FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas coach Bret Bielema and strength and conditioning coach Ben Herbert boarded a plane for an important trip late last week.
The two were heading to Alabama with plans to visit defensive end Trey Flowers, who was considering an early entry into the 2014 NFL Draft. They wanted to talk to Flowers about his options, present as much information as possible and make sure the junior was prepared for his next step.
Flowers listened. But he already had made his decision before Bielema arrived.
"I actually decided, probably, the night before that it was probably best for me to stay," Flowers said. "I told him that Friday. He gave me a hug and a pat on the back and a lot of smiles. I’m just glad that I can put a smile on his face, assuring that I’m going to come back and I’m going to help lead the program in the right direction."
Arkansas is preparing to put the final touches on its 2014 signing class this month, but got an important piece of good news about one of its current players when Flowers announced he was coming back for his senior season. The Mobile, Ala., native said he received a third-round grade from the NFL Draft’s advisory board, but believes another year of work at Arkansas will help him improve his stock for 2015.
"I just have faith in the team," Flowers said. "I have faith in what the coaches are trying to build. And I feel like we have a lot of guys on the team with a lot of talent."
Flowers decided to return to Arkansas after finishing with 44 tackles, 13 ½ tackles for losses and 5 sacks as a junior. He’ll return as the leader of a defensive line that is moving on without departed seniors Chris Smith, Robert Thomas and Byran Jones.
But Flowers said the chance to be at the forefront of the rebuilding process — which will include young talent like Darius Philon, Deatrich Wise, Brandon Lewis, Tevin Beanum and JaMichael Winston — was one of the factors in his decision to return.
Bielema said the defensive end will have a chance to make his mark next season.
"We have talked you not only have to be the leader not just on the defensive line but our defense as well as our program," Bielema said. "I don’t want to put the weight of the world on someone, but he may be a guy that will be forever remembered as one of the guys that was a huge part of turning this program around."
Flowers said he and Bielema spoke three or four times during his decision-making process and appreciated his input. It included last Friday’s meeting in Alabama, which Bielema received permission from athletic director Jeff Long to put together.
Bielema and Herbert met with Flowers and his family, providing them with more statistics and information about players who declare early for the draft. Bielema laid out an academic schedule that would help Flowers graduate by next December if he returned to school. Herbert unveiled his vision for Flowers’ growth in strength and conditioning at Arkansas over the next year, while Bielema went through the national awards the program will push him for in 2014.
On the field, Bielema told Flowers — a 2014 team captain candidate — he could grow in a new defensive line. He also told Flowers about a potential role on offense as a tight end in certain red zone and goal-line packages.
But Bielema said the pitch wasn’t all about simply getting Flowers to return. He wanted him to have every piece of information available to make his decision and Bielema believed the approach meant a lot to Flowers and his family.
"One of the things I’ve learned during my time as a head coach is these decisions are life-changers, they’re game-changers and what I try to do is be upfront and honest with these parents as well as the young men that we’re dealing with," Bielema said.
"I told him, ‘Hey, if this thing came back a first rounder, I’ll pack your bags for you and wish you best of luck. But we’ve got some decisions to make and it’s about doing it the right way, treating people with respect.’ I think it’s definitely something that in the long run will hopefully be able to benefit everybody involved."
Ultimately, Flowers believed one more year at Arkansas was best.
"I made the decision to stay at Arkansas for my senior season because Bielema was very supportive throughout the process," Flowers said, reading a prepared statement during the teleconference. "He helped me and my family navigate my decision. I still have goals on and of the field that I want to accomplish at Arkansas, beginning with graduating. I wanted to continue to pursue those goals.
"On the field, I’m excited about the program being built and wanted to help make the Razorbacks back in 2014. Even though my draft grade was good, I believe another year under Coach Bielema will help improve my draft status. I’m looking forward to another season at Arkansas, where I have support from our administration and some of the best fans in the nation and a bright future for a pro football program."