You could hear the commotion in the background as Bret Bielema was handed the phone late Wednesday night. The Arkansas coach has been in the news lately as the most vocal proponent of the now-tabled 10-second rule. Not all of his remarks have gone over well, and he has come under fire for it, becoming a talking point in the media and at watercoolers around the country.
But the noise on the other end of the line was clearly enthusiastic as Bielema left a Razorback Club event in Central Arkansas, loading into a vehicle that would take him to the airport and back to Fayetteville. He does a number of similar booster club gatherings during the spring, and Wednesday’s event promised to be one of the final get-togethers before spring practice begins Sunday. The message that night: Last season wasn’t a starting point, it was a launching point. Some 500 people filled the room for fried fish and football, a record draw for the event.
“It’s always a little crazy, it just depends what kind of crazy,” Bielema said of the road to spring practice. “But it’s good. I’m excited. I know our kids are.
“A year ago at this time, we were getting to know these kids, trying to know their names. ... Now a year into it we have 88 kids who are going to partake in practice, and 84 of them you’ve seen before.”
Bielema and the Razorbacks are putting last season’s 3-9 finish behind them. In December, the team watched the SEC championship game and the second-year coach asked his players why they couldn't be there in 2014. Auburn and Missouri combined for two SEC wins in 2012 and now they were playing in Atlanta. Only a month earlier, Arkansas threatened a fourth-quarter comeback against Auburn, falling short despite getting almost 200 combined rushing yards from Jonathan Williams and Alex Collins.
“I really wanted to challenge them that it’s not one but two teams that decided to make a stand,” Bielema said. “And to do that, you need to change your actions. I knew they were going to work hard, they were going to listen, they were going to try and do the things we asked them to do. But maybe off the field they needed to dedicate themselves."
The results, Bielema said, have been positive. He has seen a number of players change physically since then, pointing out Williams in particular. The rising junior has put on 15 pounds and “is actually faster and more limber” than he was before, according to his coach.
Collins, who ran for 1,026 yards as a freshman last season, and Williams will once again make up Arkansas’ tandem at tailback. Fellow tailback Kody Walker will play much more at fullback this spring, switching back and forth between the two positions much like Kiero Small did last season.
With Hunter Henry back at tight end, there’s a good nucleus to build around on offense. Henry had his highs and lows last season, said Bielema, who is hoping for more consistency from his standout freshman. What he’s seen from Henry this offseason has been promising.
“He’s bigger. He’s faster. He’s stronger,” Bielema said. “I think he understands what it means to play in the SEC in an eight-game schedule, and hopefully beyond that.”
For Arkansas to go “beyond that” -- as in, the conference championship or a bowl game -- other players need to step up.
The defense got a boost from the return of defensive end Trey Flowers, who was second-team All-SEC last season. New defensive line coach Rory Segrest will “allow him to play faster and a little more aggressive,” Bielema said. And with new defensive coordinator Robb Smith in place, expect a slightly different look from the defense as a whole.
“If you’re inside the huddle, you’ll hear a lot of things change," Bielema said. "We’re going to try and simplify it for our players and get them lined up quickly and put them in a position to play aggressively.”
Despite its 12th-place SEC finish in points per game allowed last season, the biggest question facing the Razorbacks isn’t defense. Instead, it’s who will start under center.
Brandon Allen started 11 games as a sophomore, ending the season 13th on the SEC leaderboard for passing yards per game (141.1). His double-digit interceptions (10) were the most troubling, though.
Bielema said he wants competition at quarterback this spring, all the while acknowledging that Allen has “gotten stronger” and is the favorite to win the job.
“In theory, the first time we yell out for the ones, he’s going to step out there,” Bielema said. “But ... there will be other guys who get opportunity. Who is able to produce and run the offense effectively and who gives us the best chance to win next year’s opener against Auburn will be at that position.
“If it’s B.A., that’s great. If it’s not, hopefully that next person is ready.”
Watch out for Rafe Peavey. The four-star prospect enrolled in January and has the tools to push Allen. Bielema likes Peavey's talent and “football junkie” attitude, but Peavey is still just a freshman.
“We’ll let him work through the process, feed him as much as he can be fed and see where he can go with it,” Bielema said. “He’s a guy that if he can play, we will. If not, we’ll give him a redshirt year.”
Peavey was just one of a handful of freshmen to enroll early, the four unknowns of the 88 players Bielema referred to earlier on the phone. When Bielema spoke to the Razorback Club that night, much of the talk surrounded recruiting, and with good reason. Approaching the second season of his tenure at Arkansas, Bielema is slowly putting his imprint on the program with the way he brings in players and the changes in attitude on the roster as a whole.
When Arkansas opens camp on Sunday, his message will be much as it was Wednesday night. The record is wiped clean, he’ll say. It’s time to launch forward.
“Don’t worry about what happened yesterday and focus on getting great today. At the end of this stretch we’ll all be better," he said. "We’ll take where we’re at, take all the things that were positive and all the things that were negative, evaluate it and move into the next phase.”