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Bret Bielema's Arkansas can keep building on 2014

The Hogs aren't done yet with a season of progress, but a look ahead shows plenty of hope for the future.

Wesley Hitt/Getty Images

Although Arkansas might have benefited from the Bruce Feldman body blow theory, which would hold that LSU's young players were simply beat up from their previous game against Alabama, the Razorbacks last week notched their first SEC win since October of 2012.

The funny thing is that Arkansas has not played like a team that should be 1-5 in conference play. The Razorbacks rank 20th in S&P+, with the No. 20 offense and No. 20 defense. They've been victimized by a failure to capitalize on opponents' mistakes and close games against good opponents.

Bret Bielema is slowly building a program of the likes he had at Wisconsin, where he was reaching Rose Bowls. After his win over LSU, it's time to check in on the Hogs' progress.

The Bielema identity

Obviously, the calling card is the running game, with a diverse set of blocking schemes in heavy formations that often feature at least one TE and typically an H-back or fullback. The OL from left to right goes:

  • Dan Skipper: 6'10, 326 pounds
  • Sebastian Tretola: 6'5, 350
  • Mitch Smothers: 6'3, 315
  • Denver Kirkland: 6'5, 337
  • Brey Cook: 6'7, 314

Many assume that such a massive OL will result in a dominant power game, but what you actually find with tall and heavy OL is that they struggle to root out shorter, athletic DL. Especially two-gapping monsters like you find at Alabama, or long freaks like you find at LSU.

The Hogs are at their best on running plays with an H-back or fullback inside. On the play called wham zone, the interior OL release a DT after initial contact and move to take on linebackers.

With a decisive cut outside, Jonathan Williams could have set up his center, No. 55, to block the Bama backer who made the tackle. Hard to blame Williams, though, for not seeing clearly over all those massive bodies.

When you can get 350-pounders to the second level to latch onto linebackers, length and weight become major problems for players in the defensive backfield.

Hog Wham

Lead draw is fantastic for allowing massive OL to screen off opposing defenders, rather than having to get low and drive them off the ball.

Perhaps the most effective feature of the Hogs' offense has been these two-TE formations. Those players are Hunter Henry (30 receptions for 417 yards) and AJ Derby (21 receptions for 290 yards). In the Razorbacks' close-fought losses against Alabama and Mississippi State and the LSU win, QB Brandon Allen was 21-of-40 on third downs, but 13-of-14 when throwing to Henry and Derby.

Henry came from Pulaski Academy in Kevin Kelley's pass-heavy offense. He is a better route runner than your average tight end, sometimes flexing out wide:

Thanks to bunch passing sets, in which Henry and Derby are able to get easy releases off the line, and extensive play-action, the Hogs rank 18th on passing downs. For a team whose leading receiver (Keon Hatcher) has only 435 receiving yards, that's quite remarkable.

On defense, they have an effective run-stopping unit. It has a disruptive line and quick safeties who make great run fills on the edge. They usually play two-read coverages like NebraskaOhio State, or Mississippi State, which has the safeties support against the run. Sometimes, one safety moves forward right before the snap to play cover 3:

Safeties Rohan Gaines and Alan Turner are third and fifth on the team in tackles and have the quickness to allow DC Robb Smith to disguise calls, rotate between looks, and blitz linebackers.

The front is disruptive. Tackle Darius Philon and end Trey Flowers stand out, with a combined 20.5 tackles for loss. As is fitting for a great defense, the two leading tacklers are inside linebackers Martrell Spaight and Brooks Ellis, who are laterally quick and confident.

Ole Miss-Arkansas

The next step

In the short term, Arkansas has a promising future with several key players returning for 2015.

On defense, they bring back three of their five starters in the secondary (counting nickel package players as starters) and every DL except for Flowers. They lose sam and will linebackers Braylon Mitchell and Spaight, but return middle backer Ellis. The overall returning experience is pretty impressive.

On offense, the Hogs return feature backs Williams and Alex Collins, four of five OL, leading receiver Hatcher, TE Henry, and QB Allen. Those are all cogs in what has gone right this year, and it's hard to overstate the value of returning experience at QB, even if it's not a major talent. The Razorbacks have to be considered a dark-horse contender in the SEC West in 2015.

Long term, the picture is less clear. Bielema faces the challenge of recruiting to the Arkansas program shared by his predecessors. Arkansas is a state with only three million people. In the Hogs' heyday in the Southwest Conference, they were pulling lots of players from the Dallas-Fort Worth area, which has double the population of the Hogs' state.

Arkansas doesn't have as many massive, athletic young men in its population as does Bielema's former base in Wisconsin. The Hogs have two OL starters from Arkansas who were holdovers from the Bobby Petrino era, whereas Bielema has had to go national to find big boys like Skipper (Colorado) and Tretola (California via Iowa junior college).

If you look at other coaches who looked to fashion programs around pounding the rock, like Michigan's Brady Hoke or Florida's Will Muschamp, you'll notice a theme. Hoke's first class, which he had little time to build, featured only three OL, and his second included only four. After attrition, injuries, and busts, Hoke had no seniors to lead his 2014 team, leading to disastrous results. Muschamp took two OL in his first and two more in his second. Now he's looking for a new job.

In Bielema's first class in 2013, he took five OL, including a JUCO. In 2014, he followed with another five, with another JUCO. While those numbers are much better than what Hoke or Muschamp pulled, that won't leave Bielema with a massive upperclassman bevy of experienced OL in 2016, counting attrition and JUCOs leaving after a couple years each. Can he build pipelines of OL talent?

Finding athletes to stock the defense and ensure success in Smith's schemes will also require that the staff pull players from neighboring states. Fayetteville isn't particularly close to loaded metro areas, so this is always a challenge. This can come down to the staff's ability to evaluate and develop three-star talent, since it's so difficult to pull blue-chippers away from local programs.

On the bright side, Arkansas does seem to produce more than its fair share of good TE talent. The Hogs have four on campus from within the state, with two four-stars currently in the 2015 class. Bielema's staff is doing a good job evaluating the junior college and national ranks for players who fit their vision, as well as developing what's on campus.

Time will tell if that will be enough to keep Hog fans happy.