Guessing with Bielema


LITTLE ROCK — Teased by Bret Bielema, what will be the first play of the Bielema era at Arkansas?

Asked about scripting plays when he was in Little Rock recently, Bielema said that’s not his style and that he and offensive coordinator Jim Chaney would come up with five “openers” that they believed would be successful early in today’s Louisiana-Lafayette game.

Considering that quarterback Brandon Allen is making his first start on merit, five choices seems like a lot. Right out of the box, would the coaches dare ask Allen to read a defense and pick out the proper receiver?

Logically, Chaney-Bielema would lead from their strength, which is the offensive line. The best of the best is center Travis Swanson. Among the others, left tackle David Hurd is the most experienced and least likely to have an anxiety attack.

Certainly, they would want to take advantage of the devastating blocking of fullback Kiero Small, who clearly enjoys his job. Although Jonathan Williams only carried the ball 45 times last year, he is far and away the most experienced of Arkansas’ running backs.

First choice: Williams following Small over the left side.

Well informed about Allen and the lack of proven options at running back, the coaching staff at Louisiana-Lafayette might decide to gang up against the tailback. The counter would be Allen faking to Williams, rolling toward a tight end in the flat, and tossing a pass that is little more than a long handoff. Such a call comes with the admonition that if the receiver is not wide open, throw the ball away and proceed to second down.

Second choice: Play fake, pass to the tight end.

Swanson and Small should be at the core of Arkansas’ best plays so how about the old student body sweep. Allen turns and pitches to Williams. Swanson pulls and he and Small lead the way around the right side, counting on athletic tackle Grady Ollison to deliver a blow, and attacking anybody else that comes up to help.

Third choice: Pitch sweep.

The next step in deciphering the play-calling process has the feel of some dialogue from a 1999 superhero film called Mystery Men in which Casanova Frankenstein responded to Captain Amazing by saying: “I knew you’d know that.”

“Oh, I know. And I knew you’d know I’d know you knew,” actor Greg Kinnear said.

In other words, the time is ripe for something out of the ordinary. Personally, that would be a play fake and a deep throw to senior wide receivers Julian Horton or Javontee Herndon, who caught a total of 35 in 2012. To start the season with such a play would demand solid pass protection by the offensive line with help from Small, but might be just the thing to alert the defense that the coaches have confidence in Allen and his blockers.

Fourth choice: Go long.

Pretty much locked in on Nos. 1, 2, or 3, an off-the-wall choice is needed to meet the Bielema-established quota and nothing fits the bill better than handing the ball to the 242-pound Small. He had one carry in 2011 and sat out the final 11 games of 2012, but he did score five touchdowns during his first year at a community college in California. Following Swanson, Small would move the pile.

Fifth choice: Small behind Swanson.

Note that three of the five plays are runs, but Bielema’s offense is likely to be even more tilted to the run. Last year at Wisconsin, the offense averaged about 45 runs and 21 passes per game. In light of Allen’s inexperience, look for a similar 2-to-1 ratio.

By the way, Bielema’s sensible take on coaches who script the first dozen plays or so is that they “must be great at predicting the weather or where they are going to get the ball.”

Whatever the sequence of plays, Arkansas will need at least three touchdowns to win. Arkansas 27, Lafayette 20.

Harry King is sports columnist for Stephens Media’s Arkansas News Bureau. His email address is hking@arkansasnews.com.