FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas offensive coordinator Jim Chaney had an easy task for sophomore Jonathan Williams earlier this spring.
He wanted the sophomore to use one word to describe his running style.
Williams — who is Arkansas’ leading returning rusher — thought for a second and came up with a good response: Elusive. But he quickly found out it wasn’t really the answer Chaney was hoping for as the Razorbacks began to install a new offense.
“I said, ‘Here’s the one word I want you to describe yourself: Physical,’” Chaney said.
The conversation is a prime example of the overwhelming theme of Arkansas’ spring, which will conclude at 2 p.m. today with the Red-White Game.
Arkansas’ new staff has spent the spring molding offensive players who were part of a finesse attack under coach Bobby Petrino into a smash mouth bunch built around a physical run game. Arkansas coach Bret Bielema is a realist, saying there’s no way the transformation can happen overnight. But the Razorbacks will put their progress on display when they take the field for the final time this spring.
The Razorbacks are certain to treat a crowd it hopes will reach a school record of 50,000 to plenty of power run plays today. It might not produce the same amount of big-play highlights through the air from spring games past, but it’s an important step in Arkansas’ plans to introduce a new offensive identity next season.
“It takes the makeup of the individuals on the football field,” Chaney said. “If they’re makeup isn’t such naturally, you’ve got to develop that. There’s a lot of things that go into that, but the mindset of smashing them, getting four yards and enjoying it is different than just smashing them. Some kids don’t enjoy the physical nature of the game of football. There’s been plenty of great players that haven’t enjoyed that.
“But what we’re trying to do is find those kids that do enjoy that and put them on the field and watch them enjoy it.”
The process began where it always does in the offseason: The weight room.
New strength coach Ben Herbert got his hands on the Razorbacks, beginning to mold them into players that would fit a power running scheme. Bielema said one key was adding lower body strength and the reason was simple: Arkansas’ front would have a better chance to move defenders off the line of scrimmage.
But more strength isn’t the only solution. A new mentality is vital as well and Arkansas has tried to identify the players who won’t shy away from physical play beginning with its offensive line.
“It’s the game of football,” Arkansas guard Brey Cook said. “You’ve got to be nasty sometimes. That’s fun. Go out there and push guys around.”
Drill work this spring has been catered to identify those who excel at it. Bielema has his own terms, saying he’s trying to test the manhood of players.
One example: The Razorbacks participate in what Bielema calls a “Hog drill” early in practice. He pushes players into one-on-one battles that test toughness and determination. Matchups are drawn up before practices begin and Bielema said the criteria for developing them are at his discretion.
“If I see two guys I know don’t necessarily get along and they’re a little chippy with one another I’ll purposely put them head to head,” Bielema said. “Or if I see a guy I kind of want to test his manhood a little bit, I’ll put him against a really, really good player and see how he responds. And vice versa.”
Arkansas has also spent a good chunk of its practice time working on inside drills, where run plays are called again and again into the teeth of the defense.
There’s no way to fool the defense. But the offense’s task is to be productive anyway.
“We’re running power straight at you,” Arkansas fullback Kiero Small said. “The defense knows it’s coming. … If you can get four yards, five yards, six yards, eventually the defense is going to wear down and that’s what we’re trying to do.”
Bielema said before the spring begins he wants that inside drill to be the highlight of each practice and the Razorbacks have certainly marveled at the time devoted to it.
“That’s what we’ve been trying to do this spring, really pound the ball and kind of create an identity for ourselves,” Arkansas tight end Austin Tate said. “The coaches demand hard-nosed football, and that’s what we’re going to give them.”
Every repetition is critical for an offense that didn’t seem to have much success with a power run game in the past. Arkansas ranked last in the SEC in rushing last season (118.7 yards a game) and 13th in red zone efficiency (70.8 percent).
Its second scrimmage of the spring showed some improvement. Arkansas spent portions of the practice with the ball at the four-yard line. The offense dug in and scored touchdowns on five of those six possessions in the red zone.
“A lot of people think the defense gets after people,” Small said. “But as an offense, as a power offense, you’ve got to want to get after people. That’s pretty much what we’re adapting to. … When you can punch the ball in — it’s on the goal line and they know it’s coming - when you can do that, that’s big for our offense.”
There’s no doubt Arkansas is far from a finished product.
After all, the Razorbacks can only accomplish so much in 15 practices.
But Williams is confident Arkansas will wrap up the spring by taking important steps in developing its new offensive identity. At the very least, Williams knows his mentality has changed after his conversation with Chaney.
“If you have a mindset that you’re going to run physical, the elusive stuff with come,” Williams said. “I definitely want to have that mindset that I’m going to punish people when I run.”