Doc Harper: Razorbacks Spring Game Shows Program Still Evolving Into Bielema’s Ideal

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The final score was 34-27 in favor of the red team, but that doesn’t really matter.

There was no running through the A, no “Go Hogs!” spell-out at halftime, and nary a Bubba Hawg appearance when the band played his song.  At least I didn’t see him, and I always love seeing him.

Saturday’s game doesn’t matter for the record books, but it does matter as a statement to the direction of the program.

The Arkansas Razorbacks program is in the midst of an overhaul, and it’s certainly debatable how much we can learn about a team from its spring game, but it is an indication of where the program is and is going.

We knew toughness was a key trait being instilled in the players, and that certainly didn’t disappoint. We did see a physical, downhill running game that showed promise. There were very few running plays that lost yardage, a sign that the offensive line is developing as we’d hoped, and it wasn’t just Jonathan Williams either. Kody Walker, who missed much of 2012 with an injury suffered in The Unspeakable Game, looked like a big, powerful, complete running back.  He was used almost only for short yardage situations as a freshman in 2011, but he may be able to play a larger role going forward.

In addition to Walker, it appears this staff won’t hesitate to let fullbacks carry the ball, which is something we’ve rarely seen in recent years. 254-pound Patrick Arinze tied for the team lead with nine carries, and his ability to drag defenders could quickly make him a fan favorite if he continues to see similar action this season. Longtime favorite Kiero Small only carried the ball once, but the coaches have frequently sung his praises this spring. We could be seeing the beginning of a bruising, power running attack the previous staff always said they wanted but never could develop.

Only two penalties were called on the team, and only one before the snap. We know from Bielema’s first press conference, as well as comments made after the Hogs’ first scrimmage this spring, that this was a big emphasis, and it’s evidence that a mental toughness is developing. Coaches won’t be able to fully makeover the program until another recruiting class or two comes in, but this is something that can happen immediately, and it appears the players are buying into it.

Oh, and no fumbles. By anybody.

It’s hard to imagine this team beating itself (another Bielema trademark according to his introductory press conference) and that has the potential to keep them in games this fall against superior talent.  How refreshing to think there’s a chance the team won’t give any games away.

The biggest mistake of the game was Brandon Mitchell’s interception in the first half. It ruined a really nice drive that had moved 64 yards at the time of the pick, and it was simply a bad throw. Unfortunately, those are the types of mistakes that could keep Mitchell out of the starting spot come fall. It’s clear Brandon Allen would be the starter if the season started today. Allen didn’t hit every throw either, but did not make any mistakes of that magnitude.

I won’t say there’s no chance for Mitchell to start in the fall. If you read last year’s Football Preview, you’ll see where I wrote why Johnny Manziel was likely to be the backup at Texas A&M.

But anyone worrying that Bielema is going to bring in a traditional “three yards and a cloud of dust” Big 10 offense should have slept well Saturday night. There’s still going to be some flair. The Arkansas Razorbacks were clearly unafraid to throw the ball downfield. In the first half there were more passing attempts than rushing. It certainly appears the team is becoming that balanced team Bielema promised in December.

However, as much as the team is being molded in Bielema’s image, this is still a team almost completely assembled by the Petrino crew. That will begin to change as many of the incoming freshmen get to campus this summer, but the defense, while showing improvement in some areas, also showed some of the same weaknesses we’ve grown used to.

Particularly, receivers broke tackles immediately after catching passes too frequently. The running backs moved the ball too easily against the second-team defense on the 90-yard scoring drive (the first team defense was much better). On Mitchell’s 26-yard touchdown pass to Jeremy Sprinkle to cap the drive, the defense allowed Sprinkle, a tight end, to run 26 yards straight down the field to the end zone and was completely open. That play may have drawn a roar from the crowd, but I’m guessing defensive coordinator Chris Ash’s reaction wasn’t so joyous.

There are some good, talented players on defense, and the first team defense was pretty effective in the first half, but the talent on this team is unquestionably deeper on the offensive side of the ball, which shouldn’t be surprising given the recruiting philosophy of the last few years. Bielema and his staff can’t come in and immediately clean the stench the Petrino era left on the Arkansas defense, but they can and should be expected to in time.

How much the defense can continue to improve, and they will, will go a long way in determining the success of the team in the fall. We saw some very good defensive plays on Saturday. We saw some crushing hits and passes defended, so there is hope there.

The game shouldn’t change anyone’s outlook for the season. I’ve said all year the goal should be to earn a bowl bid, and I’m not wavering from that.

But this program is in the process of turning into the one Bielema wants, and like all the other Razorbacks fans, I can’t wait to see how far they’ve developed come Labor Day weekend.

Doc Harper is the managing editor of Arkansas Expats and is a regular contributor to College Football News and Sporting Life Arkansas. You can email him here and follow him on Twitter @doc_harper.

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