2013 Razorbacks A More Natural Fit For Bielema's Style Than Many Believe?

USA TODAY Sports

The more I see and hear - the more I believe that Bret Bielema is a blank page. Labeling him a Big Ten ground-pounder assumes too much about what the former Wisconsin coach might do at Arkansas.

The offense that worked so well for Wisconsin was implemented by Paul Chryst, current head coach of Pitt. Chryst was offensive coordinator at Oregon State when they had Steven Jackson and Ken Simonton (also Derek Anderson, who was a good college QB). Then Chryst became OC of Wisconsin in 2005, with Bielema as defensive coordinator and Barry Alvarez head coach.

Alvarez retired at the end of that season. Chryst's offenses, with Bielema as head Badger, continued to be highly productive, but clearly a lot of the philosophy came from Alvarez (Chryst played QB at Wisconsin, but not for Alvarez).

Bielema carries a general set of ideals with him, learned from Hayden Fry, Kirk Ferentz and Alvarez (with a sprinkling of Bill Snyder). With his pedigree, Bielema's destined to turn Arkansas into a program that plays great defensive football, aided by copious ball control. But he doesn't know beans about how to implement an offensive system.

The architects of the Razorback offense are Jim Chaney and Sam Pittman.

Pittman was known as an outstanding Oline recruiter at Tennessee and North Carolina. He recruited well because he was one of the best teachers in the game. At least that's what people around the Vols program say to me. They really hated to lose him.

Chaney worked with Pittman at Tennessee. They put together a really solid offense there despite erratic leadership at the top + some inherited roster issues. But Tennessee wasn't why Bielema hired Chaney.

The offense that made Drew Brees famous at Purdue was a spread system implemented by Chaney. After spending several years as an NFL assistant, Chaney went to Knoxville and designed a more balanced scheme. Last year, the Vols scored 36 points per game, which would have been awesome had the defense not allowed 36 too.

This still was a pass-first system. The Vols approached 500 passing attempts in 12 games. But it looked much like a pro system, 160 rushing yards a game to go with more than 300 by air.

What's really amazing: Tennessee gave up eight sacks in 485 called pass plays. Normally, a coach of a pass-heavy offense would feel good about a 25:1 ratio of pass plays to sacks. Doing 60:1 while obviously throwing most of the time...well, Robert Griffin III's best season at Baylor was 15:1. No one would have expected Tyler Bray to challenge RG3 to a sprinting contest.

Chaney/Pittman's system was limited by the brief time they were there. The Vols didn't have good running back talent until near the end. It is hard to see where the offense would have ended up. Besides, they had a level of receiver talent that Bobby Petrino dreams about.

Ironically, Petrino appears to have left behind an offensive roster better equipped to run, Bielema style, than throw. And the available talent is a big clue to which way the Hogs are going to lean in 2013.

The Oline talent does not fit the flip-flopping, pass protection first approach of the recent past. It is more natural for these players to work straight ahead. The tight ends are not finesse players for the most part. Austin Tate is 6-6, 260. Mitchell Loewen, 6-4, 270. Alex Voelzke, 6-6, 250. Hunter Henry (6-6, 245) might be versatile, same with Jeremy Sprinkle (6-6, 235). Unlike Tennessee, Arkansas is far from stocked with tree-like, flashy pass catchers.

Not long ago, the Hogs did not appear to be overflowing with runners, but look there -- behind Jonathan Williams there's a brutal fullback, Kiero Small. Other runners have size: Patrick Arinze (245, a little heavier than listed), Kody Walker (250). And then add the hot recruit Alex Collins.

The thought seeps in: If Arkansas was destined to make a style transformation, this might have been a suitable moment to do it. All you read from the threadbare analyses of outsiders -- they just assume Petrino recruited for his style, so the Razorbacks must not have players who fit "Bielema's system." It's more of a mystery to ask what Petrino would have done with this roster.

Yes, Bielema wants his offense to run. With limited options at receiver and green quarterbacks, would any other style make sense? While rushing takes the lead, perhaps we can trust Chaney to install effective passing elements too. Arkansas fans who lived through Danny Ford, Houston Nutt and Bobby Petrino can be forgiven for assuming rushing or passing is an either-or. Beyond this first season, the Arkansas offense might evolve in surprising directions. Unlike the increasingly predictable Nutt (and, don't forget, the Hogs were progressively pass-heavy the past three seasons), we really don't know what this very diverse coaching mix will cook up.

The roster misfit with Bielema is on defense. Wisconsin defenses were anchored by wall-like defensive ends such as Matt Shaughnessy and J.J. Watt. They also featured stout, not huge linebackers and seemed to be perpetually experienced in the secondary, with a steady developmental pipeline.

Players who look like the pro-style, strongside defensive ends on Arkansas's roster are all rookies and redshirts. Chris Smith (6-3, 268) and Trey Flowers (6-4, 262) have been growing into the position ever since they came to Fayetteville. Maybe they finally are strong enough to handle the transition to a defense that demands the ends spearhead the run-stopping effort. That was not true before now.

Arkansas nominally lists five defensive tackles on its roster, which explains why end recruits such as Horace Arkadie (a sophomore who made an offseason push to 300 pounds) and possibly others are being tried inside. How much of a step-down the Hogs take from senior starters Byran Jones (6-2, 315) and Robert Thomas (6-3, 325) will make a major difference in how well this defense sustains its best effort.

Linebackers are a little more settled than most fans expect. Senior Jarrett Lake and junior Braylon Mitchell appear to be the type LB coach Randy Shannon was looking for. Hope they can play, like, all the snaps. Depth presents a falloff. Middle linebacker is where Arkansas needs to find players who can handle what the scheme demands. Presumably, the chief demand is that the MLB doesn't make most of his tackles from behind. A few weeks from the start of the season, the Razorbacks don't have a clear leader at middle linebacker.

The defensive secondary had the most progress to make over 2012, when injuries and inexperience made pass coverage a fatal weakness. Among eight contenders at cornerback this season, two weigh as much as 190 pounds, and two juniors are the greyhairs (one a junior college transfer). Strength and experience were handicaps last year. Being able to write "eight contenders," though, is a joy compared with what we've typically seen at Arkansas over the past decade.

The safety positions were unstable last season too. The coaches believe they have starters in senior Eric Bennett and sophomore Rohan Gaines. Beyond them, no obvious answers.

Defense, in short, is where the Razorbacks might be furthest away from where Bret Bielema wants them to be. Depth is uncertain at many positions, and overall talent is behind the SEC's upper division.

The SEC upper division is relevant, because Arkansas is playing practically all of it in Bielema's debut. Nobody knows which scary-looking opponents might slip up (though Texas A&M is looking shakier by the day). Based on recent results and expectations, Arkansas would be an underdog for five straight weeks in the heart of the schedule. The road schedule is imposing, drawing trips to Alabama, LSU and Florida. The first two conference home games are against top 10-ranked A&M and South Carolina.

Coaching transition plus depth-starved defense plus frightening schedule should equal cautious expectations for season one of the new direction. If you want to grouse about the changes if/when the team hits the SEC wall and slides down in a heap, try to answer one question. What would Bobby Petrino have done with this roster? And would it have been any different?


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