Jim Harris: Hogs Can’t Be As Good As Bielema Believes, Can They?


No one can accuse Arkansas coach Bret Bielema of sandbagging his chances with his third version of Razorbacks. About the worst Bielema has said during fall camp was grudgingly admitting that senior quarterback Brandon Allen “didn’t have his best day” in a 10-for-23 passing performance in the Hogs’ first major August scrimmage.

Mostly, via Bielema, it’s been a preseason buildup of proportions that frankly we can’t recall ever seeing out of Fayetteville. Of course, Bielema also had us believing his first team could compete and possessed surprisingly good talent, before it went and laid an 0-8 egg in Southeastern Conference play.

Times certainly have changed the way coaches build up their teams. Former Hog coaches like Frank Broyles and Lou Holtz would have never touted even their best teams as being solid across every position the way Bielema has done with the 2015 edition. Of course, Broyles and Holtz weren’t having to sell tickets and justify million-dollar salaries for themselves and high six-figures for their top assistants the way Bielema and other head coaches around the country must do these day.

A coach can’t poor-mouth his team the way Paul “Bear” Bryant would, almost any year, when he was leading the Alabama Crimson Tide. Before Bear Bryant was through addressing the various touchdown clubs and booster gatherings in Alabama during the preseason, one might think the Tide would be lucky to win three games, and of course Alabama would go out and finish the regular season unbeaten.

Today, the fans — particularly Arkansas fans — have to be fed the carrot that something great awaits them, beginning Saturday at 2:30 p.m. in Reynolds Razorback Stadium.

Bielema has a lot he can sell coming out of last season: Arkansas won three of its last four games handily, including a 31-7 romping over a Texas team that, frankly, didn’t deserve to be in a bowl game. The Hogs return their starting quarterback of the past two years, and only a hard-luck injury to Jonathan Williams kept the Razorbacks from bringing back the only two 1,000-yard rushers on one team; the good news is that junior Alex Collins is still here and healthy. The massive offensive line is mostly intact from a year ago, and talent and experience bolster the receiver and tight end corps.

Arkansas lost its best three defenders from last year in end Trey Flowers, tackle Darius Philon and linebacker Martrell Spaight — all figuring to make NFL rosters — and heady safety in Alan Turner and nickel back Tevin Mitchel, and yet not only does all seem well defensively as far as how Bielema sees it, the defense couldn’t be better.

The front four solidly two-deep now and stronger than ever, the linebackers are so versatile the coaching staff can play musical chairs with a couple of them the opening week of the season, and the defensive backs sound like they all transferred in from Alabama or LSU overnight with immediately eligibility.

All those kicking woes from last year that cost at least two games shouldn’t be a problem this year, it seems. In fact, all that went wrong last year led to Bielema doing something he’d never done before: starting every Tuesday with a team kicking meeting.

So, if this day before the opener is Christmas Eve, as so many coaches like to call it, then it seems like tomorrow and the 12 weekends that follow all the way to the SEC Championship Game in Atlanta will be the best days of presents Arkansas fans have ever enjoyed.

August has only revealed, even to the doubters who think they see otherwise, that this team doesn’t have a weak link. For example, a receiver corps that one magazine dubbed the worst in the SEC is, in actuality, as deep as any Bielema has had at Arkansas, he says — OK, maybe even the least cynical of us can sense a little backhandedness with that comment compared with the previous two seasons.

No question, Arkansas should be better manned than it was when Bielema arrived amid the wreckage of the John L. Smith one-year disaster, following you-know-who’s motorcycle wreck. Yes, the quarterback has paid his dues and the line is full of four stars with four-star freshmen behind them, and the tight ends deserve all the accolades accorded them.

The defensive line shows the fruits of good recruiting. That woeful secondary of two years ago is a forgotten memory thanks to recruiting and experience and the expert coaching of Robb Smith and Clay Jennings.

Even the linebackers look SEC-like compared to year one under Bielema.

But are these guys THIS good? Do recruiting rankings, where Arkansas typically brings up the last 2-3 spots in the SEC, mean nothing? Does Arkansas really match up in talent with the best teams in the SEC?

Saturday against Texas-El Paso won’t answer those questions. In fact, it’s unlikely the first three opponents will tell us anything we need to know in terms of how Arkansas matches up with the SEC foes. Toledo next week and Texas Tech on Sept. 19 will only help to bring everybody along to a point where Arkansas finally faces its first SEC test in Arlington, Texas, against Texas A&M, which the Hogs haven’t beaten in three years.

If we pay close attention to anything Saturday, it should be the play of Arkansas’ linebackers. For Smith’s defense to replicate what it managed last year in an amazing turnaround from 2013, junior Brooks Ellis will have to fill Spaight’s role at the weakside linebacker position, and one of the four ends will need to suddenly become a pass rush force as was Flowers. Philon has a terrific year as a third-year sophomore, no doubt, but surely the quick Taiwan Johnson or Bihjon Jackson should be able to step in as guys who can thwart blockers and get a pass rush on the opposing quarterback.

But how talented is Arkansas at linebacker behind Ellis? It’s a position area that was ignored by the previous staff in the final couple of years, and Bielema only brought in Ellis and the now-graduated Spaight in his first recruiting class. Maybe there is skill among the freshmen and sophomores in the group, but are they ready to make SEC-level plays on a week-to-week basis?

They won’t have to play like SEC linebackers at the beginning, but a month from now they will. Then we’ll know if Bielema was just selling tickets with his preseason bluster, or if his team is as good as he says it is.

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