Arkansas football practice underway; Hogs first SEC school to open season
FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. (AP) — Bret Bielema has had a busier offseason this year than most compared to his first four at Arkansas, with little of that extra time commitment actually earmarked for football.
The 47-year-old coach celebrated the birth of his firstborn — daughter Briella — earlier this month, a bit of perfect summer timing ahead of his critical fifth season in the Southeastern Conference.
“I can tell you it’s a different sleeping arrangement, a different time pattern, but it’s all good,” Bielema joked ahead of Arkansas’ preseason camp.
The Razorbacks started practice on Thursday and will be the first SEC school to open the season when they face Florida A&M on Aug. 31.
They’ll do so on the heels of a 2016 season that appeared on track to be Bielema’s best at Arkansas, right up until a pair of second-half collapses in season-ending losses to Missouri and Virginia Tech. The Razorbacks did manage to finish with a winning record for the third straight year under Bielema, but the 7-6 record marked the first time the school hadn’t improved its record under the former Wisconsin coach.
Gone from last year’s team is a host of playmakers on both sides of the ball, including wide receiver Drew Morgan and a four-year starter at middle linebacker in Brooks Ellis.
The biggest loss, however, came in the final scrimmage of the spring when All-SEC running back Rawleigh Williams went down with a second neck injury that eventually forced him to walk away from football for good. The injury followed a broken neck he suffered as a freshman in 2015.
Williams was third in the SEC with 1,360 yards rushing last season, and Arkansas is turning to sophomore Devwah Whaley in the backfield this season. Whaley chose Arkansas over schools such as Alabama, Georgia and Notre Dame, and he showed glimpses of his potential as a freshman — finishing with 602 yards rushing and a 5.5-yard per rush average in a backup role.
While Whaley will start camp eager to prove himself in a lead role, he’ll have the benefit of one of the SEC’s best returning quarterbacks to support him. Senior Austin Allen threw for 3,430 yards and 25 touchdowns in his first season as the starter a year ago, and he returns as a team captain this season.
More than simply production, though, the Razorbacks are counting on an overhauled sense of accountability and leadership to put to rest any hangover from last year’s late collapse.
“From the time we came back in January, the things they’ve addressed, the things that they’ve done — not only with us as coaches but away from the game among themselves — has been very fulfilling for me,” Bielema said. “They’re excited … I think our guys are eager.”
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