FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas fullback Kiero Small didn’t pay close attention to the Razorbacks’ coaching search last winter. The senior wanted to avoid being swallowed by speculation, believing it could "wreck your brain."
Of course, he was interested. Small plays a position rarely utilized by the spread offenses that have become so prominent in college football. So when Arkansas announced Bret Bielema was leaving Wisconsin last December, Small said he immediately began searching for details on his new coach’s offensive philosophy.
"I got on the Internet and watched Wisconsin football," Small said at SEC Media Days in July. "I said, ‘Yes, that’s the style of football I can see myself playing.’"
Small is doing more than simply playing his preferred style of football as a senior.
The new Arkansas staff has been leaning on the fullback, who is back from the foot injury that sidelined him for all but one game last season, to lead the way as the Razorbacks redefine their way of thinking under coach Bret Bielema.
Arkansas opened camp resuming its goal of building a hard-nosed football team that will play – as Bielema called it last month – "normal American football." The description is great to Small, who knows it’s a perfect fit for his talents.
"It’s a match made in heaven," Small said last month. "What’s the chances with all these spread coaches, spread coaches, spread coaches, that I get Coach B? He’s a guy’s guy. He’s a player’s coach. And he plays my style of football.
"I think that’s the style of football that you need in order to be a winning team."
There’s little doubt the facemask-cracking fullback, whose last count in replacements had topped 20, embodies what the Razorbacks want to build.
He’s stout (5-foot-10, 242 pounds), tough and fearless. Small is determined, too. He worked through two seasons at the junior college level before finally getting a shot at Arkansas. Since arriving, Small has shown he is more likely to revel in a crunching block that allows a tailback to walk into the end zone untouched over toting the football across the goal line himself.
"It’s kind of sad because there’s not a lot of true fullbacks left," Arkansas center Travis Swanson said last month. "He’s such a special asset to not only this team, but to this offense and I know we’ve got tons of plans to use him. He is one of those guys to where he will run and hit you in the mouth and get right back up and won’t say anything. And he’ll do it the very next play. It’s awesome to watch."
It’s one of the many reasons Bielema called Small "a blessing" in front of the massive gathering at SEC Media Days in Hoover, Ala., last month. The Razorbacks are in transition, but Bielema believes there is potential for immediate success largely because of Arkansas’ strength in the middle with Small and Swanson.
"He was a guy that was supposed to be done a year ago," Bielema said of Small, referring to the early-season injury that sidelined the fullback and gave him a chance to earn an extra season of eligibility. "He’s not very tall, but he will whack you in the shins, the knees, hips, wherever he can get you."
Small has impressed the Razorbacks in other ways as well.
He became one of the first to embrace the new plan when Bielema arrived, leading the way in the strength and conditioning program under Ben Herbert. Small’s work helped him become a leaner and meaner version of himself during spring practice and it has continued this summer.
It’s something teammates have noticed on the field this month.
"Kiero’s obviously got a whole new body on him," Arkansas quarterback Brandon Allen said. "He’s a lot more fit. He’s a lot faster. He’s a lot more durable than he used to be. He can go every rep that he needs to, and he’s going to be really big for us."
Running backs coach Joel Thomas believes Small also inspired some of his Arkansas teammates to follow suit. He pointed specifically to fellow fullback Patrick Arinze, who saw the transformation in Small and put in the effort as well.
"Without a doubt the physical attributes, they’re great," Thomas said about Small’s influence on the Razorbacks. "But it’s the off-the-field stuff. It’s a guy I told him a long time ago, I only have 11 months with you. I wish I had five years with you. But that’s the way it goes. So we’ve tried to make the most of his 11 months.
"Now it’s down to 3 ½ or whatever it is. But we’re excited to make the most of our time with him and send him out on the right note."
Small’s primary responsibilities won’t change on the field this season.
He’s a lead blocker, whose success in repeated collisions with linebackers and safeties will help dictate Arkansas’ ability to run the ball.
The thankless job rarely comes with much spotlight. Small had two touches (one rush for one yard and a touchdown; one catch for seven yards) in his first 14 games at Arkansas. But offensive coordinator Jim Chaney said Small showed the Razorbacks last spring he has potential as a ball carrier or receiving option. It opens the possibility that Small could be relied on for carries and catches this season.
"I knew he was a good fullback, but he is also really good at carrying the football," Chaney said. "He doesn’t have the top end speed a tailback has, but when he has it, he can drop pads and get extra yards.
"So it doesn’t bother me to hand him the ball one bit."
Small isn’t focusing on the number of times he’ll touch the ball this season, though.
His only desire is making his final season with Arkansas — one that became possible only after his 2012 injury — count in an offense Small considers a perfect fit.
"My family always says things happen for a reason," Small said. "Up until last year, I really didn’t understand what it meant. But seeing what’s going on now — we’ve got a great coaching staff and a new facility — I’m a firm believer in it."