"History is always happening" at Little Rock Central High School National Historic Site
Putting suitable stock in a spring scrimmage is difficult, but if Arkansas's annual Red-White game has evidentiary value months from now, there are roughly three areas where the program's new image will be manifest.
One certainty is that the committee-based rushing attack that Bret Bielema employed at Wisconsin will be entrenched here for the foreseeable future. This is doubtless an extension of having little returning experience at the tailback position (Jonathan Williams' 45 carries from 2012 make him the default workhorse) but also because Bielema's Rose Bowl teams always used a variety of body types and styles to gnash through the defense.
Williams is in the Felix Jones mold with a sturdy frame and shiftiness, but guys like Patrick Arinze, Kiero Small and Kody Walker are going to get steady reps in the middle. The completely unheralded Arinze, walking on by way of a California JUCO, is getting justifiable buzz for his bullish ascent into the mix.
Another spot where the Hogs can expect fast resurgence is in the kicking game, predominantly because Bielema is reinvesting in Zach Hocker. The senior was remarkably dependable as a young pup, then got caught up in the overall maelstrom of regression that overwhelmed the roster in 2012, missing seven of his 18 field goal attempts and connecting only twice from 40 yards or longer. By the time Hocker whiffed on a couple of tries in the finale against LSU, he sat idly while John Henson handled placekicking duties in the second half of that loss.
Bielema's solution? Heap confidence and responsibility on Hocker in spades: the Russellville product will likely do double duty as kicker and punter this year, which only makes sense given Hocker's leg strength. It's possible that Aussie import Sam Hill liberates Hocker of some of the duties in the summer but it would surprise nobody if Hocker joined the ranks of recent prolific college kickers (Quinn Sharp, Pat McAfee to name a couple) who absorbed the whole job.
Lastly, expect a defense that will play, much of time, beyond its cumulative talent level. For the past three seasons, even as the Hogs excelled and then accordingly when they crumbled, the goodly share of the publicity surrounding that unit has been negative. This time, the returnees are more or less unknown but, in the greater context, actually a pretty seasoned bunch. The line has a veteran feel in particular. Chris Ash wasn't brought in as coordinator in order to mollify fans who have gone off the deep end every time a tackle was missed or coverage broke down, but he's historically led a unit that commits few penalties and toughens quickly after it softens.
If the prevailing mantra of recent campaigns has been to outscore the opponent, there's a pretty sharp reversal afoot here. The expectation is that a defensive unit, scarred and annoyed by month after month of criticism, is now prepared to anchor the team and keep games tight enough for a thoroughly average-looking offense to be buoyed.
I'm not necessarily buying the common thought that Arkansas will be stunted on offense that greatly, simply because coordinator Jim Chaney is known for being inventive and playing to whatever strengths he has. The spring game showed that there are some young receivers like Keon Hatcher who may be itching to show off, and that the offensive line could get a lot meaner, a lot faster under Sam Pittman's watch. It doesn't hurt that the Hogs ease into their schedule for a change: all four nonconference games are at the front end before the murderer's row of Texas A&M, Florida, South Carolina and Alabama follow in rapid succession.
So now, after all that ... we wait, watch baseball, and ironically hope that Bielema's debut is more like Houston Nutt's 1998 campaign than Bobby Petrino's 2008 one. The smart money is on it being somewhere in between those two benchmarks.
Congratulations Tara, beautifully written!