If you’ve been paying any attention to spring practice reports coming out of Fayetteville over the last month, it’s clear that a very simple theme has emerged: toughness.
As in, they need some. Or at least more. A lot more.
A Google search for “bielema toughness arkansas” nets 358,000 results.
In the most obvious, Xs and Os context, this is because Bielema is changing the team’s offensive philosophy from the pass-happy Petrino style to the more traditional power offense he’s always been associated with. It’s no secret that Arkansas’ rushing
attack attempts had been inconsistent at best over the last five years, other than Knile Davis’ emergence in the latter half of 2010.
With an essentially unproven collection of quarterbacks and receivers on the roster,* and with Bielema’s track record of successful running backs at Wisconsin, Razorbacks fans are certainly hoping to see significant improvement on the ground this season. To do that, the offensive linemen, another group Bielema has a history of developing well, will need to be more physical, more trained to push people around instead of spending most of their time protecting a quarterback.
*How is this possible? It makes no sense that as soon as the Petrino crew leaves, a group that took pride in stockpiling receivers like canned goods in hurricane season, that this isn’t the deepest position on the team with the highest expectations? Arkansas basically has two running backs, one of whom will be a true freshman, and that’s the group getting most of the hype going into the season. What an indictment on the recruiting ability of the Petrino staff that they weren’t able to follow up the Childs/Adams/Wright/Hamilton group with a receiving corps fans would be really excited about. I’m not saying these receivers will be bad – I expect them to be reliable. But still.
Jonathan Williams was one of the very, very few reasons for Arkansas Razorbacks fans to get out of bed in 2012, and coaches have frequently praised his efforts this spring. Along with highly touted incoming freshman Alex Collins, if the coaches are successful in instilling toughness and physicality in the offensive line, the Hogs could see some real success on the ground in 2013.
This doesn’t even begin to describe the need for the defense to be more physical. That goes without saying.
But beyond the necessity of physical toughness, the Razorbacks also need to develop it mentally.
It’s easily forgotten that the Razorbacks were a pretty decent first-quarter team in 2012. But they’d respond to the slightest adversity about as well as a cat sprayed with water. How many times did we see the team begin to fold when a penalty would wipe out a huge play or when losses began piling up? That will have to change if Arkansas has a successful 2013 season, even if success simply means earning a bowl bid.
Once spring practice ends around the country in the coming weeks, all the national preview magazines and television specials will begin to come out, and one thing you can expect to see about Arkansas in nearly each one of them is a reference to the Razorbacks’ incredibly difficult schedule. Specifically, it refers to the five-week stretch that begins with a trip to Rutgers, includes a game in The Swamp, ends in Tuscaloosa, and features a couple of home games against the likes of Johnny Manziel and Jadeveon Clowney.
Regardless of what Arkansas’ record ends up being during those five games, how successful the team ends up being will likely be determined by the Hogs’ performance in November against the Mississippi schools and Auburn. It’s imperative that if the Razorbacks struggle through that midseason gauntlet, they are able to regroup mentally for the closing stretch of the season.
That’s a sort of toughness that’s just as important as physicality. Practicing overcoming adversity begins this spring. We’ve heard coaches talking about it by describing the physical consequences of mental mistakes like false starts and other penalties. Bielema described in his introductory press conference how important it was to him to be fundamentally sound and has described playing on the goal line as a “mentality,” so he’s aware that it’s more than just physical improvement the Razorbacks need and has made it a point to do just that.
Victories in 2013 won’t come easy, but the Hogs are being trained right now not to beat themselves, which in and of itself would be a huge improvement. Combine that with some improved physical toughness, and we’ll start to really see a program come together.