We close our run through LSU's football schedule with a look at how Arkansas handled their first spring practice with their new coach. Our guest this week is Doc Harper of Arkansas Expats.
1. Brett Bielema was certainly an unexpected choice for Arkansas, and seems like an...odd fit, I guess? What was fan reaction to the hire, and how has he been received through the first few months?
The day the news broke, most fans were like "wha? who?" Our search was so long that virtually every coach in the country was discussed by fans at some point, and he never even really made it on the radar. It was a big surprise. But ever since his first press conference, fans have been all in. He's got a near-unanimously positive approval rating. He's said all the right things, finished strong in recruiting, had what seems to be a positive spring season, and fans are ready to go.
2. What type of tone has he set for the program, and how was that reflected through spring practice?
The most obvious thing is toughness, physically and mentally. Of course, every coach says that, but when you look at Arkansas' style of play under Petrino and the ease in which the team mailed it in last season, toughness is definitely something Arkansas needs an infusion of. Bielema is doing that by instilling a stronger power-running game. He calls Petrino's stockpile of receivers and skill players "pretty boys." He's focused a lot on developing the lines, aka the "big uglies." He's bringing in that blue-collar mentality that Wisconsin was famous for and you saw that in the spring game.
3. I've been of the opinion that Arkansas needs a strong recruiter in place to help draw in some of the talent from the surrounding region. How's Bielema faring on that front?
He closed really strong in February's class. He signed one of the top running backs in the country in Alex Collins, who figures to play significantly as a freshman. Bielema also pulled in three 4* offensive linemen in Jan/Feb, so fans are pretty happy. Our 2014 commitment is about where most people expected it to be at this point. Arkansas rarely gets many early commits unless they're in-state players.
A lot of people point to low-rated classes at Wisconsin as evidence that Bielema won't be able to recruit in the SEC, but I'm willing to wait and see what happens because Wisconsin had one of the smallest recruiting budgets in all of BCS football. Bielema's made it known that lack of resources was one of the big reasons for leaving Wisconsin (although admittedly he only references that in terms of retaining his assistants) so it'll definitely be interesting to see what he can do with a recruiting budget that's triple what he had in Madison. Arkansas' 2013 class was higher-rated than any of his Badger classes, so there's reason for optimism.
4. Any pleasant surprises this spring?
A lot of fans worried the Hogs would be really thin at running back after losing Knile Davis and Dennis Johnson, leaving presumably only Jonathan Williams behind. But Kody Walker and Patrick Arinze were nice surprises in the spring game. Walker was a big running back used only in short-yardage situations as a freshman in 2011, then broke his leg in The Unspeakable Game last year and redshirted, but in the spring game he looked like an athletic back who could cut and pick up some real yardage and be much more versatile. Arinze is a walk-on fullback who was really difficult to bring down. He reminded me of Dennis Johnson in his stocky, low center of gravity build. He's not as fast as Johnson but probably a little bigger and stronger. I'm excited to see what the coaches do with our backfield this year.
5. Finally, things really cratered last spring, but it was obvious that Arkansas could be facing a bit of a rebuilding season in 2014 anyway without Tyler Wilson, Cobi Hamilton and a couple of other offensive stars. So what are some reasonable expectations for this team?
I've maintained that the goal should be just to get bowl eligible. Arkansas always has a difficult schedule in odd-numbered years because we travel to Baton Rouge and Tuscaloosa, but the SEC did us a real solid this year in replacing a road game at Kentucky with a trip to Gainesville. It's just really hard to imagine Arkansas winning those games, and we've still got to host A&M and South Carolina. So, especially coming off last season, earning a bowl bid would be solid progress. Anything better than that is gravy.
In CBS' way-too-early-but-we've-got-nothing-better-to-do-in-May bowl projections, they had Arkansas in the Music City Bowl against Georgia Tech, and I think most Hog fans would be happy with that. They are right now anyway. If Arkansas starts out 4-0 but closes 2-6, that bowl bid might not be feeling so hot. We'll see.