The Bret Bielema era opened with a bang on Saturday, taking down a respectable foe in Louisiana Lafayette. Jonathan Williams and Alex Collins were the obvious bright spots, each rushing for over 100 yards, prompting some fans (who need to ease up a bit) to say the J-Will/Alex Collins duo is the second coming of DMAC/Felix Jones.
Arkansas got the heralded #1-0, but how did they do it? There were several things that I saw and liked from my seat in the green stands in the student overflow section, things people may have simply overlooked. Here are a few of my observations:
Brandon Allen looked confident at QB
This obviously is not the same Brandon Allen that started against Alabama and threw silly interceptions against ULM. Allen looked composed on Saturday, and had tremendous pocket poise. I can't pinpoint a time when he got happy feet in the pocket and forced a throw other than when he threw across his body in the end zone, but the ball fell to the ground. No harm done.
What I liked from Allen was that he kept things simple. Sure, he took his shots downfield to Herndon and Hunter Henry a couple of times, but it was there. He took what the defense gave him, found holes in coverage and delivered sharp passes. The only throw Allen made that wasn't sharp was the ball batted down at the line.
Allen really impressed me, and gave me more confidence in him moving forward. Throwing for 230 yards, three scores, and ending week 1 with the highest QBR in the SEC was certainly a nice start.
A solid secondary (for the most part)
The Arkansas defense was a main point of concern going into game 1, but went out giving up less than 300 yards of offense to Louisiana (which was good for 5th best defensive performance in the SEC). We also found out after the game that Tevin Mitchel became a father on Friday night, and still led the team in tackles.
The defensive line played great, forcing a couple of turnovers, and gave Terrance Broadway hell at times. But I was impressed with the secondary, especially Will Hines. Yes, he dropped an easy interception, and let another ball go through his hands, but he didn't get beat on a deep ball. To my count, Arkansas was only beat down the field via pass on one occasion, when Jarrett Lake lost the ULL running back on a wheel route.
The defense didn't allow many big gainers, and I attribute that to the secondary play. Do they still need a lot of work? Definitely. But Will Hines seems to be the most improved defensive back in my eyes after the first game.
Kiero Small will be an offensive weapon
I'm sure Kiero is just loving this new style of play. He goes from being in the game a couple of times per drive with BMFP to being used in the passing game under Bielema. And to be honest, I loved it, too.
Bielema went to a jumbo package several times in the first game, lining Patrick Arinze (5' 10", 238 lbs) up at fullback, and Kiero Small (5' 10", 242) at tailback. Small really surprised me with his quick feet, especially on his touchdown catch when he stayed inbounds, ran a defender over then powered his way in the endzone.
Small showed a lot of versatility on Saturday, and is likely to be used out of the backfield in the same ways in the future. Small is a coaches dream, especially for Bielema. And with the brand of football Bielema likes to play, we shouldn't be surprised he used Small this way, but it's just something we're not accustomed to seeing. I love it. Smash on, Kiero.
Receivers were great
First of all, Javontee Herndon was robbed of a SportsCenter Top 10 play on his second TD grab, hauling in the 50-yard pass with only his left hand. Herndon played a tremendous game, stepping up and showing great senior leadership. He has had career games in his last two season openers, catching TD passes in both. Here's to hoping he doesn't fall of like he did after last year's opener.
Hunter Henry is a grown man, and is as good as advertised. He's an extremely smart player on top of being a great athlete for a kid his size. Ball security will be a priority for Henry moving forward, but it's really hard to gripe too much after leading the team in receiving yards in his first game. Jeremy Sprinkle also impressed, catching passes when lining up at the slot and on the line at TE.
I was surprised to see the game stats and see Julian Horton with only one catch in the game for eight yards. It could have been he defense focusing on him more than Herndon, or it could have been him not being open. Despite not having a great day receiving, Horton threw a great block that gave Brandon Allen time and space to throw his first touchdown pass to Herndon on the opening drive. Look for Horton's name to pop up in Little Rock this weekend.
Opponents may NEVER EVER return a kickoff
Zach Hocker, who was apparently a gametime decision on Saturday, lived up to his preseason hype (if there is such a thing for kickers) by booming every kickoff and not allowing ULaLa to return a single kick. Hocker tallied five touchbacks in five chances, and was 2-2 on field goals. Oh, and Sam Irwin-Hill's only kickoff was a touchback, too.
Arkansas did not return a kickoff either, which was disappointing. I wanted to see Eric Hawkins showcase his speed. Surely Samford's kicker won't boom it through the back of the endzone every time next week.