FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas football coach Bret Bielema doesn’t mind scars, calling them reminders of things that have occurred throughout the course of life.
There’s the visible kind accrued through injuries, surgeries and other mishaps. There are unseen ones, too, such as emotional scars created by tumultuous times or situations.
“We’ve all got scars,” Bielema said during an interview in his Arkansas office late last month. “But I think men are more defined by their failures and their rise after it than their successes. So I’m also not afraid of them.”
It’s a good thing. Bielema knew in December he was taking over an Arkansas program that seemingly endured a lifetime of scars during a 2012 season loaded with surprising scandal and unexpected disappointment.
Former coach Bobby Petrino’s motorcycle crash and firing last April led to a 4-8 season, turning a program believed to be a Southeastern Conference championship contender into one of the nation’s biggest disappointments.
But Bielema is confident the Razorbacks’ recovery is well under way on his watch and will continue today, when spring practice kicks off. Arkansas will be on the field today, Tuesday and Thursday before taking off for spring break.
Practice will resume on March 26 and run through the Red-White game on April 20.
There’s plenty for the Razorbacks to accomplish as they begin the new era. But Bielema believes the important first step was taken when he addressed the team Dec. 4, shortly before he was officially introduced as Arkansas’ new coach.
“I said, ‘Fellas, there isn’t anybody in this room that could’ve forecasted over the last 12 months what you guys have been through,” Bielema said, looking back on the first team meeting with the Razorbacks. “No one would’ve shared that with you during recruiting. It couldn’t have been brought up on any recruiting test or any official visit or unofficial visit. But all we can do is move forward.
“You can’t spend any days looking behind us. We can’t worry about what’s happened to us. All we can do is try to correct and improve the future.”
It’s a message the Razorbacks seem to have taken to heart.
Players were not available for comment leading up to spring practice, but cornerbacks coach Taver Johnson said on national signing day there is a different mood around the building with the new staff in place.
“I think that the guys understand. Let’s embrace it,” said Johnson, who is the only assistant coach from 2012 who remained on staff. “You know, we want to see our guys all the time. We want to be around them all the time. They don’t feel like it’s a principal’s office, you know what I mean?
“They feel like this is part of their building, where they can go in any point in time and they won’t be judged. They won’t be cast away, so to speak. And that’s key, just to make sure that they understand that we know they’re people.”
Strength and conditioning coach Ben Herbert said their determination to bounce back from last season’s struggles has been evident in the weight room as well
He cited veterans like center Travis Swanson, fullback Kiero Small, defensive tackle Byran Jones and defensive end Chris Smith as players who have helped the Razorbacks put last year behind them. Herbert also said there has been an overriding theme in his conversations with players about 2012.
“You had a lot of guys the two years prior became accustomed to having success,” Herbert said. “They appreciate having to go through the struggle of last year because it taught them success is not guaranteed. You have to earn it week in and week out.
“They want to be successful. They want to do what they’re asked to do in order to be successful. I think there’s a lot of guys that are moving in the right direction.”
Now it’s time for the on-the-field portion of the process, which will play out largely behind closed doors this spring.
Bielema, hoping to keep his team focused and trying to avoid too many snap judgments, announced last week the workouts are closed to the public throughout the spring leading up to the Red-White game. The media will be able to view three workouts.
There’s plenty to sort out in 15 practices. At the top of the list is the battle for the starting quarterback job between Brandon Allen and Brandon Mitchell.
But Bielema has been impressed with how the returning Razorbacks have dealt with the scars from 2012 so far. He’s confident it will carry over into spring practice.
“Our guys were off the charts,” Bielema said. “I think that’s been the part that has been overwhelming to me. They’re just very, very hungry to have success.”
Five spring football questions about the Razorbacks
1. Who will emerge as leader at QB?
The battle between Brandon Allen and Brandon Mitchell will be the most talked about topic all spring. Allen earned playing time when Tyler Wilson was injured last season, but struggled in his snaps. Mitchell — who served a four-game suspension late in the season — spent most of the year playing wide receiver. Both will get a chance to make an impression before two signees arrive in the summer.
2. How well will JUCO transfers adapt?
Four junior college transfers — linebacker Myke Tavarres, cornerback Carroll Washington, safety T.Q, Coleman and offensive lineman Jonathan McClure — are on campus and will participate in spring practice. The Razorbacks are counting on each newcomer to settle in this spring and compete for starting jobs in the fall. So it’s an important month for the newcomers under Arkansas’ new coaching staff.
3. What will the offense look like?
Arkansas is expected to unveil a new offense under new head coach Bret Bielema, stressing the run game much more than in 2012. A complete shift isn’t expected right away, however. Bielema and offensive coordinator Jim Chaney agree the Razorbacks must count on team strengths in putting together the offense. They’ll evaluate those things on the field throughout the spring as Arkansas works toward the 2013 season.
4. Are young LBs ready for next step?
Otha Peters and A.J, Turner were pressed into starting jobs last season because of injuries and other issues at linebacker. The two survived. But how much improvement have they made in the offseason as they prepare for their sophomore seasons? Peters and Turner will get a chance to show it during spring drills and their growth will be important for Arkansas’ defense next season.
5. How much will the offensive line improve?
Center Travis Swanson and tackle David Hurd are the only starters back from an offensive line that struggled in 2012. Bielema and the Razorbacks are determined to build their program in the trenches and will get their first chance to get hands on with them in spring drills. Expect plenty of players to get opportunities this spring with Swanson likely the only player cemented in his starting spot for next season.