FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. (AP) — Bret Bielema has spent much of his first offseason in Arkansas traveling to fan clubs across the state, reassuring the natives that the forward pass isn't going away.
Despite Bielema's public relations battle against the perception that he's a run-only coach, it's on the other side of the ball where the Razorbacks need the most improvement.
Arkansas will finally have the opportunity to show just how far it's come under Bielema — on both sides of the ball — when it hosts a surging Louisiana-Lafayette on Saturday. It's a difficult first test for the Razorbacks and their new coach, one that figures to test a rebuilt defense that's been among the Southeastern Conference's worst in recent years.
"We're not worried about anything in the past, anything in the future," Arkansas cornerback Tevin Mitchel said. "It's all about right now."
Last season under interim coach John L. Smith, the Razorbacks were 12th in the SEC in total defense — allowing an average of 409.9 yards per game. The numbers were even more putrid against the pass, where Arkansas was last in the league with an average of 285.8 yards allowed per game.
The lack of a dominating defense was hardly anything new for the school, dating back to the four previous years under former coach Bobby Petrino.
Offensive success was the mainstay under Petrino, and it was a philosophy that began in practice and carried over into games.
Even two seasons ago, when the Razorbacks won the Cotton Bowl over Kansas State, they were no better than 9th in the SEC in total defense.
Enter Bielema, a former defensive lineman whose coaching roots are also on the defensive side of the ball. He and defensive coordinator Chris Ash coached a Wisconsin defense that was 15th in the nation in total defense a year ago, allowing 322.6 yards per game, and the two are hoping to create a similar expectation level at Arkansas — sooner rather than later.
It's a philosophy Ash said starts at the top.
"We're not going to be a team that is going to be one-sided," Ash said. "We're going to have balance, we're going to be an offense that is efficient and can score some points, but we're going to be really good on defense, too.
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