Monday, February 01, 2016

From the Bench

National Signing Day Will Not Tell Us Much About Future Razorback Success

Robert Shields

You will be fed in the coming week by the pundits on the talk radio shows and Internet about how good the Razorback football recruiting class was for 2016.

What you are never going to hear from these people is that the coach blew it this year and that recruiting has been a disaster.

Only after a coach wrecks his motorcycle with a female employee on the back of it or does something else to lose favor with the fans do you start to hear about bad recruiting classes.

So let me be the one to tell you the reality, as it is every year -- the Razorbacks will sign a bunch of two, three, and a few four star recruits who are going to have to find a way to beat the five-star recruits that Alabama and much of the rest of the SEC signs every year.

As much as I would like to insult the people at the recruiting services who chase around high-school kids to give them a star rating, the system is typically the best method available to determine how a college team will perform in the future.

Ultimately, though, the high-school highlight reel from Friday night does not matter, and all the yards or tackles assembled doesn’t help a player when they arrive to campus. Newcomers to camp at an SEC school find out quickly that the players on campus know more, have worked out more, and have matured more, which makes it difficult to beat any of them out.

The Razorbacks have played competitively with Alabama the last two years, but the fact remains that the Hogs have not beaten the Crimson Tide in a decade. Alabama just has more playmakers on the field, and over a period of 60 minutes it becomes cumulative.

If you want a positive, Ole Miss, LSU, and Auburn have consistently out-recruited Arkansas, but it has not mattered as the Razorbacks defeated all of them last season.

You can elevate a lesser-talented group of recruits by other means such as the scheme for the talent that you possess, keeping them on campus, and teaching them to a higher level.

One of Bret Bielema’s greatest assets is finding players who are teachable and is more than just an athletic talent. He sees a kid like Drew Morgan and knows that he can teach that kid a pass route. Not all players want to be coached, and to Bielema’s credit no matter how good a kid is, he does not suffer fools.

In recruiting for this year, the Razorbacks have two immediate needs. The linebackers are severely lacking depth. It’s the greatest reason the defense struggled last year. It’s the most important position on defense because it is basically like being the quarterback of that side of the ball. It’s the position that calls out the defensive sets and has to recognize what is happening all over the field. It’s the one position on defense that has to know everything and often has to do everything.

The Razorbacks had one or maybe two decent linebackers by the end of last season. One was a true freshman who learned quickly but was still doing on-the-job training. So for this recruiting class to be meaningful, it needs a couple of solid linebackers.

The other immediate need is a running back with the early departure of Alex Collins. And the Razorbacks will sign a few. But in all the days of my life watching the Razorbacks, the guy who is typically the most touted at running back in the recruiting class is typically not the guy who pans out. Often it is the other recruit who has something to prove.

So we will see soon enough who is more than just a highlight reel when August arrives. But we don’t know that on signing day no matter how many stars or how many pundits proclaim them to be great.



Send your recruiting stars and busts to fromthebench@yahoo.com.

Monday, January 25, 2016

From the Bench

And the Starting Razorback Quarterback for Next Season is…

Robert Shields

Unless you have not been paying attention like many fans do with basketball, you know that the Razorbacks will not have the very prolific Brandon Allen back at quarterback next season, so the talk will be dominated by who will replace him from now until a starter is named, and maybe even then if the chosen one starts out shaky.

The dynamic offense led by Brandon Allen helped the Razorbacks to a 5-3 SEC record (3-1 on the road) and a bowl game victory this past season. Even more impressive is that the defense (probably inappropriate to use that term and maybe the “openness” would be more fair) that did not exist was bailed out by the Allen-led offense, which at times seemed surprisingly unstoppable.

But with Allen’s eligibility up, there will now be talk about a quarterback controversy, or in other terms “competition,” when spring practice begins. The Razorbacks have several highly recruited quarterbacks on the roster including Austin Allen, Ty Storey, Rafe Peavey, and USC transfer Ricky Town.

My insiders say that Rafe Peavey is the most athletic of the group. He received offers from Auburn, Ole Miss, and Missouri. When he arrived at Arkansas, some actually thought he might supplant the struggling Brandon Allen.

Others are saying that Ty Storey has the most potential, and he chose Arkansas over Alabama and Auburn. With that list, you know he was not too bad at the high-school level.

Lastly and by no means is this listed as some kind of pecking order, Ricky Town is the tallest according to the UA sports information department, and size in the SEC is never a bad thing when you have to throw over such a big offensive line as the Razorback have had the last few years. You also know that he is talented as the USC Trojans don’t sign kids who are not.

