FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. — Welcome to SEC Country’s Arkansas Razorbacks football mailbag with beat writer Jason Kersey. In this edition, we discuss coach Bret Bielema’s job security, the team’s young running backs and more.
Coach Bret Bielema’s job security at Arkansas
Q: Kevin Sumlin (21-19 in SEC play) and Gus Malzahn (18-14) have been mentioned as the SEC West coaches on the hot seat. Yet Bielema (10-22) is safe with the full confidence of Jeff Long. Is this a reflection of the different expectations of the AD, the fan bases, or something else? — Dann
A: I asked Long, the Arkansas athletic director, about Bielema’s job security at the SEC spring meetings held in Destin, Fla., in late May and early June, and he emphatically told me that his football coach is not on the hot seat. I believe him. Long won’t come right out and say it, but he implies pretty strongly that he regrets hiring Bobby Petrino and that he did so against his better judgment. I take all of that to mean he had serious questions about Petrino’s character and allowed himself to look past that because he wanted a winner.
We know of no character issues with Bielema. Arkansas football players are staying out of trouble and getting good grades for the most part. Bielema also took over a Razorbacks football program that was in complete disarray in the aftermath of Petrino’s infamous motorcycle accident and all that followed.
Sumlin and Malzahn are both in unique situations because of the way they started their tenures at Texas A&M and Auburn, respectively. Remember, Sumlin’s first A&M team went 11-2, beat eventual national champion Alabama in Tuscaloosa and routed Oklahoma in the Cotton Bowl. And did all of it with a Heisman Trophy winner at quarterback. Malzahn beat Alabama in the “Kick-Six” game, won the SEC and went to the national championship game in his first season as Auburn’s head coach.
Since that first season in 2012, Sumlin’s Aggies have gone 9-4, 8-5, 8-5 and 8-5. And since his first year at Auburn in 2013, Malzahn’s Tigers have finished 8-5, 7-6 and 8-5.
Meanwhile, Bielema’s first Arkansas team in 2013 went 3-9. Since then, he’s gone 7-6, 8-5 and 7-6. Not great, admittedly, but when the first season — and the situation you’ve inherited — are that terrible, you get a little more leeway. Bielema also has done it the last few years with substantially lower-ranked recruiting classes than Sumlin and Malzahn have signed. The fact that those two are signing top-flight talent and finishing with those records is also hurting them.
But I also think it’s fair to say that if Arkansas doesn’t show signs of improvement in 2017 — or even gets worse — Bielema might find himself facing a little more pressure entering 2018.
The young Arkansas running backs
Q: Which youngblood will emerge as the better back: Hayden or Maleek? — Joey
A: I would imagine that one of Arkansas’ true-freshmen running backs — Chase Hayden or Maleek Williams — will play in 2017. Lack of depth at the position alone dictates it. Sophomore Devwah Whaley is definitely the Hogs’ No. 1 back, and I expect South Carolina transfer David Williams probably will enter fall camp at No. 2 because of his experience. But ideally, Bielema likes playing three running backs, so that would lead me to believe at least one of these newcomers will carry the ball at least a handful of times each game.
At this point, I would probably say that Williams’ chances are a little bit better just because he was there during the spring, allowing him to get acclimated to the college lifestyle and to begin to learn the offense. But Hayden is very talented and could force his way into playing time with an impressive fall camp showing.
It’s really tough to project this out long-term, though. My gut — which has been wrong many times and will be wrong again — tells me that Hayden has a bigger upside and is more likely to become a star, just because of his versatility and speed. But I also really like Williams’ potential. He is big, tough and deceptively fast. Depending on how things shake out over the next couple of years, these two could be a potent running back duo.
Who could be Arkansas’ 10th assistant coach?
Q: Who’s on your short list (3) for potential 10th assistant and why? — Tucker
A: Bielema has strongly hinted that when he’s able to hire a 10th assistant coach, it will be a special teams coordinator. During the spring, Bielema even said he had made a preliminary offer to someone but wouldn’t identify that person. Of course, a lot can change between now and January — when the NCAA rule allowing a 10th assistant goes into effect — so he may decide to go in a different direction, depending on how the 2017 season shakes out.
But Arkansas has needed special teams help for a while now, so hiring someone to handle that part of the game seems like a pretty solid choice.
My guess for the 10th assistant would be Tanner Burns, Arkansas’ current special teams quality control coach. Burns has been in that spot since 2014 and has even done some recruiting — as allowed by NCAA rules — in special teams positions. He was the coach who recruited preferred walk-on kicker Blake Mazza to join the Hogs this spring. Burns also spent the 2013 season as a coaching intern with the Oakland Raiders, specifically working with special teams. And we have seen in the last couple of years how much Bielema likes hiring guys with that type of NFL experience (Kurt Anderson, John Scott Jr., Chad Walker).
LSU coach Ed Orgeron has come out and said that when he can hire the 10th full-time assistant, he’s going to give the job to Greg McMahon, who is currently on the Tigers’ staff as an off-field “special teams consultant.”
It’s a little hard to identify other possible candidates at this point, just because this isn’t the time of year when coaches are looking to change jobs. If Bielema wanted to even things out a little more on his staff, he could add another defensive assistant. Currently, he has five offensive assistant coaches and four on defense.
But barring some major change of heart, I’d expect Bielema to go with a special teams coordinator when he can add that 10th assistant. And right now, I think it will be Burns.
Will Arkansas’ linebacker depth be better in 2017?
Q: Do you feel like we have better linebacker depth this year? And if so who looks to be an adequate option behind the starters? — Christian
A: This is going to be one of the central questions that determine how much better the Arkansas defense is in 2017. Linebacker depth was a major, major problem in both 2015 and ’16.
The Hogs relied way too much on Brooks Ellis and Dre Greenlaw alone in 2015 and early in 2016, and then when Greenlaw was lost for most of the 2016 season, the Hogs’ lack of depth in those positions was further exposed. Sophomore De’Jon Harris showed flashes last year as a true freshman, and junior Randy Ramsey seems to be perfectly built for the Hogs’ new 3-4 defensive system.
In Harris, Greenlaw and Ramsey, the Razorbacks have three very good starting linebackers. But after them? I’m just not sure. During the spring game, the two second-team inside linebackers — Grant Morgan and Josh Harris — were both walk-ons. Nothing against them, but Arkansas really needs some of those scholarship players they’ve recruited to step up and provide depth. Redshirt freshmen Giovanni LaFrance and Dee Walker and true freshman Kyrei Fisher — who enrolled early and went through spring ball — come to mind.
Jason Kersey will answer reader questions about Arkansas football — or whatever else you want to talk about! — each Friday. To submit a question, email firstname.lastname@example.org or send a message to @jasonkersey on Twitter.