FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas fullback Kiero Small and the rest of the Razorbacks didn’t know who was going to be their head coach for the 2012 season during the Red-White Game last April.
Bobby Petrino had been fired. Assistant Taver Johnson was placed in charge of the program for the rest of spring practice. So the spring-ending scrimmage didn’t exactly serve as a celebration for the program still wrapped up in turmoil.
Small had a much different feeling Saturday, roughly two hours after the Razorbacks took the field with coach Bret Bielema by their side.
“We’re all happy it’s over,” Small said. “We can all put it behind us. It’s not a story anymore. It’s not a thing that concerns us anymore. We can put it behind us and go play football. That’s what we all love to do.”
Arkansas’ new era – one with significantly less drama to this point – unofficially began during Arkansas’ Red-White Game in Razorback Stadium. A record crowd of 51,088 filed into the stands to get their first taste of Bielema ball, which concluded with the Red (offense) team’s 34-27 win against the White (defense).
The score hardly mattered. Arkansas, instead wrapped up its first spring under a new coaching staff by showing off its progress after 15 practices.
Bielema said his team isn’t where it needs to be for the 2013 season when the scrimmage ended Saturday. But he couldn’t be more impressed with the way his new group has handled its first spring under his watch.
“I think we're in a great position where a lot of people in the world of college football, maybe in the outside world, don't think a lot about Arkansas right now,” Bielema said. “But I guarantee you they will in short fashion.
“I really, really like the progress we made.”
On the field, quarterbacks Brandon Allen and Brandon Mitchell combined to complete 23 of 33 passes for 296 yards with two touchdowns and an interception during Saturday’s game. Bielema didn’t officially name a starter heading into summer workouts, but it’s clear Allen has emerged as the leader with his spring.
Bielema said Allen “continues to impress us, continues to do some very, very positive things.” Bielema did not make his quarterbacks available for comment Saturday, but center Travis Swanson said Allen’s growth has been tremendous.
“He’s progressed probably more than anyone else on this team,” Swanson said. “He’s so much better of a leader now, which is hard to see in a young guy. You’ve kind of seen him grow up from the first practice to now.”
The same can be said for an offensive line that Bielema called one the most improved units this spring. It was a necessity for what the Razorbacks are trying to accomplish on offense next season, transforming itself into a power running team.
Arkansas got 185 rushing yards on 34 carries from its top four running backs (Jonathan Williams, Nate Holmes, Kody Walker and Patrick Arinze). They enjoyed success with the off-tackle power play Saturday, which will be a staple of the offense’s philosophy next season.
“We’re going downhill,” Small said. “We’re going straight at people. In order to win, I believe, in this conference that’s what you’ve got to do. In order to win the big games you’re going to have to go and line up. Because at the end of the day you’re going to have to line up and punch somebody in the mouth eventually.”
The defense even showed it has a solid foundation to build on with a defensive front led by veterans like defensive end Chris Smith and defensive tackle Byron Jones.
It’s no secret Arkansas was, statistically, one of the worst units in the Southeastern Conference last season. And there are still questions to be answered, especially among a crew of linebackers featuring three first-team players (Braylon Mitchell, Daunte Carr and Jarrett Lake) who have barely seen the field in their careers.
But Bielema liked the ebb and flow of the battles between offense and defense Saturday. Defensive end Chris Smith said both sides had moments this spring.
“Some days the defense beat the offense, and some days the offense beat us,” Smith said. “We're coming together as a team, and I can't wait until fall camp.”
Bielema said he has told players repeatedly that becoming a championship level team will be a steady process. But he has noticed key moments on the field in the past week, convincing him Arkansas is moving in the right direction.
“We had probably the best practice we had of the entire spring on Thursday.” Bielema said. “I'm not just giving lip service or coach-speak. That's sincerity and I think our players felt it.”
Swanson did. He said it carried over to Saturday, which became a good way to finish an important spring for players who felt “kind of iffy” a year ago because of the uncertainty still facing them when practices ended.
There was a different vibe when the Razorbacks wrapped up spring drills with the Red-White Game on Saturday. Stability under Bielema is a welcomed feeling.
“It was real nice,” Smith said. “You could just go out there and play. You didn't have to worry about any off the field issues. That's one thing we all love to do is play football, and that's what we're doing. …
“Basically, he's brought hope to everybody.”