Razorbacks still looking for ways to top A&M

Mark Passwaters, Publisher
Aggie Yell

HOOVER, ALA. -- The last time Texas A&M saw Arkansas, Trevor Knight and Trayveon Williams were running all over the Razorbacks in a 45-24 rout at AT&T Stadium in Arlington. 

The Aggies rolled up 366 yards rushing in the game, setting a tone for the Razorbacks' (7-6, 3-5 SEC) defense that continued all year. Arkansas ended up 94th in the nation against the run (A&M, in spite of its horrible end to the season, ended 14 spots higher), giving up 205.5 yards per game and nearly 6 yards a carry.

That led to changes.

"I knew we had to take a new look at things. We took an internal look at us coaching-wise. What we were asking them to do, how we were asking them to do it," head coach Bret Bielema said at SEC Media Days. "(We) took an even stronger look at our personnel, which made us drive the decision to change to a 3-4, bottom line what we were going to do moving forward in January."

The 3-4 scheme, implemented by new defensive coordinator Paul Rhoads (formerly the head coach at Iowa State) is something Bielema believes can work with his current group of defenders.

"Just by pure math you got 11 guys on the field. Eight guys now will be on their two feet. You got eight guys on two feet being able to change and run. You naturally become more athletic with the 3-4 scheme with athletes on the field," he said.

Like the A&M game, which was close into the third quarter before the Aggies blew it open, Arkansas saw many games slip away after halftime. In the third quarter, the Razorbacks were outscored 103-51.

Developing a killer instinct, Bielema said, is critical to his team's 2017 chances.

"We're going to focus on winning games in the second half, not losing them, putting our best personnel on the field, no matter how that comes about, and then really trying to play and understand what it means to be at Arkansas and have that come through," he said.

It won't be an easy task; Arkansas returns only 12 starters and lost star running back Rawleigh Williams, who was forced to retire after suffering a neck injury in the spring game. One player who does return, however, is quarterback Austin Allen, who may be the best in the conference this upcoming season.

"He's a guy that got some decoration and some awards. But because you play at Arkansas, maybe because he didn't have five stars coming in or four stars or however many stars he had and maybe he's not tremendously pushed by us, you know, on a sectionist factor, all this, all that," Bielema said of Allen (3,430 passing yards, 25 TFD, 15 INT in 2016). "We at Arkansas try to prove what we are by numbers, by doing things we actually can put own down on paper and believe them. Not a lot of hype or a lot of hubba-hubba. It's just what have you done. Austin has done some pretty good things. There's some things he has to do better. We had conversations about that. I wouldn't do anything but truly sit back and watch a guy that's going to be able to go to some heights that people never thought he would be able to do. In the end he'll probably be the one smiling."

In order for Allen to continue to improve, however, Arkansas will have to improve its offensive line play. A&M nemesis Dan Skipper is off to the NFL, but four starters from a sub-par group in 2016 return. Bielema said he expects more from that group this season.

"I feel really, really good about where that group is. I like the fact that they've taken some shots and they've survived, and I really think they're in a mode to really prove some things this fall," he said.

Proving doubters wrong would require beating A&M, something Bielema has yet to do. The man who once called a bowl win over Texas "borderline erotic" made it clear his team is looking forward to the chance to flip the script on the Aggies.

"I know you guys are all looking for quotes. I don't think I can go much further than that one. That was in a small-group session and that was before I had a child, so I'll just leave it at there," he said of his infamous comment before switching gears. "We've been so close, had a couple overtime games, things that we felt were going in the right way to have a change to get a victory over A&M. I think our first SEC game would be a step in the right direction."

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