VOL. 129 | NO. 149 | Friday, August 1, 2014
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Razorbacks Have Nowhere to Go But Up in SEC West
By Don Wade
Arkansas defensive end Trey Flowers has endured 17 losses over the last two seasons. He was part of the 3-9 team that went 0-8 in Southeastern Conference games in 2013 and finished the season on a school-record nine-game losing streak.
He also was second-team all-SEC with five sacks and 13.5 tackles for loss. So for him, the escape route out of Fayetteville was clear: just go pro.
Instead, he returned for his senior season.
Arkansas coach Bret Bielema finds himself leading the Hogs through a brutal SEC schedule during his second year in Fayetteville. Arkansas finished last season on a nine-game losing streak.
(AP Photo/Butch Dill)
“I understand what we’ve been through the last two years,” Flowers said. “From my freshman year having an 11-win season, I understand what it takes to win. Just coming back to be a leader and help my team win was what it was.”
Three years ago when the Razorbacks went 11-2 and won the Cotton Bowl, their coach was named Bobby Petrino. When his career at Arkansas literally ran off the road, John L. Smith stepped in and the Hogs went 4-8. That led to hiring Bret Bielema away from Wisconsin, where he’d taken the Badgers to three straight Rose Bowls.
But Bielema’s first year in the SEC was an awakening of the rudest kind. After opening the season with three wins out of conference, the Razorbacks lost a close game to Rutgers and then got hammered week after week in the SEC.
The 2014 season offers a fresh start, but also the usual grinding league schedule that starts with an Aug. 30 game at defending SEC champion Auburn on the new SEC Network.
“In order to be the best, you have to beat the best,” said safety Alan Turner. “We have a lot of good teams on our schedule.”
They also have three new assistant coaches, including the team’s fourth defensive coordinator – Robb Smith – in as many years.
“I want to make it a positive,” Flowers said. “If I can learn four defenses in four years, it shows how coachable I am. … But the challenge we face is terminology. It’s all defense, all about stopping the offense. But how you communicate with each other is probably the biggest challenge.”
Bielema is, by all accounts, a bold communicator.
“What you see is what you get,” said senior offensive lineman Brey Cook. “He’s the same way on social media and in public as behind the scenes.”
Bielema believes the team improved in many areas as last season went along, even though the record – and lopsided scores, such as a 52-7 loss to South Carolina and a 52-0 drubbing by Alabama in consecutive weeks – didn’t provide evidence.
“The biggest thing I took away, especially after the season, is you have to be true to who you are,” Bielema said. “Don’t flinch … don’t change what is the core fundamentals of what you believe in. I’m not going to a no-huddle hurry-up offense, cover-zero defense. We’re going to stick to our principles and do it better.”
One area requiring huge improvement: turnover margin. The Hogs were minus-9 in that department in 2013, 111th in the nation.
Junior Brandon Allen returns at quarterback, so at least they have experience at that key position; although with Allen throwing just 13 touchdown passes with 10 interceptions and a completion percentage of only 49.6 percent, Allen hasn’t exactly instilled confidence in the fan base.
Running back Alex Collins returns after rushing for more than 1,000 yards and averaging 5.4 yards per carry. But there is no proven game-changer at wideout and the secondary was a sieve.
“Year two, although we don’t know the record yet,” Bielema said, “my full-heart belief is it’s going to be better than year one.”
It would almost have to be.