It’s an immensely talented group. So there will be plenty of speculation on who will emerge as the starter, and the Razorbacks should have a good one to go next year whoever it is.

The success of any team always hinges on the quarterback. You cannot win without a good one, and time has proven that the more experience one has, the more success he will have. Typically, newcomers in the SEC have an unavoidable learning curve. It even took Allen a few years and several offensive coordinator changes to get it going.

The quarterback position cannot be overvalued. It’s everything in football. A good quarterback can make an average team look good. Conversely, a bad quarterback can make a great team look terrible. It’s the one position on the field that has to know everything.

While other positions can be a specialization of labor, the quarterback position does not get that luxury. He has to know and recognize everything at all times. Hence, the reason that experience at the position matters.

None of this is lost on head coach Bret Bielema. For next season, he is going to go with the guy with the most experience.

And that is Austin Allen.

He will be your starting quarterback next year no matter what the coaching staff says right now about everyone getting a shot. Unless Allen self-destructs (which he won’t) or gets injured in the spring, he is your starting quarterback.

In the past when I have speculated or mentioned the starting quarterback when a competition was on in the offseason, I have received a message from a parent complaining that I have already ruled out his or her child.

I would not be surprised if it happens again between now and fall practice -- and it won’t be the first or even the second time. Parents of quarterbacks have lived a life where their child was always the best athlete and best player. As the old adage goes, you put your best players at quarterback and then the next best 11 go on defense. So naturally, they don’t like hearing that their kid is suddenly not the best.

But Allen has the most experience. He has taken the most snaps in practice as the backup. He has taken the most snaps in games. He has taken the most snaps in an SEC game. He looked good in the Ole Miss victory of 2014 when he had to play a significant amount.

The coaches probably already feel comfortable with him as the starter. They know he knows how to lead the huddle and how to get the team in an out of it. Sometimes for coaches, it’s the little things that matter to them like just taking the snap, and Allen has already proven he can handle that aspect of it.

As the backup, A. Allen has probably had the most experience with the Dan Enos offense in preparation for games all of last season. He also now comes from a pedigree that has proven itself, which does not hurt him either.

A. Allen has also shown loyalty. He could have bailed a long time ago while waiting in the wings as his brother was ridiculed. It would have been easy to leave, and he would have found a home as he was highly recruited out of high school after leading Fayetteville to back-to-back state titles in the highest classification.

Also worth noting is that A. Allen was the MVP of both championship games. He is a proven winner, and the coaches know that he knows how to win.

Last week, the sermon was on the fact that the running back who will see the most action is the one who proves he can block. The corollary to that this week is that the quarterback who will start is the one with experience -- and right now that is clearly Austin Allen.

He will be your starter no matter what the coaches are saying.




Send your parental guidance memo to fromthebench@yahoo.com.

Monday, January 18, 2016

From the Bench

Looking Ahead to What is in Store for Razorback Football Next Season

Robert Shields

Now that the college football season is over, we look ahead for what is in store for the Razorbacks. Much like this past season, the schedule is not kind as right off the bat the Razorbacks face an improved Louisiana Tech and then perennial power TCU.

The Razorbacks got off to a slow start this season and had devastating losses to Toledo and Texas Tech out of the conference. The Hog faithful have to hope that history does not repeat itself and that the team gets off to a strong start, but that has not been the trend under Bret Bielema.

If the team should beat Louisiana Tech and TCU, the Razorbacks could easily roll to a 5-0 start before facing an Alabama team that is going to have to rebuild, which has not really been an issue as of late for the Tide.

The Razorbacks get to drop an improving Tennessee program but get to add a tough Florida team. Why can’t the Razorbacks ever add Kentucky, Vanderbilt, or South Carolina to the schedule when those teams are in the dump?

If you want a positive, the Razorbacks face all the tougher teams such as Alabama, LSU, and Florida at home at Razorback Stadium.

But always more important than schedule is the players you bring back. The Razorbacks bring back a defense that will be virtually intact but the same defense that struggled against almost every team that it faced. It was a defense that could never get off the field and a defense that could never get a three and out.

It was a defense that was so bad that it led to an ultra-conservative Bielema going for a two-point conversion in overtime at Ole Miss instead of leaving it in the hands of the maligned defense.

The defense struggled all year to get pressure on opposing quarterbacks. It was a defense that never looked settled or secure in its nickel and dime packages when opposing teams went with multiple wide outs. The defense could not blitz from the corner or safety positions for fear of giving up a huge play.

The defense did have one strength, though. It could stop the run.

The Razorbacks will need the experience of the defense to emerge early in the season against Louisiana Tech and TCU as the offense has to rebuild. The defense will need to give the offense a chance to grow after it lost much of its production in Brandon Allen, Alex Collins, and Hunter Henry.

