Jim Harris: First Razorback Football Media Day Under Bielema Full of Surprises

Aug. 11, 2013, a date that will live in much fame among some of the statewide media: That was the day the University of Arkansas put on its best Razorback football media day several us veteran scribes or TV announcers could ever remember.

It happened this way because the head coach wanted it so. Bret Bielema expressed pleasure with the way the working relationship has gone so far with the Arkansas media since he arrived last December, and it the good vibes went both ways again Sunday in the Razorbacks’ newly opened football facility.

Here’s hoping he’s in such a good mood with the media at this time next year.

After a 32-minute question and answer session — only cut off by the UA sports media chief, Zack Higbee, because he was well aware that time for the press with the players would be that much shorter, and not that Bielema was tired of answering questions — the radio, TV and print guys and gals headed to the area where the players were stationed.

We found about eight Hogs in the lounge area, from Brandon Allen to Kiero Small to Rohan Gaines — the players who would likely need the most space for cameras and tape recorders thrust in their face. Allen was fresh off a 16-for-17 passing day in Saturday’s scrimmage, though Bielema would tell us Sunday the receivers deserved a lot of credit with “some great catches.” Allen concurred, but clearly he had made a statement that the Hogs may have reliable quarterbacking this year.

Trying to wing this on my own, my first thought after a delightful 10 minutes with the third-year sophomore safety Gaines was, is this all we’re going to get at media day? Just eight players?

Of course not. But, you see, I’m still a little jaded from post-game locker rooms during the past five years, when players the media requested because they were important to the story would sometimes never find their way to the old interview area in the Broyles Complex, even after wins.

And, you also must know, in past media days, all for the past 20-plus years held inside that north end complex with the large, turfed covered practice area, the SID staff would bring out an array of players and seat them in folding chairs in a three-sided rectangle, offense on one half, defense on the other, as we scurried to get our needed player interviews. If you were lucky, your most important interview wouldn’t be away at a class.

This, though, is another day, a Sunday in fact (another first for media day as best we could recall), marked by that spectacular new edifice south of Donald W. Reynolds Razorback Stadium.

Peering through the double-doors from the lounge toward the dressing, I saw every player sitting in his locker, waiting for a reporter to visit. The name and hometown of each player were engraved on a placard above the locker. Where a locker wasn’t used or was occupied by a new walk-on trying to gain a roster spot, the placard read “Never Yield,” Arkansas’ new catchphrase.

On the right side of the room sat all the seniors, whom Bielema continues to praise in press conferences for their leadership and togetherness. Sure, it’s typical preseason talk you hear anywhere in college football these days, but around the Razorbacks, the unsettled sense of last season is gone. Renewed commitment has returned. Bielema is a fun coach, but he’s still very demanding, they say. His toughest job will be to keep this group together when their will is challenged by setbacks.

Newcomers Alex Collins and Denver Kirkland were on the left side, their lockers side by side. We fully expected this. “He’s been my best friend for quite a while,” running back Collins said of the mammoth linemen Kirkland, both from the Miami area but from different high schools.

Yet, they said it was by chance their lockers ended up next to each other. It wasn’t by their request, anyway.

If anyone decided it, surely it was Bielema, who had walk-ons and freshmen and juniors and sophomores all mixed together. Five lockers away, defensive newcomer Martrelle Spaight, a junior college transfer linebacker, was being interviewed. Another linebacker, a physically transformed Daunte Carr from the guy we remembered from three years ago, was also nearby the offensive freshmen.

The locker to Collins’ right was occupied by former walk-on specialty snapper Alex D’Appolonio, a junior on scholarship as of May and likely never again to be substituted for the backup long-snapper on punts so the Hogs can have a potentially better tackler in the game. As everyone associated with Arkansas soon learned in 52-0 loss to Alabama last year on the way to a 4-8 season, it’s best to make sure the punt snap gets to the kicker first before worrying about tackling the returner 40 yards downfield. (Recall, too, that this particular gaffe by interim head coach John L. Smith last year came when Arkansas was actually battling the Crimson Tide evenly in the second quarter, something Notre Dame couldn’t say three months later.)

Gaines, the starting strong safety, was deemed by the team trainers to be out a week or more with a knee bruise Saturday, but he figured his absence would be more like a couple of days. He’s put on 10 pounds and added much strength since last fall, he said, with new conditioning coach Ben Herbert’s help.

TV reporters delved outside the football realm and preferred questions along the lines of what superhero powers the players would want to have. Most  we overheard, like starting senior center Travis Swanson, preferred to fly. “That way I could score a touchdown.”

Collins was informed by a cameraman that the “correct answer” would be invisibility, so that he could overhear what everyone might be saying about him and stealthily slap someone like Kirkland upside his head and not be detected. The players guffawed. All was fun and games this day.

Some players, such as redshirt freshman defensive lineman Darius Philon, weren’t in demand at all from the media and took the opportunity to chill in semi-reclined position in their lockers and catch a few winks. Saturday had been demanding: a morning practice followed by 100-plus plays in a scrimmage. Soon, this would be over and they could take the elevator up couple of floors to a dining area for what smelled like hickory-smoked barbecue, the media not invited.

“Saturday was the hardest day I’ve ever had,” Collins confessed Sunday.

His buddy Kirkland quickly moved up the depth chart at offensive tackle after the scrimmage, something he fully expected when he signed with Arkansas.

“I came here to play immediately,” he assured, his eyes growing large with a “you’d better believe me” look.

Bielema had earlier told us Kirkland possessed pass-protection skills like no freshman he’d seen. “My high school coach prepared me that way,” Kirkland said, then offered. “I can run-block too.”

That should make Collins and sophomore Jonathan Williams happy. Bielema said Williams resembled running backs he’d had at Wisconsin but showed some “extra juice” in the open field that the new coach wasn’t aware of, while scrimmage watchers who took to Twitter Saturday gushed over Collins.

Every player proclaimed the head coach the best and funniest Twitter user in the program, though Collins and Williams seem to have been running 1-2 among the offensive players among this observer. Collins suggests Razorback fans who use Twitter would also enjoy following receivers Keon Hatcher and D’Arthur Cowan too. “They’re both pretty funny.”

So too was Bret Bielema’s first official Razorback football media day as the head Hog.

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