Arkansas has turned things around in a hurry under the new leadership of coach Bret Bielema. Stability, Razorbacks center Travis Swanson explained, has been a huge benefit to a program that had very little of it a year ago.
Now, Arkansas is undefeated (3-0) heading into a pivotal matchup against Rutgers. Will Bielema's ground-and-pound style of offense hold up? Will AJ Derby be able to fill in under center with Brandon Allen questionable? And just how good does this team feel with momentum finally on its side?
Swanson, an All-SEC selection and one of Bielema's favorites on the team, was kind enough to answer those questions and more in an interview with ESPN.com this week.
How important was it to get off to a good start this season? What's the feeling like having this program undefeated heading into a big game against Rutgers?
Travis Swanson: I think it's been a great start to us, obviously with the whole new coaching staff, a whole new kind of program that we have here at Arkansas. The whole team feels like it's just monumental for us to go undefeated, especially into this Rutgers game to have some good momentum to work with.
With Bielema coming in and the early success, can you quantify what the culture change has been like? It felt like it got really difficult toward the end of the year last season. Just how much have things changed?
TS: A lot has been changed, obviously, with a whole new staff. Any time you have a coaching change, everything changes because each coach is different with their philosophy and everything. I think the biggest change from last year to this year is just that now we know who we have here and there are no questions about what's going to happen at the end of the season.
What have you seen on film on this Rutgers team you'll face Saturday?
TS: The biggest thing you see on film when you look at them as a defense is they don't really pump out these big, hulking guys. They're just very athletic. They're very good at what they do. The thing that helps us is they run the same defense as Southern Miss did, which we played last week, so there's a lot of carryover. And things that we saw that we didn't do well against this style of defense that we could correct this week.
Are you at a point now where you feel like you have to manage expectations, though? Just how much progress does this team have to make before it can contend in SEC play?
TS: You've got to make progress this week. If you plateau during the beginning of the season, you're going to have a pretty rough year. But I feel like week in and week out this team has come together and just gotten better and better, especially this week.
TS: I wouldn't say surprised. We're obviously a different offense than we were last year, and we kind of knew the identity we wanted for ourselves early in the season and we've had success doing that.
Tell me about their styles: What makes them special? What makes them different?
TS: Really all three of them, including Kiero Small, complements each other so well. They each bring something different to the table that just brings a lot of versatility to the offense. Jonathan is a little bit bigger than a back and a lot more downhill, and Alex is a little bit shiftier kind of guy we like to get out on the edge and whatnot. And when you throw Kiero in that equation lead blocking for them, it's a deadly combo.
I was going to ask about Kiero, but you beat me to it. How important has he been as that lead blocker and have you felt good about what the offensive line has been able to do opening holes in that same respect?
TS: Kiero is such a huge asset to this offense. He can really do anything that you want to. All you have to do is ask him to do it and he'll line up and execute for you. He's just one of those guys. And as far as offensive line goes, we take, obviously, huge pride in the run game and keeping the quarterback upright and whatnot. So the early success the running backs have had has made us happy. We just want to continue that from here on out.
As an offensive lineman, you've got to love the ground-and-pound offense coach Bret Bielema has brought in, right?
TS: The best part about it is that it keeps the defenses on their heels because when you can run the ball well it opens things up with play-action pass and whatnot.
Losing Brandon Allen last week was tough, but AJ Derby filled in admirably and helped secure the win over Southern Miss. What have you seen from him this week to feel good going into Saturday's game?
TS: I feel great about all the quarterbacks that we have. No matter what coach decides and who he decides to put in there, I know that our entire team has the utmost faith with who is in there. The quarterbacks came to work this week because they really don't know the situation heading into the game, but we have all the confidence in who they put out there.