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With throwback style, Bret Bielema and Razorbacks look to take next step

8/14/2015
With a strong finish in 2014, Bret Bielema has brought the fun back to Arkansas football. AP Photo/Gareth Patterson

Plopped on a black leather chair at the corner of his spacious office months before his team reports for training camp, Bret Bielema expounds on his football philosophy as an unapologetically old-school coach in an increasingly spread world.

While more teams make the transition to up-tempo offense and spreading the field both horizontally and vertically, Bielema is a proud flag carrier for the traditionalists who still utilize blocking tight ends, fullbacks and dropback passers who line up under center. There’s no window dressing or smoke and mirrors for the Razorbacks, and Bielema takes pride in that.

Arkansas’ style of play is no secret. Bielema prefers it that way.

“My wife loves to watch Criminal Minds and CSI and all those shows,” Bielema says. “I always think of it in these terms: If we were involved in a crime scene and we did it, they should be able to tell right away because it's part of our DNA.

“There's no sugarcoating it. It's just what we do. There should be no mistaking our identity.”

The challenge for Bielema when he arrived prior to the 2013 season was turning a program that previously participated in the spread, up-tempo trend he avoids into an SEC championship contender by using a tried-and-true style that’s becoming more rare by the season.

After a painful 3-9 debut season, Bielema and the Hogs began to turn the corner at the end of 2014, winning three of their final four games in dominating fashion over two SEC West teams (LSU and Ole Miss) and a former Southwest Conference rival (Texas).

Ever the colorful interview, Bielema made headlines at SEC media days by calling the final moments of the win over Texas -- in which the Razorbacks kneeled three times inside the 5-yard line to wrap up a 31-7 win in the AdvoCare V100 Texas Bowl -- “borderline erotic.” The true payoff, however, will be when (if) the Razorbacks achieve what he stated as his goal in his introductory news conference: winning an SEC championship.

“I won't be satisfied until we win a championship,” Bielema reiterated Sunday. “That's my ultimate goal.”

There actually are believers out there, however few they may be, that Arkansas can do it this season (three media members picked the Hogs as the SEC champion at SEC media days; six members picked them to win the SEC West). That’s ambitious considering the Hogs were 7-6 and finished last in the SEC West in 2014. But the lasting images from a 17-0 defeat of LSU, a 30-0 defeat of Ole Miss and the domination of the Longhorns raised eyebrows and made the Razorbacks one of the most intriguing teams of 2015. Regardless of the timetable, one thing is clear: Progress is happening in Fayetteville.

“I made the comment after [Bielema’s] first year that Bret's made football fun again here,” Arkansas athletic director Jeff Long said. “And there were some local media types that really took exception to that because we were 3-9 and Jeff Long's talking about football's fun.

“But what they couldn't see is what I could see behind the scenes. Bret was making it fun for those student-athletes in the program. He was making it fun for those within the department who work and support football. Bret understood that.

“Bret made football and supporting football fun again. Certainly last year it was a lot of fun when we turned that corner and beat our archrival, Texas, as soundly as we did in that bowl game.”

The positive progress goes hand in hand with the implementation of a culture. While offensive football evolves, Arkansas favors a methodical, physical approach.

“There's nothing I love more than to watch a high-powered, fast-paced offense and to see their coaches pacing the sideline because they can't get the ball,” Bielema said. “It just pisses 'em off. It's a great tool because it begins to affect their psyche.”

In Bielema’s office hangs a sign that lists the “Five edges of Arkansas football.” The first is physical and mental toughness. The second is playing fast and through the whistle. The buy-in from players on those two points wasn’t immediate, but it exists across the board now.

“We know how we do things and how we're going to win football games,” tight end Hunter Henry said. “Having that proved at the end of the season last year, some guys in the first year doubted that and doubted how he was doing things. But I think last year when everyone bought in and every single game we realized we could come out and beat every team we faced.

“We're going to get after you until the whistle will blow, but sometimes we're still going. We want to go two seconds through the whistle. Physical, hard-nosed, nasty, just get after you.”

Offensive and defensive linemen get optimal treatment at Arkansas. They sit in first class on plane trips, and Bielema -- as offensive line coach Sam Pittman put it -- “treats the linemen like quarterbacks.” The cover image of the Razorbacks’ 2015 media guide features the Hogs’ starting offensive linemen: Dan Skipper, Frank Ragnow, Mitch Smothers, Sebastian Tretola and Denver Kirkland.

“It's who we are,” defensive coordinator Robb Smith said. “When you want to be mentally and physically tough, that's where it all starts -- your offensive line and defensive line. Our guys know that.”

Early in 2014, the Hogs showed signs of progress in many categories -- except the win column. An overtime loss to Texas A&M, a one-point loss to Alabama and a seven-point loss to then-No. 1 Mississippi State continued a 17-game SEC losing streak that didn’t expire until the shutout of LSU. How did the Razorbacks keep from allowing frustration at being close -- but not close enough -- to boil over?

"Honestly it was Coach B,” quarterback Brandon Allen said. “We had a lot of close games -- one point to Alabama, all those games we should have won and lost late -- he always said, 'Look guys, it's going to come. It's bound to come.' He didn't want anybody throwing their hands in the air, anyone doing that. He wanted everyone sticking to the plan and doing everything right; the wins are going to come. Sure enough, they did.”

So what are realistic expectations for this season? Can the Hogs approach double-digit wins or perhaps seriously contend for the SEC West? Asked his expectations on Sunday, Bielema correctly predicted his answer would be labeled as coachspeak: “I just like to get better every day. ... The only way to get to be the team you want to be is to get better every day.”

There are reasons for optimism. The return of a veteran offensive line and two 1,000-yard running backs (Alex Collins and Jonathan Williams, the only such FBS duo in the country last season) will key the offense. While the Hogs lost several stars on defense via graduation or the NFL draft (Trey Flowers, Darius Philon and Martrell Spaight), six starters return from a defense that was dominant at the end of last season. Smith, who enters his second season as defensive coordinator, likes the quality and depth of his defensive line.

The play of Allen, Arkanas’ fifth-year senior signal-caller, and his relationship with new offensive coordinator Dan Enos -- once a college quarterback himself -- may be the linchpin that determines how much improvement the Hogs make in the win column. Bielema recently referenced the need for Allen to play “big in big moments”, such as fourth quarters and road games. This spring, Enos said he believes Allen has what it takes to march the team down the field for a game-winning drive.

What’s ahead for the Hogs is unknown. Bielema is proud of the progress made thus far, but knows there is still a long way to go. He’s certain of one thing and it’s one reason why optimism is abundant these days in the Fred W. Smith Football Center.

"I know this -- we're better in Year 3 than we were in Year 1,” Bielema said. “By no means have we arrived. I reiterated to our players, ‘We won seven games; it's not that big a deal.’ It was a winning season, we got to play in a bowl game and beat Texas, but that's not what we came here to do.”