This team can overcome the loss of Henry with Jeremy Sprinkle and the host of players waiting in the wings. Collins will be missed not only for his running but his blocking. You can lay a bet now, the running back that will get on the field for the Razorbacks next season is the guy who will block. Kody Walker, if he returns, fits that bill.

As for the newcomers, they won’t see much action unless they can protect their quarterback. With a new starting quarterback, Bielema is not going to jeopardize him with a new kid who doesn’t protect no matter how fast he can run the 40.

Many freshman running backs have never had to block a linebacker of SEC quality in their life, and it’s a daunting task. Further, the plays designed around the running back blocking and then going out don’t work unless you can sell the block.

The offensive line has to be retooled and will be, but all the more reason that the new starting running back better be able to block. I bring all this up because the recruiting talk has been feverish over potential new running backs. Again, it won’t matter unless they can block.

Three years ago, Bielema recruited his first class, and on the offensive side it paid huge dividends with the likes of Collins, Henry, Denver Kirkland, and Dan Skipper. Most are now gone, but the team next year starts to become an all Bielema-recruited team. We can all just hope that the guys who have been waiting in the wings are just as good or better.

Left off this list is the execution of the special teams, which some will argue should happen.




Send your look ahead to fromthebench@yahoo.com.

Monday, January 11, 2016

From the Bench

Annual Report Card for Razorback Coach Bret Bielema

Robert Shields

I have dealt out an annual report card to Razorback football coaches for more than 16 years, and no doubt they have helped shape many decisions over the years up on the hill. I know athletics viceroy Jeff Long is anxiously waiting for this before he can complete Bret Bielema’s annual review, so let’s get on with it.

The last Razorback football coach who got an overall “A” had the headline “Petrino Gets ‘A’ Despite Bad Conduct,” and that headline came even before the motorcycle accident.

We now see in his third season if Bielema can make the grade and beat the most recent high score.


Player Development: B
(Last season: A)

Everyone got better on offense. But the defense never improved, and no one got better to the point of standing out as a difference maker except maybe Deatrich Wise.

Meanwhile the offense improved across the board as Jeremy Sprinkle, Alex Collins, Brandon Allen, Drew Morgan, Dominique Reed, Kody Walker, and the entire offensive line all made progress as the season developed.

In fact, by the end of the season the offense seemed unstoppable. Yet conversely the defense seldom created turnovers and could never get off the field the entire season.


Fundamentals: B
(Last season: B)

The tackling this season was often suspect, and the pressure on opposing quarterbacks was non-existent. The offensive line, even though it played well, had problems at times against some teams they shouldn’t have such as Toledo.

The receivers seldom dropped balls, and penalties at inopportune times happened more seldom as the season wore on. There is still room for improvement in this area so it stays a B.


Play Calling: A-
(Last season: C+)

Maybe this grade is too low because late in the season offensive coordinator Dan Enos seemed to always have the right play called. You can argue that he also did in the first half of the season, but the execution was poor with a pass being missed or a blocking assignment not followed.

The offense was prolific at the end, and a lot of that was the play being dialed up by Bielema’s guy.


Image: B
(Last season: B)

I am not sure that Bielema will ever get an A in this area because he can’t shut up, but at the same time the media tends to love him. If you believe all press is good press, then you can move this grade to an A.

Taking his offensive line over the Sam Pittman’s house after he had taken another job was seen as low by some. Bielema taking the flop (or not) at Alabama got a lot of exposure.

And then there was the word exchange between Bielema and Cliff Kingsbury that served no purpose. The letter grade of a B seems fitting.


Success: B-
(Last season: C+)

Maybe this grade is too high for an 8-5 season, but when you win a bowl game that is always good. The fact he won one more game than last year is improvement hence the boost in grade, but there is still lots of room for the program to get much better.

I also bumped up the grade because of the 5-3 (3-1 on the road) SEC record. On the other hand, the grade could be lower for losses against Toledo, Texas Tech, and Texas A&M.


Game Management: C
(Last Season C)

I honestly believe this is Bielema’s softest area as a coach. Before everyone forgot about this stat following the overtime victory over Auburn, Bielema had an 0-9 record at one time in games that were within one score in the fourth quarter.

In many of those games, the Razorbacks held the lead going into the fourth quarter (in case you want to re-live the memories that streak included Rutgers, Mississippi State, LSU (2013); Texas A&M, Alabama, Mississippi State, Missouri (2014); Toledo and Texas A&M (2015).

Something happened in Knoxville, though, when the Razorbacks held onto a narrow fourth quarter lead against the Volunteers. The Razorbacks would then go on and win two overtime games against Auburn and Ole Miss.

