Kicking it with Bret Bielema, Part I

First-year Arkansas coach Bret Bielema has seen his team in pads for all of one practice, last Thursday.

So he’s still trying to get a feel for what he has and what he doesn’t have at this point. The Hogs are off for spring break this week and will return to practice next Tuesday.

We caught up with Bielema recently to get his thoughts on the start of practice, his vision for the Arkansas program and some of the challenges he faces after making the move from the Big Ten to the SEC.

Here’s Part I of our Q&A:

How much Arkansas tape did you guys look at from last season?

Bret Bielema: Offensively and defensively, we had to look at some, just from a standpoint of personnel. There’s going to be some very dramatic differences in scheme and technique. There wasn’t a big emphasis on that. It was more just getting to know the personnel and where they’re at. As a head coach, I personally watched very little because I didn’t want to form any expectations or draw any conclusions before I saw what was in front of me as reality. I think that’s the only way to do it.

Where do you think most of your work will be cut out with this team?

BB: It’s up front, offensively and defensively, and that’s where it all starts, in the line play. I really believe in that. It’s the foundation of what we do. To me, that can’t waver if you want to have success in any conference, in any capacity, when you have to build from the ground up. That’s important for us. It doesn’t matter what the scheme is.

It appears that one of your strengths in 2013 will be your defensive line with several players returning who were productive for you last season. Isn’t that a good place to start?

BB: I’m not going to put my head in the sand. Up front defensively, I think we have some players that return who are exceptional. I think one of the strongest coaches on our staff is our defensive line coach (Charlie Partridge). One of the different things we did was combine the defensive ends and defensive tackles into one room and with one coach. I just think those four have to learn to play together with their eyes closed. They have to know where each other are on any given play, and they’ve got to be able to play off one another very, very well. The ability to combine that room is only going to make us stronger.

What has been the attitude of the team entering spring, especially given how disappointing last season was coming off a pair of highly successful seasons in 2010 and 2011?

BB: I’ll read you three things from my notes the first day of practice. No. 1, the kids are listening, so be careful what you say and make it be exactly what you want. No. 2, the kids are hungry. Cultivate the improvement on day-to-day progress. Don’t let a day go by. No. 3, the kids are talented. Clean up the details on how the kids can play. Don’t make them over-think. Don’t make them overreact. Just let them play instinctively and become a team that can play very, very fast and very physical. I’ve been overwhelmed at the way our kids have transitioned, not just the kids, but the coaches as well. That’s been a pretty neat feeling.

Speaking of your coaches, how important was it to get the right mix on your staff?

BB: It was important to nail my coordinators. That’s why Jim Chaney and Chris Ash were my first two hires. I just couldn’t do it until after the Rose Bowl, but Jim confirmed to me that he was coming. I didn’t want to bring with me my whole staff from Wisconsin. Obviously, we had done some good things and won a championship there. But it’s not going to be a cookie cutter of Wisconsin. It’s going to be a program that’s built here to win at Arkansas and built to win in the SEC and sustain success over a period of time. That’s why I blended in a little bit of what I had, a little bit of what I wanted and a little bit of the unknown. All the coaches have strong ties to either myself or coaches on the staff.