HOOVER, Ala. — Arkansas Razorbacks football coach Bret Bielema and three of his senior captains will address reporters on Monday, the first of 2017 SEC Media Days.
After an incredibly disappointing finish to last season — and a 25-26 record in four seasons at Arkansas — Bielema made seismic changes to his defensive coaching staff and undoubtedly enters Year 5 needing to show some measure of improvement.
Between staff changes — always a difficult thing for any head coach — and the untimely retirement of star running back Rawleigh Williams III, the past several months have surely been a little strange and, at times, difficult for Bielema. He always seems in his element at SEC Media Days — or, just generally, in public — but Monday could bring some uncomfortable and difficult questions his way.
Here’s a look at five questions Bielema will probably be asked in some form Monday:
Are you still in favor of a rule change to slow down offenses?
Bielema waded back into the debate about no-huddle offenses with a late-June tweet.
— Bret Bielema (@BretBielema) June 29, 2017
Bielema, of course, was among the most outspoken coaches in favor of a proposed NCAA rule in 2014 that would have required offenses to run 10 seconds off the play clock before each snap. The rule was ultimately tabled.
As more and more teams trend toward those types of offenses, is that rule still something Bielema would like to see implemented? Bielema and Alabama coach Nick Saban were two of the most prominent and vocal supporters of that proposed rule change, while Auburn coach — and former Arkansas offensive coordinator — Gus Malzahn spoke out passionately against it.
It will be interesting to see if Bielema discusses it further at Media Days.
What gives you confidence the defense will be improved?
When he announced Paul Rhoads would be the new Arkansas defensive coordinator, Bielema implied he’d been eyeing Rhoads for that job for a while.
“I probably knew not only during the interview process with [Rhoads] a year ago, but also after about a month on the job, how well he responded to our players,” Bielema said in January. “I knew that … if I ever lost [former defensive coordinator] Robb [Smith], he would be my guy going forward.”
Rhoads — the former Iowa State head coach — was Arkansas’ defensive backs coach in 2016. He was a highly respected defensive coordinator at Pittsburgh and Auburn before taking over the Iowa State program.
In Fayetteville, Rhoads is tasked with not only fixing a defense that was at times historically bad in 2016, but also installing a brand new 3-4 base scheme.
Bielema also added two new defensive position coaches — defensive line coach John Scott Jr. and outside linebackers coach Chad Walker — to his staff this offseason.
There is also a lot of player turnover on that side of the ball this year. Arkansas graduated key players Deatrich Wise Jr., Jeremiah Ledbetter, JaMichael Winston, Taiwan Johnson, Brooks Ellis and Jared Collins.
So in summation: Arkansas’ defense in 2017 will feature a largely new coaching staff, a new base system and a whole lot of new players. Bielema will surely be answering a lot of questions about his defense on Monday.
Who is going to catch Austin Allen’s passes?
Arkansas returns a very good player — Austin Allen — at the most important position in football — quarterback — this season, but that won’t mean much if he doesn’t have some reliable receivers to catch his passes. We know senior wideout Jared Cornelius will be one of those guys, but he will have to stay healthy.
That’s because other than Cornelius, the jury’s still out regarding Allen’s primary pass catchers. Sophomores T.J. Hammonds, La’Michael Pettway and Deon Stewart are options. Redshirt freshmen Jordan Jones and Kofi Boateng also could earn playing time. JUCO transfers Brandon Martin and Jonathan Nance were there through the spring and should also be in the mix.
Tight end uncertainty exists at Arkansas for the first time in a while. There are several talented players on the roster but none with much experience. The returning tight end who played the most snaps last year — sophomore Austin Cantrell — was more of a blocker last year and it remains to be seen if he can be a reliable weapon in the passing game.
I’ll be eager to hear Bielema’s thoughts on who might step up in this area.
How will Rawleigh Williams III’s retirement affect the run game?
After a second scary neck injury, Williams opted to retire from football, a decision that was both wise and surely devastating for Williams, his teammates and his coaches. Williams was a popular guy in the Arkansas locker room.
He also led the SEC in regular-season rushing yardage last season as a sophomore and it seemed like his best days on the gridiron were still ahead of him.
Now, the Arkansas backfield is a bit of a question mark. Sophomore Devwah Whaley will be the No. 1 back and is extremely talented, but behind him are a graduate transfer who didn’t play much at South Carolina and two true freshmen.
Arkansas has yet to officially announce David Williams’ transfer — he posted about it on Twitter — so hopefully that is all finalized and Bielema is able to discuss it Monday.
Each of the 11 squads with Bielema as head coach — seven at Wisconsin and now four at Arkansas — have included at least one 1,000-yard rusher. Will that streak continue in 2017?
Are you feeling pressure to win this season?
I asked both Bielema and athletic director Jeff Long about Bielema’s job security earlier this summer at SEC spring meetings and Long was emphatic.
“Bret is the leader of our program,” Long told me. “The leader is [about] more than just winning games — and I know some fans don’t wanna hear that. Trust me, it doesn’t mean we aren’t competing with every fiber of our being to win in the toughest conference and the toughest division of that conference. But when you look at what Bret’s doing, we’re building a program that’s built on an outstanding foundation.”
Bielema denied that he is feeling any additional pressure after last season’s disappointing end. And that may be true, but I would expect the subject to come up in Hoover.
Between the lack of patience that is sometimes prevalent when it comes to these things in high-profile sports — and the big money being spent in college football today — it’s only natural to wonder if Bielema needs a big year in 2017 to stay off the hot seat.
I think Long is sincere when he says Bielema has job security. I also think Long learned a lesson or two the hard way when he hired Bobby Petrino — maybe against his better judgment — then had to fire him under embarrassing circumstances. Long doesn’t sound willing to concede integrity for on-field success. Not after the Petrino fiasco.
Still, the reality of the college football business is what it is, and if Arkansas doesn’t show some improvement in 2017, those questions — and the fan pressure — will continue to hound him.