Arkansas basketball hasn't been helping the mood lately so let's talk again about football, that months-ago corpse you piled wet mud onto after it fudged the last nine games of the 2013 season in myriad ways.
If you weren't sold on Bielema a year ago when he boldly struck out on a public relations-boosting effort across the state, you at least felt reasonably comfortable about the competency of the staff he was putting together. Now, defensive coordinator Chris Ash has taken off for reasons that are unknown but freely speculated upon, and defensive line coach Charlie Partridge got himself a head-coaching job at Florida Atlantic, and so there's this veneer of disharmony in the ranks.
But consider that Arkansas had already secured the services of linebackers coach Randy Shannon, late of TCU but also well known for trying to clean up his alma mater in a success-flecked four years at Miami. He's a guy whose name titillated Hog fans when Bobby Petrino dismissed Willy Robinson at the end of the 2011 season, but Petrino secured Paul Haynes from Ohio State instead. Shannon's known for being a fair but hard-nosed guy, which meshes well with Bielema's style; for my money, Ash hardly distinguished himself in any way last year, though concededly, he was working with limited personnel resources. The defensive gameplans were sporadically effective, and if Shannon is being eyeballed as Ash's successor, it probably has financial merits: Shannon could get a pay bump to be DC, but also continue to shepherd the linebacking unit.
The speculation now is that without Partridge and Ash, Bielema is losing those guys to whom he was tethered at Wisconsin, for better or worse. It's arguable as to what effect this sort of staff morphing has when the first team went 3-9. Some would assert that continuity is critical to this team getting back to a sustainable and consistent degree of success. It's also possible that Bielema, cognizant of just how far the program has to come, realizes some new sparks are needed. In fairness, nobody's going to deny a position coach like Partridge a chance to flourish in a head-coaching job anywhere.
Ash's circumstances are a little stranger, no doubt. He leaves an SEC job with a sizable paycheck to essentially share defensive coordinator duties at Ohio State. You can read into it what you must, but there's no point talking about why Ash departed when the critical choice is who succeeds him. If it's Shannon, there's currency beyond theoretical measure in the hiring of a highly respected, still-young African-American former head coach who has honed his craft at various locales. There's also the risk that he gets the same kind of opportunity that Partridge seized upon, which you again can't begrudge.
The reason all this coaching upheaval is significant is obviously because it's January and signing day looms in a matter of days. Arkansas already was down in the pecking order regionally and for the Razorbacks to excel with this class and those beyond, player-coach rapport is more essential than it's ever been. We saw that Bielema had a dramatic influence on Alex Collins — a Miami-area kid with worlds of talent never winds up here unless he's forged a bond with a staff or at least one of its key members. It isn't that Arkansas suffers quantifiably from Partridge and Ash leaving, per se, but it's the fear that this kind of movement causes ripples of uncertainty among 17- and 18-year-old kids who may not know fully what they want, but can figure out quickly where they want to spend three or four years plying their trade and soaking up the social scene.
This incoming class for the Hogs is, by all measures, a pretty fair one. There may not be much in the way of scene-stealing headliners, like what Collins was a year before, but you have to remember that the Hogs' absence of depth was just flat crippling in 2013. Key injuries like those suffered by cornerback Will Hines and receiver Demetrius Wilson, neither of whom were even all that proven to begin with, sheared down the talent pool in an area where it was shallow enough. Bielema's reconstructing his staff while reconstructing his roster, and that would be a bad harbinger in most circumstances, but there's an obviously less cynical view to take: Retooling is exactly what this program needs after an historically inept year, and whether some of it comes by way of defection or by disinterest, the project that Bielema has in front of him is a challenge that he doesn't seem scared of facing.