Even though that is improvement, the Razorbacks never should have blown the lead against Auburn that forced overtime. Further, late in the season the Razorbacks had Mississippi State beat in Fayetteville and blew it mostly due to the fact the defense can’t stop anyone.

In that Mississippi State game when Bielema shut down the offense and settled for a field goal attempt, I question how Bielema thought he was going to hold on to his narrow lead with more than 40 seconds left as if the Razorback defense were going to stop Dak Prescott coming right back down the field to score again.


Management of the Athletic Director: A+
(Last season: A+)

When you get the athletic director to cry about you and say that you made football fun again in the midst of the school’s longest losing streak, you are gold.

This season they hugged after a game. In most places, this is workplace harassment, but not in this situation.


Hiring Assistant Coaches: A
(Last season: Incomplete)

Bielema had to replace some guys last year including Randy Shannon and the offensive coordinator. The linebacking was suspect this year mostly due to a lack of depth. The hire at offensive coordinator with Dan Enos has turned out to be brilliant.


Leadership/Discipline: A
(Last season: A)

Bielema has shown that he will work with a kid until it’s the end, but he won’t hold on forever. He let players like Kendrick Edwards, JoJo Robinson and Randy Ramsey go.

The oddity is that after Edwards and Robinson left, the receivers position got better. So maybe Bielema benefits from the fact that the disciplinary measures didn’t tank the team either.


Overall grade: B-
(Last season: B-)

For many, this season never met expectations -- all due to the way the season started. If only the back half of the season were graded, this would probably be an A, but grades are averaged over a semester.

There is still room for improvement and a 10-win season and a trip to the SEC Championship game would surely boost the grade for the coach to an A.

Coach Bielema, please have this report card signed by your athletic department guardian and returned to me by email or Twitter by national signing day.



Send your report card to fromthebench@yahoo.com.

Monday, January 04, 2016

From the Bench

Razorbacks Continue to Rep the SEC in Bowl Season

Robert Shields

The Razorbacks have started a streak of actually winning bowl games after a history of struggling in them in the past. If not for the NCAA allowing Ohio State to play illegal players in the Sugar Bowl that eventually cost the Buckeyes coach his job, the Razorback would have won their last five bowl appearances in a row.

Brandon Allen capped off a great end to the season and his career with his performance in the Liberty Bowl. Probably one of the most maligned Razorbacks in history along with Greg Horne, he finished in the top statistically among all Razorback quarterbacks and won back-to-back bowl games his predecessors just could not do. Allen also led the team to the highest point production in a bowl game for the Razorbacks ever.

In my estimation, Allen had the greatest single-game performance of any Razorback in history in the Ole Miss game this season. Much like Horne who went on to become an All-American, Allen etched his place in Razorback lore with a steady persistence.

The biggest stat of the season for me was the fact the team went 3-1 in SEC road games. Usually this is good enough to be in the hunt for the SEC title, but not this season in the rugged SEC West. The Razorbacks won games against the Volunteers in Knoxville, which has not been kind to the Razorbacks, and had a rare win at night in Baton Rouge to beat LSU. The other SEC road win, of course, was the "epic night” (as called by Chuck Barrett) in Oxford against Ole Miss.

Beyond a doubt, the play of the year in college football was the Hunter Henry heave to Alex Collins in overtime against Ole Miss. Without that play, everyone is aware Alabama is not playing for the college football national championship and more than likely the SEC would not have had a team in the playoff.

The Razorback win in the Liberty Bowl etched the SEC a record-setting 8-2 bowl mark that no other conference has matched. Even the two losses are explainable as Texas A&M essentially had to play without a quarterback but was still throwing into the end zone at the end of the game to win it.

The other SEC loss by Florida was embarrassing but predictable. Florida limped into the end of the season having to hold off Florida Atlantic in overtime and beating Vanderbilt on a late field goal. The Gators could only manage a safety against Florida State.

But the SEC wins were massive beat downs. The Razorbacks outscored Kansas State big to represent the SEC in the right way allowing Razorback fans the opportunity to enter the S-E-C chant that so many other conferences love to hear. For this year, the SEC chant is back as it was heard in every killing of a foe like Lord Voldemort's Death Eaters skull symbol being shot into the sky.

Many reveled in the SEC struggling in bowl games last year as if the SEC was being given last rights. In this space, it was written that any such statement was premature as the conference still went a respectable 7-5 and actually should have been 9-3 last year if Auburn doesn’t choke against Wisconsin allowing the game to go into overtime and LSU also blowing it late against Notre Dame.

