Arkansas football’s struggles last season are well chronicled. Mention of its nine losses, winless conference record and back-to-back 0-52 shellackings to the hands of South Carolina and Alabama are sure to darken the mood of even the most optimistic Hog supporters. But there’s at least one fan not falling into line here. “Some people look at a 3-9 record as a downer,” says head football coach Bret Bielema. “But I find it more exhilarating than anything you could ever find.”
Bielema points to the improvement Arkansas showed in its last four games, when it played opponents increasingly tighter and ended the year with a four-point loss to No. 14 LSU. Over that span his players executed better and cut back on the mental lapses which had plagued the young team earlier in the season. The Hogs finished as the SEC’s least penalized team vs. other Southeastern Conference foes. These early signs of a turnaround also give a master recruiter like Bielema a selling point. They help form a narrative appealing to the competitive nature of the top high schools players he most wants to sign. In essence, he wants them to buy into the prospect of building a legacy rather than preserving one. Hog coaches emphasize to recruits the part they could play in helping lead Arkansas to its first SEC title. Bielema says he tells recruits: “If you want to come and be apart of something at Arkansas that’s never been done before, and you want to build off the foundation of a 3-9 record, then I got something for you.
For Arkansas to win a championship, its defense – which last season ranked No. 76 nationally and No. 9 in the SEC – must improve. Up front, three of four starting defensive linemen have left but All-SEC Trey Flowers returns for his senior season. As for linebackers, Bielema adds:, “I do think we have a good group that we can piecemeal together. I think Brook Ellis showed us some good things. I think Martrell Spaight and Braylon Mitchell – those three guys will probably be your top three candidates” for starting positions.
Bielema predicts the secondary, which ranked as the SEC’s worst pass defense against conference foes, will “absolutely” improve from 2013 when it allowed SEC opponents to complete more than 70 percent of passes. He cites added size, strength and quickness as one reason, along with more aggressive tactics that include challenging wide receivers more often at the line of scrimmage. There’s also an infusion of ideas from new defensive backs coach Clay Jennings, who was hired in February from Texas Christian University.
On the field, Jennings is charged with shoring up the defense’s weakest area. Off the field, he’s expected to go on the offensive in the program’s most important out-of-state recruiting territory – Texas. It takes only a glimpse at the best teams in program history – including the 1964 national championship squad – to confirm this. For its most recent signing class, though, Arkansas coaches signed only two of the roughly 25 Texans they had recruited.
Bielema’s confident that percentage will rise. He sent five staff members to recruit Texas last winter and believes the fruit of those efforts will be seen in upcoming signing classes. And Jennings, a Waco, Tex. native with a decade’s worth of coaching experience in the state, should strengthen Arkansas’ pull there, Bielema adds. “Any ties he has, we’re going to lean on those.”
Jennings is one of three new Arkansas defensive coaches. At the top is defensive coordinator Robb Smith, a 38-year-old who last year coached linebackers for the NFL’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Joining him is new defensive line coach Rory Segrest, who coached the same position at Samford University in Birmingham, Ala. “Rory’s a little guy,” Bielema says, tongue in cheek. “He walks into the room and he’s about 6-foot-6 with a size 18 shoe. I hired him because I didn’t want to be the biggest guy on the staff anymore.”
Bielema is pleased with how his coaches have built off last season’s late momentum toward the April 26th Red-White Spring Game: “I’m excited about where our staff is right now. We’re really cranking into high gear.” He also knows the more his coaches trust each other, the faster their program will accelerate. To that end, he organizes mixers to help his new coaches get to know each other. For instance, Bielema reserved a suite for his coaches at a February 28th Hogs baseball game in Fayetteville. “My hope is that my [defensive] line coach ends up sitting next to my wide receivers coach and although they hadn’t known each other, maybe they get to know each other a little bit more. It makes things a little bit better.”
Bielema also organizes other off-season outings that include players, too. He points to examples that naturally revolve around competition: bowling, slow-pitch softball, three-point shooting contests.
Perhaps it’s appropriate these Razorbacks hone such skills together. Most onlookers, after all, consider them as long shots to win a lot of games any time soon. But that doesn’t faze Bielema. When he’s wooing recruits, selling them on his vision for a great turnaround, he need not ask them to strain their imaginations. They know the 2013 SEC championship game, after all, was played between Missouri and Auburn – two programs with a total of two SEC wins the year before.
The above article originally printed in the March/April issue of Arkansas Money and Politics