Bret Bielema has seen relatively little of his first Arkansas Razorbacks football team.
Sure, Bielema has watched film from the 2012 season and likely reached a little further into the archives to gain some familiarity. He’s no doubt heard reports from strength and conditioning coaches on the Razorbacks’ progress in the weight room.
This is the first week of spring practice and today marks the first use of full pads, so in the grand scheme of things Bielema hasn’t seen much.
What he has seen, according to comments he made at a Tulsa Razorback Club meeting on Wednesday, is a group of players disappointed with how things turned out last year. Not that you need a reminder, but in case you forgot – the Razorbacks went from Top 5 in the preseason to one of the worst seasons in school history.
Not exactly what anybody around Fayetteville had planned. Not that they’re dwelling on 2012, but Bielema has noticed a healthy amount of frustration from the team’s holdovers, especially the senior class.
“They have an unsatisfied disappointment in the season a year ago,” Bielema is quoted as saying in the Tulsa World. “It shows up in everything they do. I have over 20 seniors when they came to Arkansas they were not 4-8 [caliber players]. They had come to Arkansas to have success. That’s a big part of what we will feed off in the future.”
Arkansas doesn’t need anybody wallowing in self pity, but a little reflection on how and why things went wrong is rarely a bad thing. If the Razorbacks can use that frustration to push them through the spring and into summer workouts and fall camp, that’s a good thing.
Those seniors, guys like quarterback/receiver Brandon Mitchell, cornerback Eric Bennett, wide receivers Javontee Herndon and Julian Horton, linebacker Jarret Lake and defensive end Chris Smith, have all had their moments. For the most part, though, this class is full of guys who up to this point have been bit players, seeing incremental increases in their roles the last three years. They have to make a massive leap in development this year in order for Arkansas to have success.
No longer can they show up with a big performance in one game and then disappear for weeks on end, something that seems to be a trend with this crew. Even more important than what they do on the field is how they handle the coaching change and adjust to this new staff.
It sounds like the senior class — and all we have to go on is what we are hearing from these public appearances Bielema is making — has accepted the challenge that comes with a transition. They have, best we can tell, embraced the idea that last year wasn’t good enough for the program and have made improving a priority.
Seniors can make or break a transition season. We’ve seen it here before.
Think back to Bobby Petrino’s first year. Arkansas went 5-7 and had the buy-in been better from the upperclassmen, it’s not unreasonable to think that the Razorbacks would have been a bowl team.
Instead, they suffered through growing pains as the seniors mostly were content to cruise through the year, figuring it didn’t really matter.
So far, it sounds like that isn’t the case as Arkansas enters the Bielema era.
“They are open to coaching. They’re hungry,” Bielema said. “They are obsessed with doing things that we’re asking them to do, even if it is taxing or exhausting.”
Hopefully it’s more a case of Bielema praising the seniors for what they’re doing and not him suggesting through the media what he hopes they’ll wind up doing. Sometimes coaches praise a player or players for something they’re not doing, hoping they get the message. This team can’t handle too many situations like the one it just endured with senior Austin Flynn getting arrested and then eventually parting ways with Arkansas.
These guys have to buy into the idea that their performances in practice, their actions away from the field and the example they set matters. Otherwise they’ll have more of that “unsatisfied disappointment” Bielema is witnessing.