Last season, the SEC was still very good -- it just lacked its dominant team.

Historically, any school beating an SEC team in a bowl game is a big deal, and so it was last year for the other conferences to have beaten SEC teams.

It’s hard to beat SEC teams, and they know this everywhere in the country whether they want to acknowledge it or not, which brings me back to Arkansas’ recent success in bowl games.

Are the Hogs doing better in bowl games because the schools they are playing are of lesser quality as compared to the SEC schedule?

Prior to joining the SEC, the Razorbacks lost their share of bowl games to the likes of Alabama, Georgia, Tennessee, Auburn, and LSU. The recent feast has been on the likes of Kansas State, East Carolina, and a beleaguered Texas.

But this is the beauty of playing in the SEC -- every week you’re playing in a bowl game.



Send your Liberty Bowl experience to fromthebench@yahoo.com.

Monday, December 28, 2015

From the Bench

Ten Questions for Razorback Quiz Masters

Robert T. Shields

It’s once again time to test your sports knowledge with this From the Bench holiday quiz. As my old economic professors at the UA used to tell me, I’m looking for the “most correct” answer. That means you are welcome to write in your own response. Best answers emailed or shared on social media win an autographed picture (free plus $1.99 shipping).

So here we go…

The most important accomplishments for this year’s Razorbacks were?
A) Healing broken bones of injured players
B) Winning two games in overtime
C) Winning an NCAA tournament basketball game
D) All the above

The best play of the year?
A) Deatrich Wise sacking Chad Kelly at the end of the fourth quarter
B) Hunter Henry heaving the ball to Alex Collins for first down in overtime
C) Brandon Allen falling in the end zone on a two point conversion to win in overtime
D) All were needed to win the game

The football coaching From the Bench criticized all year?
A) Faking a punt against Alabama
B) Slowly breaking Dominique Reed into the starting lineup
C) Not keeping enough linebackers on the roster
D) Shutting down the offense in the last minute against Mississippi State

What was Bret Bielema’s greatest accomplishment this season?
A) Getting all his offensive linemen over to Sam Pittman’s house
B) Winning the Boot for the second year
C) Beating the Texas Longhorns
D) All the Above

From the Bench’s most covered topic this season was?
A) PA scoring late in its championship game
B) My trip to 30A
C) The sociological impact of Sponge Bob
D) Razorback Football

The toughest loss of the season was?
A) Texas Tech
B) Toledo
C) Mississippi State
D) Texas A&M

What is the Razorbacks’ new uniform?
A) Pink
B) Redondo Red Pearl
C) Anthracite
D) The Razorbacks have no official uniform and wear what they are paid to do.

What is Jeff Long’s official title at the UofA?
A) Minister of Magic
B) Sports Misinformation Director
C) Athletic Director
D) Vice-Chancellor and Director of Intercollegiate Athletics

What is the From the Bench columnist afraid of?
A) Being moved to Vents and Rumors
B) Rising sea levels destroying 30A
C) Nate Allen finding out he is friends with Scott Faldon
D) The other Robert Shields who is the mime

Where do I keep my certificate for being the UA’s “Outstanding Student in Economics”?
A) Under my desk
B) On my wall
C) I didn’t really win the award
D) In a box in my garage next to the lawn mower below the kayak



Send your answers to fromthbench@yahoo.com.

Monday, December 21, 2015

From the Bench

Brandon Allen About the Only Thing Living Up to ‘Uncommon’ Marketing Slogan

Robert Shields

Brandon Allen struggled for some time in his career as a Razorback. It was really the whole team struggling, but it was primarily reflected upon Allen by the fans and media as it often is on the quarterback.

It didn’t matter that the defense was porous. It sticks out more when you miss a pass for a win. Forget that others kept fumbling at inopportune times or that receivers dropped balls to keep drives alive or that offensive linemen committed unnecessary infractions. The quarterback shoulders the blame.

They never report any other position as 0-8 as a starter. Only the quarterback gets that hung on him.

But regardless of what Allen’s record was or what he had to endure from what people said or did, he managed it all and pushed on toward success. And for any fans or media actually paying attention, they would have to admit if nothing else that Brandon Allen was going to be a winner at life based on the way he managed the turmoil.

I never did a poll, but if you only listened to those on the radio, the fan base wanted Allen stripped of his title of starting quarterback on many, many occasions. Other coaches might have folded or grown frustrated with the quarterback and pulled him as witnessed throughout the year with other teams.

Bret Bielema can be petulant and tone deaf to the fans, and he often does his own thing sometimes to the detriment of success. But in this Bielema deserves credit for staying the course even though some felt it was sinking.

