Resuscitating running game key to better year for Hogs

Arkansas sophomore runningback Devwah Whaley /

Bret Bielema’s Arkansas Razorbacks have two of 15 spring practices under their belts, but Saturday they will actually get down to business by adding pads to the mix.

There is work that can be done without pads in a practice situation, but the game is played with pads and this team in particular needs all the work it can get with their pads on.

The Razorbacks weren’t as physical in 2016 as Bielema’s previous squads were. It showed up on both sides of the ball in embarrassing losses throughout the season. Arkansas held on to beat TCU, 41-38, in three overtimes last September after leading, 20-7, but that struggle would be an omen for what was to come.

The Razorbacks did finish the season 7-6, but if blowout losses to Texas A&M, Alabama, Auburn, and LSU weren’t embarrassing enough, the back-to-back losses in the regular-season finale against Missouri, 28-24, and to Virginia Tech, 35-24, in the Belk Bowl added gasoline to the fire.

Blame for the team’s regression in 2016 was rightfully placed on a defense that gave up 30.8 points, allowed 209.3 rushing yards, and 219.3 passing yards a game.

Good teams generally give up around a third more yards passing than they do rushing. Very good to great teams generally hold opponents to even less on the ground. But when a team only gives up 10 more yards passing per game than rushing, it’s a sign of a weak rush defense. If a team can run successfully on an opponent, it usually will take advantage.

Whatever the issues were on defense last season, the Razorbacks must perform better to improve this season. Bielema made moves to address that. While officially Arkansas defensive coordinator Robb Smith decided to leave the program to take a similar position at Minnesota, most feel Bielema helped Smith make the decision to promote a change of pace and attitude for the Hogs.

Bielema promoted defensive backs coach Paul Rhodes, former Iowa State head coach 2009-2015, to coordinate and overhaul the defense by implementing a 3-4 scheme.

Bielema also added Chad Walker as outside linebacker coach from the Atlanta Falcons and John Scott Jr., as defensive line coach from the New York Jets, while retaining inside linebackers coach Vernon Hargreaves. Bielema let go defensive line coach Rory Segrest.

So, change has taken place is continuing to take place on the defensive side football. How much improvement those changes will yield? We’ll just have to see.

Offensively, Bielema remained pat with his staff. That continuity should help with Arkansas returning eight starters from last season; however, as poorly as the defense played a year ago, much of Arkansas’ struggle can be traced back to the Razorbacks ineffective running game.

Some might challenge the notion that the Razorbacks’ rushing attack was not up to par. In particular, they might point to the fact that sophomore running back Rawleigh Williams led the SEC in rushing last season with 1,326 yards on 233 carries for an average of 110.5 yards a game.

That is true, and it speaks highly of Williams’ individual ability and it should give hope for a better Razorback offense this fall. However, for what the Razorbacks are trying to accomplish offensively, Arkansas’ running game was just average last year.

It was so average that by the mid season, third-down and three became a passing down for the Hogs because offensive coordinator Dan Enos did not have confidence that the offensive line could clean up for three yards on any given down.

Once defensive coordinators realized Arkansas’ running game could be controlled with four defenders, the blitzes started coming fast and furious, and quarterback Austin Allen’s play steadily declined because of the pressure that was in his face down after down.

A lack of respect for a team’s running game is a quarterback’s true nightmare.

Arkansas frittered away 17- and 24-point first half leads in their final two games not only because of poor defensive play but also because its ineffective running game. Enos was unable to protect the lead with the ground game, much less extend it.

As the Hogs began to rely more and more on passing, Missouri and Virginia Tech’s defenses pinned their ears back and pressured Allen. Drives stalled and turnovers were forced.

Great defenses have a difficult enough time defending with short fields, much less a defense that really needed the protection of a ball-control game plan like Arkansas’ did.

Arkansas likely will field a better defense this fall. It would be hard to perform much worse. However the real key to getting the Razorbacks back on track is better, more consistent performance by the offensive line in the running game.

The better the Razorbacks run the ball, the more efficiently they’ll be able to pass.

Last year offensive line coach Kurt Anderson dealt with inexperience, a lack of depth and talent. The Hogs do have more troops on the offensive front, and certain players do have more experience.

In senior center Frank Ragnow (6-5, 319), the Razorbacks have an All-American-type performer, at least according to the praise Bielema heaped on him. Ragnow may end up being the best offensive lineman in America, but an offensive line is judged on how effective it is as a unit, not as individuals.

Junior guard Hjalte Froholdt (6-4, 318) has the physical tools to be a good performer in the SEC but last year he was in over his head. Will he come into his own this year?

Tackles Colton Jackson (6-6, 300) and Brian Wallace (6-6, 335) have the size, but will they perform consistently? Jake Raulerson (6-4, 301), Deion Malone (6-3, 296), Zach Rogers are in the mix at guards. Johnny Gibson (6-4, 344) started the final five games of the season at guard last year, but is being held out of everything but individual work at practice as discipline for an unnamed offense.

How this mishmash does or does not sort itself out this spring and in preseason drills will have a tremendous bearing on the type of football team the Hogs will have this fall.

Bielema’s reputation as a coach has been staked on having physical offensive and defensive lines. That was not the case in 2016. Let’s hope the Razorbacks back up their coach’s reputation with improved line play this fall.

Diamond Hogs travel for Alabama series

The No. 21 Arkansas Razorbacks (20-5, 5-1 SEC) travel to Tuscaloosa for a three-game series with the struggling Alabama Crimson Tide (12-13-1-5).

First pitch on Friday is 6 p.m. and can be streamed on SEC Network Plus. Saturday’s game is at 7 p.m., and Sunday’s is at 3 p.m. The SEC Network will televise both.

The Crimson Tide swept the Razorbacks at Baum Stadium last year, but the Hogs hope to return the favor at Sewell-Thomas Stadium.

Jake Walters (4-2, 2.08 ERA) will be on the mound for Alabama Friday, facing Arkansas’ Blaine Knight (3-1, 2.51).