FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas football coach Bret Bielema said he refrained from studying the returning Razorbacks on film when he arrived last December.
The reason? He wanted to evaluate players by getting his hands on them a few times this winter. Bielema didn’t want to enter those workouts with any preconceived notions as the Razorbacks began to build their new foundation.
“I really believe that first impressions last a lifetime,” Bielema said earlier this month. “I’m a big believer in that saying. I didn’t want my first impression to be anything other than the truth. So I didn’t watch a lot of film of our guys until we had a chance to work with them on a daily basis in winter drills.”
Bielema has now learned plenty about his group from winter drills through the program’s first three spring practice sessions. The evaluation process continues today, when Arkansas returns to the field for its fourth practice this spring.
The Razorbacks are back after taking a week off for spring break and will enter the meat of their 15-practice schedule, which is expected to include some of its first significant scrimmage work later this week. Arkansas will practice three times a week over the next month, finishing with the Red-White game on April 20.
Bielema – who jotted down plenty of notes on personnel during the first three practices earlier this month — said one of the first goals is making sure players know what is expected of them on the practice field. Now he plans to get more hands on with the group as the spring rolls on this week.
“The kids will probably even tell you I’ve become a little more vocal with each practice, because I didn’t want to jump all over a kid for the first day if that really wasn’t what he was,” said Bielema, who has been the only coach or player available to comment on the first week of practice. “I understand kids were going to be nervous, excited, anxious. As I get to know them, they’ll get to know me.”
Bielema did offer plenty of tidbits on what he has learned so far last Friday, when he met with the media a day after turning his team free for spring break.
Some examples: Bielema believes senior Travis Swanson has the tools needed to become the best center in college football. Tight end Demetrius Dean’s skills are better suited for the fullback position in Arkansas’ offense. Junior college transfer Mike Tavares is raw, but the team’s “most athletic linebacker” by far. And running back Nate Holmes is “one of the most explosive players” he has been around.
The evaluation process has taken place behind closed doors by design. Bielema kept coaches and players isolated from the public to try to get on the same page.
Workouts will remain that way Tuesday and Thursday before the gates are opened to the media for the first time Saturday. The unveiling could reveal some players in new positions as well, although Bielema said none of the changes would be drastic.
The coaching staff won’t be against trying a guard at center, sliding a cornerback to safety, or evaluating a linebacker at defensive end in spring drills as they try to find the best fit for the program moving forward.
“We just met as a staff and went through the depth chart from A-Z and there are a couple kids we are going to talk to,” Bielema said last week.
The product on the field should look different as well under a new staff. It’s especially true on offense, where Arkansas is moving away from a pass-based attack that featured several veterans now preparing for the 2013 NFL Draft.
So Bielema doesn’t expect to have everything installed this spring on either side of the ball. In fact, the Razorbacks slowed the installation process during its first week to make sure players were comfortable with what they’re being asked to do.
Belem’s goal is to make sure they improve each day they’re on the field. So his message to his assistants is simple as the evaluation process continues today.
“Don’t hurry and make it average,” Bielema said. “Slow it down and make it great.”