I will no doubt get a response from someone getting on to me for calling Bielema petulant, but I only have to point to recent events of him taking his offensive line over to their departing offensive-line coach’s house as the most recent example.

The University of Arkansas has been using the very odd term “uncommon” as its marketing slogan, but Allen actually has a chance to do something really uncommon in the Liberty Bowl by becoming a Razorback quarterback who has won back-to-back bowl games.

-

Only Debate in Playoff Should Be Who is No. 8

Everyone except those making the money off it know the college football playoff should be expanded immediately from four to eight teams. Ohio State, a team that I do not favor at all, should be in the playoffs being defending champions and only missing out on a perfect season by a last-second field goal by Michigan State.

Ohio State would be a tough matchup for any team in the playoff, and you can say the same about Stanford and Notre Dame. The Irish playing in a hurricane (literally Joaquin) on the road in Death Valley against Clemson (which is the No. 1 seed in the college football playoff) lost the ball four times, once on the 1-yard line, and missed two two-point conversions to fall 24-22. If that game is played under different circumstances, the college football playoff looks differently right now.

Further, the other Irish loss was to Pac-10 champion Stanford on the road on a last-second field goal. Lastly, Oklahoma, which is the fourth seed in the playoff, has only one loss where it was embarrassed by Texas, a team that Notre Dame absolutely destroyed.

The only debate should be who is No. 8 in the playoff, and that is a lot less full of consternation than what exist today. Because what does it mean if Ohio State kills Notre Dame in the bowl game and Oklahoma ends up winning it all beating Alabama in the championship game?

-

Watch Out for UALR Basketball

Maybe one of the biggest stories of the year in Arkansas besides American Pharaoh winning the Triple Crown out of Oaklawn is the Little Rock Trojans basketball team winning 10 in a row.

I need to clarify that is the men’s team I am talking about going on a winning streak because the Trojan women have been playing good basketball under Coach Joe Foley for some time. The men changed coaches over the offseason and it has made a huge difference.

I am a firm believer that you can build a very competitive basketball program right in Little Rock just by fielding talent within 100 miles of the school. UALR may never get the Joe Johnsons and Bobby Portises of the world, but the guys who play basketball around the Central Arkansas area at places like Hall, Parkview, Central, and Pine Bluff are very good and you can build a solid team from that base. Ole Miss did it for years.



Send your eight playoff teams to fromthebench@yahoo.com.

Monday, December 14, 2015

From the Bench

Replacement on Offensive Line Critical for Razorback Players and Coach

Robert Shields

The loss of Razorback offensive line coach Sam Pittman is probably very significant in the near future for the University of Arkansas football program and Bret Bielema. The Razorbacks need a few more offensive linemen for this recruiting class, and it’s hard to know the recruiting impact that the loss of the coach might have.

But what we do know is that an adverse impact could have lasting consequences as the program still looks to lay a more solid foundation going forward.

If Pittman has been looking to get out of Fayetteville, we could speculate that his heart was not in it and recruiting might actually improve at the position. The more likely scenario is the Razorbacks are going to have to fill a big void and hit the recruiting trail all the more to find guys to replace Sebastian Tretola, Mitch Smothers, and maybe Denver Kirkland.

To say that the offensive line did a great job this season is an understatement. The vast majority of the time, Brandon Allen had the luxury of not having to run for his life on every play. As a result, Allen remained healthy because the offensive line and Alex Collins kept defensive linemen from crushing him. The line executed its blocking on most plays to an effective level, and the credit beside the guys that had to actually block also goes to Pittman.

The line play got better as the year went on and everyone settled into their role. The offensive achievement was noticeable, and the explosion of the offense in the second half of the season against more talented SEC teams was due in large part to the offensive line. Then at the end of the year, the offensive line just flat punched out a Missouri defense that had been stingy all year.

The offensive line was featured on the front of the Razorback media guide, and Pittman played a role to elevate those offensive line guys to the level of being a household name for Razorback fans and earning that right to be on the cover. Over the past two years, the offensive line to a great extent has been the rock stars of the team. Almost without fail, the offensive line was talked about at great length by the announcers during every Razorback game on television.

In the past, Razorback fans might have been able to name one or maybe two standout offensive linemen for the Razorbacks. With the arrival of Bielema and Pittman, the entire offensive unit across the line is known.

Assistant coaches come and go, and that is the way it is in major college football. Leaving one school for another is the best way to get a raise. Salary increases while you are at a school typically tend to be meager, but when another school wants you the raise is usually significant.

My gut tells me this emphasis on line play will not change without Pittman. Bielema believes the game is won in the trenches not on the periphery with speed, and he will certainly try to find the best offensive- line coach that he can get.

