Published April 20, 2013
FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. – Travis Swanson didn't even have a head coach this time a year ago.
Like the rest of his teammates, the Arkansas center was caught up in the turmoil following former coach Bobby Petrino's firing as he approached the spring game.
The fallout from the Petrino debacle — and subsequent hiring of John L. Smith as interim coach — resulted in a disastrous 2012 season for the Razorbacks. It also resulted in the hiring of former Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema in December.
Bielema has spent the last month directing his first set of spring practices at his new school, learning the Arkansas players and laying a foundation to improve on last year's 4-8 record. Swanson said the 14 practices have been nothing short of "picture-perfect," a theme he hopes continues in Saturday's Red-White game in front of what Bielema hopes is a record crowd of more than 50,000.
Regardless of how the game turns out, or who performs well, it will cap what's been a refreshingly calm spring for the Razorbacks. Swanson, an unquestioned leader who is mindful of the fact that he's approaching his final season, carries a particular thought into every day.
"This is it," the senior said. "This is my last first day of my last week of spring ball. This will be my last spring game. This is my last summer I have. So, if it's not now, then it's not (ever)."
The transition from Petrino's style to Smith and now Bielema hasn't been without its hiccups.
Bielema and new offensive coordinator Jim Chaney took a slow-but-steady approach to the installation of the offense this spring. They did so while also focusing their efforts on finding a starting quarterback to replace former All-Southeastern Conference performer Tyler Wilson, with sophomore Brandon Allen and senior Brandon Mitchell emerging as the front-runners.
Mitchell, with four years of experience in Petrino's scheme, struggled early with the change in play calls before finding a comfort zone in recent weeks.
He's also well aware of how important Saturday could prove in determining the starter, especially since Allen has seen the majority of the time with the first team in recent weeks — and because defensive coordinator Chris Ash said players on top of the depth chart now are likely to begin there in the fall.
"We want to see how they handle that situation because it's one thing to go out here in an empty stadium, go indoors and practice," Ash said. "It's a whole other when you've got to go out there in front of people and have eyes on you."
Arkansas' offensive linemen might have had the most difficult transition. The group, which struggled in run- and pass-blocking last season, began that change before practice even began — undergoing drastic body changes under new strength and conditioning coach Ben Herbert and at Bielema's behest.
They've also been introduced to immediate accountability throughout the spring, being pulled from scrimmages and sent to do up-and-downs after any false start penalty. It's all just part of Bielema's method as he looks to implement a more balanced — and physical — approach than what the Razorbacks were used to under Petrino.
"You can't really compare the two because they're so different in schemes," Swanson said. "The goal is not throw, throw, throw, throw. It's run, run, run, throw it, play-action. It's just more balanced."
Bielema, who had a dominant running game with the Badgers, plans to play the top players on both the offensive and defensive depth charts against each other for the first half on Saturday. It's similar to the approach he's taken for much of the spring, driven by the belief that competition leads to improvement.
"I want those guys to get used to the center-quarterback exchange, a guard and tackle playing with one another," Bielema said. "You can only get better by playing with one another, and that's a big part of it."
The former Wisconsin coach joked last week about wanting to test the manhood of his new players this spring. It's a test they've taken during each of the 14 practices, with one final exam on Saturday.
"It's something he has done," guard Brey Cook said. "You can tell. The type of plays we run and our mentality going into practice is completely different, and coming out of practice is different. It's just the way we approach things now."