Nate Allen is a columnist for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. A graduate of the University of Missouri, Allen is a member of the Football Writers Association of America and voter for the Heisman Trophy. He has authored three books about the Razorbacks.
Bielema: Each must pull own weight
Arkansas coach Bret Bielema before the start of a game at Tiger Stadium in Baton Rouge, La. on Nov. 29, 2013.
FAYETTEVILLE - Whoever Bret Bielema eventually hires as the Razorbacks defensive coordinator inherits a defense still trying to overcome its second-class status from Arkansas’ decidedly offensive Bobby Petrino era.
Offense came first and quite successfully as Petrino started 5-7 in 2008, then improved to 8-5, 10-3 and 11-2 despite defenses that were often mediocre at best.
Problems manifested on both sides of the ball in 2012 when Arkansas fell to 4-8 under interim Coach John L. Smith and in 2013 when it went 3-9 in Bielema’s first season.
Still, when it comes to Arkansas’ flaws and pluses, the tendency remains to blame the defense first and point positively to the offense with running backs Alex Collins and Jonathan Williams and tight end Hunter Henry as Arkansas’ rising stars.
The return of senior defensive end Trey Flowers, an All-SEC player who is bypassing early entry into the NFL draft, gives the defense a boost, but Bielema acknowledges the defense still seeks to be identified as an equal part in the Razorbacks’ sum.
That’s unfathomable to Bielema, a nose guard when he played at Iowa an strictly a defensive assistant - he was Iowa’s linebackers coach and a defensive coordinator at Kansas State and Wisconsin - until promoted to Wisconsin’s head coach in 2006. Defense was Bielema’s identity, although as head coach he says he always stresses the team identity.
“I think the biggest part to get through our team meeting room is that there is an offensive-defensive-special teams philosophy here that all works together,” Bielema said. “When I first got here I can’t tell you how many kids asked me if we were going to be a defensive team, if we were still going to be an offensive team or what was going to be our identity, which kind of blew my mind.”
He said the previous preference for offense was obvious.
“It had been ingrained in them that defensive players didn’t get to celebrate because in the past when they did something good they got yelled at or thrown out of a practice,” Bielema said. “It takes awhile to change that mentality.
“We want our offensive guys to have just as much excitement for our defensive success. We want our defensive guys to have just as much excitement for our offensive success, and obviously special teams is a combination of both.
“It’s been a really big hurdle to overcome here that offensive, defensive and special teams work together. It’s not all these different parts working against one another, it’s all these different parts working together.”
SKIPPER’S NEW SHIP Razorbacks Denver Kirkland and Dan Skipper reported as true freshmen offensive tackles last summer but became starters as offensive guards.
One likely won’t be a guard in spring drills with the loss of left tackle David Hurd.
“Skipper will probably move to tackle,” Bielema said. “Based physically on what he brings, I think that will be good for him.
“Denver has the unique ability that he could play guard or tackle.
He could play tight end. He is an unbelievably gifted athlete. So we will try to keep him at guard unless we need to move him out.”
Sports, Pages 14 on 01/22/2014