-

Heisman Trophy Proves Worthless Again

The Heisman Trophy is truly one of the most worthless awards in all of sports.

In the last two decades, the Heisman voters have given this award to several bad actors and had to strip the trophy from at least one recipient. After snubbing Peyton Manning, it was dubbed as the Heistman, which is how they should refer to it on ESPN.

It was criminal when they gave it to Tim Tebow over Darren McFadden, who ended up in the SEC record books only behind the great Herschel Walker. McFadden accomplished this in only three years while having to split carries with Felix Jones.

This year the Heisman decided to ignore a quarterback who set the NCAA all-time touchdown mark and led Navy to one of its best years in recent memory. The trophy is supposed to go to the best player in college football, which means for this award only a running back and mostly as of late a quarterback can win. Fittingly, there is already an award for best running back and an award for best quarterback.

This is not to take away from what Derrick Henry did this year. Further, he swept up the awards and not just the Heisman. But he played in a much more dynamic offense than did Leonard Fournette of LSU. It would be interesting to know what Fournette would have looked like if he played at Alabama.



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Monday, December 07, 2015

From the Bench

2015 Razorbacks Should Be Remembered as the Team That Never Quit

Robert Shields

The Razorbacks wrapped up an improbable finish winning five out of their last six games to complete a 7-5 regular season. The team stood at 2-4 in the first half of the season that included a loss to Toledo with the back half of the season looking even more difficult, yet the Razorbacks improbably turned it around to the point that virtually no one is questioning Bret Bielema as head coach.

It’s really an amazing feat what the Hogs accomplished to salvage the season, so to review and put off facing what lies ahead for basketball like most fans right now, let’s look back at the events that made the 2015 football season.

12) The injury of Jonathan Williams ended up being more detrimental to the team early on than most ever realized. The Razorback press clique that doubles as a public-relations arm of the athletic department often made it sound like the running-back-by-committee plan to take his place would give the Hogs even more versatility and make them better than they otherwise would have been. Pollyannaish is the word that comes to mind.

11) Dominique Reed arrives on campus and plays in the first game. His prowess and speed is evident, but he does not make it back into the rotation until other receivers get injured or leave the team. His impact is significant and is part of the reason the season turned for the better in the second half.

10) Jared Cornelius, Cody Hollister, and Keon Hatcher go down with injuries early in the season. This limited quarterback Brandon Allen on who he could trust throwing the ball to and thus limited the offense in the first games. No one cared about this while bashing poor Brandon, though.

9) JoJo Robinson and Kendrick Edwards end up no longer being part of the team. Oddly, the receiving group improved with this addition by subtraction partly driven by the introduction of Drew Morgan and Dominique Reed.

8) Brandon Allen misses a wide-open Hunter Henry for a touchdown and probably the win against Toledo. Luckily the season played out OK and this didn’t end up No. 1 – or No. 2 after the coach being fired for it.

7) Texas Tech arrives in Fayetteville and embarrasses the Razorback defense to expose its weaknesses. The most memorable factoid of the game is that the Texas Tech punter never made it on the field. Like I have mentioned, luckily things got better.

6) The Razorbacks beat Tennessee giving Bret Bielema is first SEC Road game. This game set the trend for the season as the Hogs went 3-1 on the road in the SEC. It was a great win as the Razorbacks have taken much better teams into Knoxville and lost.

5) The motion penalty on fourth down on the drive for the Razorbacks to put away and win the Texas A&M game. Instead, the Razorbacks punted and A&M went on to tie the game and win in overtime. Agonizingly, it was the Razorbacks fourth loss in a row to the Aggies. And once again looking back at this start to the season, it is truly remarkable they are bowling anywhere.

4) Razorbacks win in overtime against Auburn in Fayetteville. The game was filled with Brandon Allen making plays and refusing to lose another close game. It was the pivotal game in turning around the season and making a bowl game. Rawleigh Williams went down and Kody Walker emerged to be a durable second runningback.

3) The Razorbacks blitz LSU in Baton Rouge to send the Tiger fans looking for the exit long before the game ended. Jared Cornelius on a misdirection play went the distance to put the game away, and Alex Collins had one of the best runs of his career for a touchdown in the first half of the game.

2) Hogs enter a shootout with the Mississippi State Bulldogs and Dak Prescott. The important part of the game was when Bret Bielema stopped the Allen-led offense at the 19 with three runs up the middle to set up a field goal with a 67-percent kicking team. The field goal was blocked giving the Razorbacks their only loss in the back end of the season and ruining their chances of a tie for first or second place in the vaunted SEC West.

