-4, 251) could do well playing over the offensive tackles and Randy Ramsey (6-4, 228) might excel at one of the outside linebacker spots.