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Friday, August 30, 2013
Bielema's Hogs are getting more physical

By Edward Aschoff

Bret Bielema is the epitome of a man's man.

His personality and bravado would be welcomed at any fraternity party, while his barrel-chested frame and grittiness is perfect for a cage fight.

It's the latter persona that Bielema hopes his new team adopts during his first season as Arkansas' head coach while he tries to bring his more physical style from Wisconsin to Fayetteville, Ark.

Bret Bielema
Bret Bielema is hoping his fiery personality carries over to his new team.
His players aren't exactly ready for the Octagon, but Bielema likes how guys have adapted to a more rugged style. For a team used to finesse on both offense and defense, the transition wasn't easy, but with the Razorbacks a day away from their first game under a new regime, Bielema is pleased with the strides made in the toughness department.

"They've embraced everything we've asked them to," Bielema said. "They train a certain way, they eat a certain way, they sleep a certain way and they recover in a way that allows them to be at full strength when they're playing. I couldn't be happier with the results."

To Bielema, everything is very much a work in progress, but the Hogs' baby steps have really impressed him. This team had to prepare for more hitting and contact in practice and harder training sessions. Bielema wanted players to hurt physically and mentally before they could fully appreciate his new brand of ball.

And it wasn't for everyone. Bielema saw -- and expected -- transfers before heading into fall camp and expects other issues as the fall progresses.

"With the style of play that we like to do, you're going to have a little bit of a spike in injuries," Bielema said. "The good fortune is that only one has been season-ending."

But that season-ending injury came at a position already suffering to find an identity: wide receiver.

The relatively inexperienced unit took a major blow when senior Demetrius Wilson, who was the team's top receiver this spring and fall, went down with an ACL injury. Linebacker Otha Peters (broken arm) and tight end Austin Tate (shoulder surgery) could also miss six weeks, while receiver D'Arthur Cowan could also miss significant time after breaking a bone in his foot.

Bielema estimated that 10-12 other players went down with nagging injuries during fall camp, but were all able to return. Bielema considers the injuries "a true blessing in disguise" by allowing younger players get more reps, especially at receiver. Guys like Eric Hawkins, Drew Morgan and Melvinson Hartfield have been able to get their feet wetter than expected and will make their Arkansas debuts Saturday against Louisiana-Lafayette.

"It's going to be fun to see the next man in," Bielema said. "That's all that good football teams do. They continue to improve, even though people leave the lineup."

Losing receivers hurts, but in order for Bielema's offense to go, he needs a bruising back to take the reins and he one in sophomore Jonathan Williams, who possesses a ferocious downhill running style at 6-foot, 222 pounds.

He'll get help from fullback Kiero Small and freshman Alex Collins, but Bielema has no problem handing Williams the keys to the offense.

"He definitely has the shoulder pads over his toes," Bielema said. "He goes and gets the 4 yards. He takes advantage of a hole that might turn 4 (yards) into 40. On the flip side, he isn't looking for anybody to give him any freebee or anything. He wants to earn every inch and when you get that combined with a lot of ability, you usually get something good."

Defensively, Bielema has one of the SEC's best defensive lines, but he's had to find depth at linebacker by rotating a lot of bodies, especially in the middle where Bielema said Austin Jones and Martrell Spaight have really developed. He's also been pleased with Jarrett Lake and Braylon Mitchell outside.

There are still hiccups here and there, but Bielema likes where his players' heads are. The Hogs have been through so much turmoil in the last year and a half, but they're trying to pave their own way out of the darkness that was 2012. They know their past has everyone counting them out, but Bielema embraces low expectations. He and his team are motivated by being told what they can't do.

"Prognosticators are going to think what they think," he said. "The ones that really matter are the people that are in our room and our kids have worked very, very hard to achieve a certain level of success and they expect to get it. They don't expect anyone to give them anything they didn't earn. They just want to go out there and earn what they can see where that can take them."