Bret Bielema is Still the Right Man for the Razorbacks Football Team

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“It is the neglect of timely repair that makes rebuilding necessary” – Richard Whately

The Arkansas Razorbacks are a rebuilding program, and anyone that didn’t see that coming into the season wasn’t paying attention. I include myself in that group of people. I was on the record several times in the preseason talking about the expectations for this Arkansas football team. 8 wins, I said. That is the minimum for this team. That means they could still lose to Alabama, Ole Miss, Auburn, and Tennessee and still have a good season. I was comfortable picking 8 wins. I couldn’t understand when guys like Barrett Sallee picked the Hogs to go 5-7. Too many question marks on defense, they said. I didn’t listen.

We should have listened.

It doesn’t take much research to see what the doubters of the Razorbacks saw as problems on defense for the 2015 season. The Hogs lost 4 NFL drafted players off the defense after the 2014 season in Darius Philon, Martrell Spaight, Trey Flowers, and Tevin Mitchel. Add to that the loss of Carroll Washington, Alan Turner, and Braylon Mitchell, and that’s a lot of upperclassmen leadership and playmaking to replace.

Nov 22, 2014; Fayetteville, AR, USA; Arkansas Razorbacks defensive tackle Darius Philon (91) and defensive end Trey Flowers (86) walks on the field during a game against the Ole Miss Rebels at Donald W. Reynolds Razorback Stadium. Arkansas defeated Ole Miss 30-0. Mandatory Credit: Beth Hall-USA TODAY Sports

How much playmaking, you ask? I’m going to tell you because I did math and I hate math. With just Philon, Spaight, and Flowers, the Hogs would need to replace 242 tackles, 37.5 tackles for loss, and 11 sacks. Those three players alone accounted for that many plays. Flower, Philon, and Turner were leftovers from the Petrino recruiting era. It’s a well known fact that Philon would have probably been playing for Alabama, but was offered a grayshirt instead of a redshirt and came to Arkansas. So, thank you Nick Saban for that. Washington and Spaight, however, came to Arkansas from junior colleges, and were a part of Bielema’s first class at Arkansas.

The short career’s of Spaight and Washington highlight the problem with relying on junior college players as a recruiting device. Their career at your school is very short lived. The problem that Bielema faced when he arrived in Fayetteville, however, made JUCO kids a necessity. The depth chart, particularly on the defensive side of the ball, was absolutely bare bones. It’s no secret that Bobby Petrino is an offensive minded coach, and that reflected in his recruiting.

In fact, the biggest takeaway from researching the last 2 Petrino classes is how few of them made it through to 2015. Not because of injury, but because of off the field issues and transferring. So when the Hogs lose 2 of their top 3 running backs and 3 of their top 4 receivers, as well as having to replace 5 starters and 2 more key contributors to the defense, it should not be surprising that the team is suffering. Let’s take a look the the last 2 Petrino classes that should be making up the juniors and seniors on the team this year.

2011 Recruiting Class

  • 33 Commitments
  • 7 players still on team

This class included Brey Cook, Mitch Smothers, Brandon Allen, Tevin Mitchel, Rohan Gaines, Trey Flowers and Kody Walker. There are a few players from this class that are contributing this year in Allen, Smothers, Gaines, Walker, and Demarcus Hodge. The big takeaway from this class is the sheer number of players that are no longer on the team. A combination of transfers after Petrino left, academics, and arrests have left coach Bielema without a large group of seniors for this season.

This class was stocked with offensive weapons. Demetrius Dean, Jervohnte Riles, Keante Minor, Quinta Funderburk, and Kelvin Fisher, Jr. were all highly recruited pass catchers. Not one of them is still on this team. Add to that the loss of Lonnie Gosha, one of Petrino’s “feather in the cap” type defensive players, and the 2011 class, overall, left a lot to be desired in Arkansas.

2012 Recruiting Class 

  • 24 Commitments
  • 7 Players still on team

The hits just keep on coming on the depth chart for Arkansas. Again, only 7 players remain for the Hogs from a recruiting class. This is another class that was full of promise, some of which was delivered on the field. Johnathan Williams, Keon Hatcher, Darius Philon, Alan Turner, Jamichael Winston, Jeremy Sprinkle, Deatrich Wise, Taiwan Johnson, Jared Collins, and Eric Hawkins were in this class. Obviously, Williams, Hatcher, Philon, Johnson, and Turner worked out pretty well. We’ve seen some strong abilites from Sprinkle, Winston, Wise, and Collins as well. But as a whole, this class is full of unfulfilled potential that has left the Razorbacks reeling in the depth department.

In fact, for the 2012 class, if you look at the top 10 commits (based off of star rankings) only 4 of them ever even significantly contributed to the Razorbacks. Guys like D’Arthur Cowan, Otha Peters, Brandon Lewis, Will Hines, and Ray Buchanan, Jr. did not pan out. This class was on the small side to begin with, and losing such a large chunk of it has left the Razorbacks without the depth in pretty much every position that a team needs to compete at a high level.

Enter Bret Bielema. He comes into a program that is floundering in the wake of Motorcyclegate. Honestly, his hiring came out of nowhere to me, and I wasn’t sold that he was the perfect fit for Arkansas at the time. I’m not trying to take away what he accomplished at Wisconsin, but he took over a program that was fairly clean and successful from Barry Alvarez, and hot damn did he run with it. This could not be a more polar opposite situation in 2012 for Bret. The Hogs were built to throw the ball, and Bret was a running coach. Bielema was on his way to his 3rd straight Rose Bowl, and Arkansas was literally a dumpster full of tires that had been set ablaze. I don’t know why Bielema left Madison, honestly. The best answer that I can come up with is a combination of Alzarez being overbearing, wanting to prove that he’s a great coach in the SEC, and of course that sweet, sweet SEC money.

Oct 18, 2014; Louisville, KY, USA; Louisville Cardinals head coach Bobby Petrino reacts on the sideline during the second half of play against the North Carolina State Wolfpack at Papa John

I 100% believe that Bret Bielema did not fully comprehend what kind of situation he was walking into in Fayetteville. There was a brilliant article that came out just before the season started for SI’s Campus Rush by Pete Thamel. In it, Thamel quotes former Arkansas defensive coordinator Chris Ash, who states on the record that the culture at Arkansas was “ridiculous”. He says “It was a culture of worrying about being eligible.” That is just par for the course for a Bobby Petrino team. A Petrino team is governed by a culture of fear of screwing up, not a desire to do well.

Players under Bobby Petrino lived their football lives in fear. The head coach was not someone you would go to with a question or a problem, that was delegated to the position coaches. (As we’ve seen, Paul Petrino isn’t a lovely, cuddly kitty cat, either.) The mass dismissal and transfer situation at Arkansas post-Petrino has been documented before at Louisville. When Steve Kragthorpe took over at Louisville, he was left a team that had just won 12 games and an Orange Bowl. They went 6-6 in his first year despite starting in the top 10 and didn’t go to a bowl game. (Sound familiar?)

The problem with ruling by fear is that once the fear monger is gone, kids will take advantage of it. 21 players were dismissed or transferred from the Cardinals after Petrino left. It was bad enough in Lousiville after only 48 hours without a head coach. Imagine what it was like at Arkansas after 8 months.

Finally, the new head Hog was announced, and a new era began.

Next: The Bret Bielema Era Begins