Unforeseen variables make spring predictions dicey

One of the questions being considered in Razorback social media circles is whether spring football practices give a definitive view for fans and media of how well the team will play this fall.

It’s a fair question, and probably one every reporter has considered while covering spring ball at one time or the other. It’s no doubt on the minds of fans, too.

As a young or inexperienced reporter, it’s easy to get caught up in what you see, but fairly quickly you figure out that practice of any sort can be deceiving based on the circumstances.

Unless you are privy to the coaches meetings, you really don’t know what those circumstances are. Everything done in a practice has a point, but when you are left guessing what those points are, you really don’t know what you are seeing.

In interviews, some coaches will give you an idea, but they usually speak in generalities. If they do get specific, sometimes the intricacies of blocking and tackling techniques might interesting, but are probably more than what the general public wishes to digest.

Coaches don’t plan spring practices to give the media or fans a sneak peek at what the team is going to be like in fall.

Coaches plan practices to ascertain which players can help the team in the fall at which positions. Coaches plan practices to develop and improve players while determining what those player’s strengths and weaknesses are. Practices explore a team’s potential with drills used to maximize that potential.
Putting together a football team is an assembly-line process. Advances are made in the spring, but the engine isn’t ready for the race. Sometimes it’s not ready after preseason practices in August.

That’s why Arkansas coach Bret Bielema giving senior center Frank Ragnow limited scrimmage work this spring isn’t that big of a deal. Bielema knows what he can do.

It’s more important for back-up centers Zach Rogers and Dylan Hayes to get the additional work and development than it is for Ragnow to take more reps this time of the year.

The same is true with Arkansas’ lone experienced receiver Jared Cornelius, whom Bielema was considering sidelining from further scrimmage work after the first week of practice. Cornelius unfortunately suffered what was reported to be a minor an injury before the second scrimmage, so him not scrimmaging became moot.

This is nothing new. In the past coaches routinely sat out proven upperclassman to spend more time with the younger players.

Plus, access to practice is much more limited than it once was.

For years Arkansas held open practices, dating back to the Frank Broyles era (1958-76) all the way through the bulk of Houston Nutt’s tenure as coach, which ended in 2007. Arkansas offered the media less access under Bobby Petrino. While Petrino wasn’t the most media-friendly coach, Arkansas’ athletic administration felt Nutt ran too loose of a ship and that tightening up was in order.

Considering most programs around the country had already closed practices and that social media made sports reporting almost immediate, there really wasn’t much of a choice.

Open practices were always a privilege for media and fans, but they wee useful for the program. They created a connection between the fans and the program that has been lost to a degree.

When a fan had the option to drop by and watch a portion of Razorback practice, he no doubt spoke about it with friends and probably with a contagious enthusiasm. Open practices were an act of good will from the program to fans, and it supplied overall good word-of-mouth publicity for the program.

However, by the end of Nutt’s tenure as coach. Things had gotten out of hand. In 2006, hundreds of fans showed up for Arkansas’ August workouts on the practice fiekds. Many were there to see what first-year offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn had up his sleeves and to also have a look at the overhyped “Springdale Five” that he brought with him from the high school ranks.

In hindsight, it’s pretty clear that kind of circus wasn’t the best practice situation for the team, and that alterations would need to be made.

Now, there simply isn’t room for fans unless practice is in the stadium. The Razorbacks’ relatively new practice fields aren’t lined by the convenient berms where fans sat to watch practice on the old practice area.

While Bielema had opened at least one scrimmage prior to the Red-White Game in previous springs, the construction in north end zone is even making the Red-White game problematic for the UA athletic department.

All of that said was to get to the point that even when the media and fans were able to take in every minute of Arkansas’ spring practices, the picture coming out if it was still fuzzy.

A fan or reporter could get a general feeling from those practices about what the fall might be like, but there were then and there always will be too many variables to make a truly accurate prediction.

First, Arkansas’ opponents this fall have a huge bearing on what type of season the Razorbacks will have. You can’t tell by watching Arkansas’ spring practice s how good Mississippi State, Missouri, Ole Miss, or Texas A&M are going to be. And even if you did know, some opponents improve during the season, and some opponents regress.

Watching Missouri’s season opener isn’t going to tell you much about what type of team the Tigers will be three months later.

In 2003, Houston Nutt had a very talented football team, perhaps his most talented at Arkansas from top to bottom. Media and fans knew that coming out of spring football.

The Hogs had enough talent to win the SEC that year, but penalties cost them dearly in back-to-back losses to Auburn and Florida at Razorback Stadium. Injuries to three running backs cost hurt them in a loss to Ole Miss. Those unforeseeable circumstances turned what could have been a championship season into one that was rather mediocre.

Similarly, few had a clue how tough and gritty Danny Ford’s 1995 Razorback team would be. They weren’t the most talented team in the SEC West that year, but they were good enough and fortunate enough to win their way into the SEC Championship Game.

The preseason injury to wide receiver Marcus Monk in 2007 also kneecapped a team that could have made a run at the SEC title before they played their first game.
In 1999, Nutt put starting quarterback Clint Stoerner back in the game when Louisiana Monroe scored a touchdown in a game that was already a rout. Monroe sacked Stoerner on that series and he suffered a shoulder injury that plagued him most of the year.

Stoerner’s passing was severely impaired in the next two games — a 35-28 loss at Alabama and a 31-20 loss at Kentucky. Had Stoerner been healthy, Arkansas’ chances would have been better in both games.

If the Hogs had won those two games, who knows how far the momentum might have carried them? The Razorbacks looked the part of a Top-10 team when they romped and stomped on Texas, 27-6, in the Cotton Bowl.

Nothing you can observe in spring practice can clue you in to the trials and triumphs or the good or bad fortune a team is going to run into during the season.

So, no, I don’t believe a fan or a reporter can definitively tell a great deal about how a team is going to perform in the fall by watching spring football. There are too many variables missing from the equation.

However, I do think astute observers can judge individual players by watching spring ball, and based on past experience, they might have a good general idea if the team is going to be better or worse than average.

I think observers can see leadership developing or not in spring ball. You can see how organized and efficient the practices are, and how well the coaching staff relates to one another. To a certain degree, I think improvement can be judged.

But, I’m guessing that most who are watching the open portions of spring ball would say the Razorbacks will win between six and nine games this fall. But, that’s probably what most would have guessed before spring practices started.

With all that said, spring practice coverage remains is highly important because whatever is observed and whatever is said by the coaches and players remains important to Hog fans around the state. That makes the media coverage of spring ball important to the program.

It builds recognition of the players among fans and hope that the Razorbacks will at least be all right this year, if not actually better than some expect.

Spring football coverage bridges the eight-month gap for Razorback football fans that are eager for September to arrive the day after the Hogs play in their season-ending bowl game in December or January.

Spring practice is essential for constructing the team itself, but it’s key for fans, too. It’s a whisper in their ears, reminding them that fall is coming and Razorback football is too.