FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas fell short of a breakthrough performance last November, allowing a last-minute touchdown on a blown coverage at LSU.
The 31-27 loss left the Razorbacks winless in Southeastern Conference play for the first time since joining the conference in 1992. It also sent Arkansas into the offseason with a nine-game losing streak. But coach Bret Bielema said earlier this month the heart-breaking end may have been the best thing for the Razorbacks.
"I’ve kind of thought a lot about if we had gone in that locker room a winner, obviously there would have been some short-term satisfaction," Bielema said.
"Everybody would have been excited. But just knowing the mentality and some of the guys, I really think they would have thought they had arrived if they beat LSU there at the end. I’m almost in the belief that maybe, although it’s nothing I wanted to live through, that maybe that might have been a blessing in disguise, to show how we had made progress but we’re not quite where we need to be. And it makes them understand an 0-8 season in the SEC about how much more we’ve got to do."
It’s an unusual outlook, but Bielema believes the motivation has been evident the past three months as the Razorbacks continue to build toward the 2014 season.
The next step begins today, when Arkansas kicks off spring practice. The Razorbacks will hold 15 practices over a five-week span, ending with the program’s Red-White scrimmage in Razorback Stadium on April 26.
Bielema has remained in the spotlight this winter because of his controversial comments regarding proposed rules aimed at slowing no-huddle offenses. But the coach, who hasn’t commented about the proposal publicly since it was tabled earlier this month, said he’s eager to turn his focus back to the field.
Today’s practice will be Arkansas’ first time on the field together since the loss at LSU, which capped Bielema’s worst season in eight years as a head coach.
Bielema said he "can’t wait" to get going again and believes players are "chomping at the bit" to put the 2013 season behind them.
"What are you going to do different to change the math?" Bielema said. "What are you going to do in your personal life? What are you going to do away from the game? Because if we do the same thing all over again, we’ll have the same results.
"So, that’s been a challenge to both my players and coaches."
There are plenty of issues they’ll have to iron out on the field, too.
Below are five questions facing Arkansas as spring practice begins:
1. Will anyone challenge quarterback Brandon Allen?
Arkansas is opening its quarterback competition this spring after Allen endured a difficult season as a starter (thanks largely to a shoulder injury). The junior has a big advantage considering his experience, but the Razorbacks want to see what Austin Allen, Damon Mitchell and newcomer Rafe Peavey can prove on the field this spring.
"I think BA with just that full year of playing, that gives you such an advantage as college football player but especially at the quarterback position," Bielema said. "That is so hard to put a price tag on and that’s what separates them right now."
All three still will get opportunities to unseat Allen, which might be impossible in just 15 practices. And surpass A.J. Derby, who was No. 2 in 2013. Strong performances by any candidate would certainly lead to an intriguing summer as Arkansas works to improve a passing offense that averaged 148.5 yards in 2013.
2. How will the new-look staff impact the defense?
Bielema spent a good portion of the offseason restructuring his defensive staff after defensive coordinator Chris Ash, defensive line coach Charlie Partridge and cornerbacks coach Taver Johnson left for other positions. So three new coaches — defensive coordinator Robb Smith, secondary coach Clay Jennings and defensive line coach Rory Segrest — will get their first chances to work with returning players.
Bielema likes the new "flavor" the group has provided so far. He has stressed simplicity during public appearances after the Razorbacks surrendered 30.8 points a game in 2013. Arkansas knows it must improve — especially at linebacker and in the secondary — to have any chance in 2014. While no drastic changes are expected, Smith’s imprint on the group will begin with 15 practices this spring.
3. Who is going to replace Travis Swanson?
Arkansas is confident its offensive line is improving under position coach Sam Pittman, but the Razorbacks have a big hole to fill in the middle. Travis Swanson, who started every game at center during his four-year career, is off preparing for the NFL Draft. So finding his replacement is one critical goal this spring.
Senior Luke Charpentier is the leading candidate after serving as Swanson’s backup last season. But the Razorbacks will also take a good look at sophomore Cordale Boyd. One of them will get a chance to lock up the job heading into the summer. But look out for signee Frank Ragnow next fall. Arkansas is hopeful Ragnow is the long-term solution at the position and could rush him into action if neither Charpentier or Boyd impresses enough to take control this spring.
4. Are any newcomers ready to contribute?
Four of Arkansas’ 24 signees have enrolled in classes and will be available to participate in spring practice (Peavey, receivers Jared Cornelius and Cody Hollister and cornerback Chris Murphy). The learning curve will be big for the group, but the practice work gives them a chance to get a leg up on the rest of the 2014 class.
Peavey will draw plenty of interest this spring he tries to make an impression at quarterback, but Bielema predicted Cornelius will "turn heads". Bielema said last week the speedy receiver has been one of Arkansas’ top performers this offseason and should get a chance to make an immediate impact with the receivers this spring.
5. Who is ready for a starting role on the defensive front?
Defensive end Trey Flowers is back for his senior season. Tackle Darius Philon returns after starting the second half of the year in place of Robert Thomas. But the Razorbacks will be counting on youth as it rebuilds its defensive front this spring.
Starting spots are up for grabs at two positions and Arkansas should have plenty of competition. Sophomore Deatrich Wise could be the leading candidate at defensive end after flashing some promise in a reserve role, while steady tackle DeMarcus Hodge may get the early nod on the interior. But watch out for others like Tevin Beanum, JaMichael Winston, Brandon Lewis, who will get opportunities to impress as Arkansas works to replace Thomas, Chris Smith and Byran Jones.