1) The overtime Ole Miss win will be legendary. The most memorable part will be the Hunter Henry heave to Alex Collins that was tipped by Dan Skipper on a fourth-down completion to Henry well short of the needed yardage for the first down. Yet Collins got the ball, made the first down, and fumbled only to have Dominique Reed fall on it. Now that’s team work.

The win, though, would not have been possible without a Drew Morgan touchdown catch and Bielema deciding to risk all and go for a two-point conversion. Allen, who threw six touchdowns in the game, failed on the first two-point try mainly because he was face-masked but then got a reprieve and a second chance at the one-and-a-half yard line. The coaches called Allen on a keeper and he fell into the end zone for the win.

The play that will be forgotten occurred in regulation and was pivotal as the defense that was maligned the entire second half and could not stop Chad Kelly of Ole Miss on fourth down around midfield came up with an improbable sack by Deatrich Wise. This ended the Rebels’ chance to win in regulation and even provided the Hogs with a desperate field-goal attempt to win that was, of course, blocked.

There were a lot of guys to like on this team that will be leaving. But above all else, what they should be remembered for is that it was the team that never quit.



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Monday, November 30, 2015

From the Bench

Bielema Era Trending Up Thanks to Allen Etching His Place in History

Robert Shields

The weather was atrocious, but the Arkansas Razorbacks showed up to play on Friday after Thanksgiving to put a major beat down on Missouri.

The fans did not show up to the game, but luckily attendance in the final home game does not affect bowl eligibility, though it certainly will give some bowl reps pause when considering how many tickets Arkansas will sell and may play a role in the Hogs ending up in a less-attractive bowl such as whatever the one in Shreveport is called these days.

The win put Arkansas at 7-5 overall and 5-3 in the SEC and was important because the team finished with a winning record for the season and in the conference for the first time since 2011. The trend is headed in the right direction as Bret Bielema has posted records in the SEC of 0-8, 2-6, and now 5-3 in his first three seasons.

A loss would have painted the season much differently with a 6-6 to match last year’s record and would end on a sour note with two losses. Instead, the win created a pattern of the Razorbacks winning five out of their last six.

If breaks would have gone differently, the Razorbacks could have finished 10-2 overall and 7-1 in the SEC.

The Texas A&M game was so close and probably would have been a win if the Hogs continue on the drive before getting a motion penalty ending the drive and allowing A&M to get the ball back and tie the game to send it into overtime.

The Mississippi State game could have been different also if the Razorbacks would have scored a touchdown at the end instead of settling for a field goal that was blocked.

Still, it was a great finish of the season as the offense seemed unstoppable. The change mostly came through Brandon Allen. Anyone watching Saturday had to feel good for the kid on the second-to-last play when he left the game for the last time in Fayetteville and handed the team off to his brother.

Kudos to those dozen brave souls who showed up to cheer their team on in such miserable conditions. What the attendance showed with little doubt is that this game, as far as Razorback fans are concerned, is not a rivalry. Maybe it is for Missouri fans wanting to prove they belong in the SEC. But to Razorback fans it was just a game against a lesser opponent.

Allen will go down as one of the great Razorback stories in history. The trials and tribulations of losing so many games starting with his first season and even all the way up to the Toledo and A&M games this season, to turning the whole thing on its head and then winning at Tennessee in a close game to launching the Razorbacks to overtime wins against Auburn and Ole Miss, is simply incredible.

Bielema may forever remember Allen’s performance in the overtimes against Auburn. The season hung in the balance as very well the Bielema era at Arkansas. I don’t think Bielema would have been fired after the season if he would have lost, but it would have turned much of the fan base against him with another losing season looming and again losing another close game that should have been put away in the fourth quarter.

I compared the Auburn game to Nolan Richardson’s trial of fire when he had to play Arkansas State in the NIT tournament and barely won in overtime. I firmly believe Nolan would have been fired if he would have lost that game, and Arkansas’ national championship run never would have happened.

In that same vein, if Bielema would have lost the Auburn game, the die at that point for many would have been cast. After the Alabama loss, many fans had their daggers out and were looking for a reason to use them, even harping on the “Bielema flop” as if that really mattered. Now that is all gone and hope has been renewed for the offseason.

The Razorbacks need to win their bowl game to finish 8-5 and bring their season record close to the mean that many fans were expecting. Plus, winning a bowl game makes everyone happy (see last year).

It would also be nice to see Allen win a second bowl game. Not many Razorback quarterbacks in this modern era have won back-to-back bowl games as the Razorbacks have not always been stellar in postseason competition.

But maybe Brandon Allen is changing all that.



Send your bowl match-up projection for the Razorbacks to fromthebench@yahoo.com.