LITTLE ROCK, Ark. - Rick David, a starting free safety for the Arkansas Razorbacks in the early 1990s, went into high school football coaching in the talent-rich New Orleans area, his hometown, after graduating, before moving into medical sales here in central Arkansas. He appears occasionally to provide expert analysis on KTHV-TV Channel 11’s “HogZone” following Razorback games. He and former Ken Hatfield-era Hogs meet for a roundtable discussion about their former team often once a week. He’s as astute about the college game as anyone who’s not directly involved or employed in it that I’ve encountered.
Over the weekend, he pointed out something I hadn’t noticed: In last season’s Associated Press Top 25, only one coach was a former college football lineman (Ed Orgeron, who finished the season as LSU’s interim coach and was given the full-time job after Thanksgiving; he replaced a onetime college lineman, Les Miles). No former lineman turned head coach finished in the Top 10, which instead was made up of former college quarterbacks, defensive backs (such as the game’s best coach, Nick Saban) and wide receivers (such as the next best, Dabo Sweeney, who bested Saban in the title game).
Needless they be reminded, but we will anyway: Razorback fans know that Bret Bielema was a defensive lineman, a walk-on who likes walk-ons and underdogs, and who grew up to be a nose guard at Iowa for Hayden Fry (who wasn’t a lineman, but rather a quarterback at Baylor, and who later called plays for Frank Broyles at Arkansas before embarking on a stellar head coaching career).
It doesn’t mean that linemen can’t grow up to be another Vince Lombardi, but linemen tend to be stubborn to a fault. And not that former quarterbacks like Jim Harbaugh can’t be stubborn, either; athletic directors have seen stubbornness in a head coach as a plus. Don’t bend with the wind from all the hot air coming from fans and social media.
It’s just that we see a lot less bending with those burly linemen turned head coaches. They’re wanting to play the game they grew up with, not the game it’s become.
Rick David, who has seen a lot of Pulaski Academy high school football in recent years because his son played for the Bruins up through last season’s 5A state championship, notes that college football is a different game than when he played.
“The game is played in space now,” he notes. Playing the game “in space” gives teams like 30-point underdog Iowa State the opportunity to go into Norman, Okla., and beat No. 3-ranked Oklahoma 38-31, like we saw on Saturday. Iowa State was 5-74-2 all-time vs. OU going into Saturday’s game. A decade ago, the Family Stoops brothers (Bob, Mike, Mark, et. al, sons of a coach) were considered defensive geniuses. On Saturday, Mike Stoops was seeing the reappearance of scars from recent OU defensive fiascoswhere the Sooners offense had to be good enough to outscore folks or they didn’t win. These days, it’s hard for even OU to find the second-coming of the Selmon brothers to destroy a paddy-caking offensive line and tackle the quarterback before he’s reached his third drop-back step.
Great athletes in most of the prep football hotbeds today are playing offense only; they’re not learning how to play defense. Texas high school football is said to be 90 percent a spread state offensively. It’s 7-on-7 with a few linemen thrown in.
Les Miles refused to change with the times, where he had two and sometimes three future NFL draft picks at wide receiver each year to go along with a stable future NFL tailbacks, and didn’t make it through week four last season, paving the way for – Ed Orgeron? That onetime Razorback assistant strength coach’s saving grace with Tiger fans this fall, after losing at home to Troy, was getting to butt heads with an equally inept but lucky-as-heck Florida head coach Jim McElwain. In case you didn’t switch over from the awfulness on display from Columbia, S.C., to see the CBS Game of the Week, a 1957-style slobber knocker broke out in Gainesville, with the late Tom Petty’s “I Won’t Back Down” serving as the background theme of LSU’s 17-16 victory.
These former linemen like Miles, Bielema and Orgeron just won’t back down.
So, we have Arkansas caught in a mix between a bullheaded Bielema saying “I want to open it up but I also want to play plodding power football” on the offensive side, while his version of the 3-4 defense looks a whole lot like his previous 4-3 with one less defensive end and a strange positioning of a nose guard more than a yard off the center’s helmet, and the rest of the team keeping “everything in front of them.” High school offensive coordinators would find any amount of space in Arkansas’s defense. If it’s not in front of them, it’s behind them (yet one more season of seeing an inside linebacker chasing a tight end down the middle of the field for a 62-yard back-breaking play).
What we have with Arkansas, then, is a defense that will be lucky to allow fewer than 27 points per game in SEC play, matched with an offense stuck in mud: The slow-developing sweeps reveal the overall lack of team speed, while the equally slow developing pass routes expose Austin Allen to so many hits, he’s done as an effective quarterback. Rest assured, though, unless the medical staff says he can’t go, an obstinate Bielema will trot him right back out there, every week.
The position Arkansas finds itself in is like Auburn in 2008 when Tommy Tuberville, who carried a gambler’s reputation but approached the game old-school, listened to boosters who thought the boring Tigers needed to join the spread revolution. It was enough of a disaster that Bobby Petrino’s worst Arkansas team went into Auburn and won 25-20. Is it any coincidence that the Auburn defensive coordinator for that year, the season that got Tuberville run out of the SEC, was none other than current Hog DC Paul Rhoads?
Rhoads wasn’t the reason for Tubby’s failure. Tubby’s problem wasn’t an overly stubborn mindset. He bent enough to change to spread the offense. He just wasn’t all in. Bielema isn’t all in with what he’s trying to do but, in changing anything, his program has lost all semblance of what it was his first two years when Arkansas, even in losing, was a tough, physical out for anyone, including Alabama.
The Hogs weren’t even the least bit tough and physical and couldn’t provide much test for middling South Carolina after halftime Saturday.