The Bret Bielema era at Arkansas gets underway with spring ball, giving possibly the most intriguing coaching hire of this year's college football offseason his first opportunity.
Arkansas looked in line to contend for a while after 10- and 11-win seasons in back-to-back years after Bobby Petrino, but as Petrino's motorcycle and personal life crashed, so did the Razorbacks. With John L. Smith brought in as a replacement coach in 2012, Arkansas won only four games. Bringing in Bielema from Wisconsin brought praise: SB Nation's Bill Connelly gave the hire an A as Arkansas landed a coach who was 68-24 at Wisconsin with three straight trips to the Rose Bowl.
Now, it's time for him to show he can do it on the field. Spring ball should be an interesting one for Arkansas: Bielema was known with the Badgers for a ground-and-pound style built behind enormous offensive lines, but hiring Jim Chaney as his coordinator reveals he might be more interested in airing it out at Arkansas. If he does want to throw the ball, spring ball gives the opportunity to find his quarterback. With Tyler Wilson gone to the NFL Draft, Brandon Allen seemed in line to take over after playing at quarterback when Wilson was hurt last year, but rising senior Brandon Mitchell -- who played most of last year as a wide receiver and on the Razorbacks' basketball team -- could provide a dual-threat.
Spring practice start date: March 10
Spring game date, location, TV info: April 20
Defense: It's tough to say who will start, as Arkansas ran some freaky formations, but returning are three of four linemen -- Trey Flowers, Byran Jones, and Chris Smith -- two linebackers in Otha Peters and A.J. Turner and three who started in the secondary in Eric Bennett, Rohan Gaines and Tevin Mitchel.
Biggest addition: Obviously Bielema. Typically, you don't see coaches make immediate impacts on their schools. It takes a while as they need to hit the recruiting trail, bring in more talented players, etc. etc. Most often, a new guy's team looks a lot like the last guy's last team.
That wasn't the case with Smith, whose Razorbacks took a nose dive in his only season at the helm. If Smith was entirely to blame for turning a 10-game winner with lots of returning talent, Bielema might reverse that trend.
Biggest loss: Tyler Wilson. Not many things went well in 2012 for Arkansas, but it wasn't the fault of their senior quarterback. Wilson threw for 3,387 yards with 21 touchdowns against 13 picks, and his departure hurts even more with Chaney likely to implement a pass-heavy offense.
It doesn't help that running backs Knile Davis and Dennis Johnson leave, although Davis never really hit his stride after a 1,322-yard senior as a sophomore.
New players? Bielema brings in four experienced players for spring ball, all JUCO transfers enrolled early: cornerback Carroll Washington, linebacker Myke Tavarres, offensive tackle John McClure, and cornerback Tiquention Coleman. None is particularly highly touted -- Washington, Tavarres and McClure are three-stars per Rivals, Coleman a two-star -- but all should be able to contribute right away.
New coaches? The majority of the staff is new under Bielema. Chaney brings with him offensive line coach Sam Pittman. The defensive coordinator, Chris Ash, follows Bielema from Wisconsin, as does defensive line coach Charlie Partridge and strength and conditioning coach Ben Herbert. The most intriguing hire is probably former Miami head coach Randy Shannon, who will be in charge of Arkansas' linebackers. Michael Smith comes from Kansas State to coach wide receivers, Joel Thomas comes from Wisconsin to coach running backs, and former Arkansas quarterback Barry Lunney Jr. will be the tight ends coach.
New schemes? It's interesting to see what Bielema runs at Arkansas: Chaney is pass-happy, having coached Drew Brees at Purdue and running the best passing attack in the SEC with Tyler Bray this past year. But Bielema's all about pounding the ball through the run game. On defense, the Razorbacks should resemble Bielema's relatively conventional teams in Madison rather than running 4-2-5 as Arkansas did at times under Smith.