FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. — Bret Bielema wasn’t sure what to make of the Arkansas offense when it lined up for its first short-yardage scenario during preseason camp.
Bielema, known for his belief in a power running game while at Wisconsin, took one look at the Razorbacks lined up in the shotgun and turned to offensive line coach Sam Pittman.
“I certainly hope the first short-yardage play this fall, we aren’t in the (shot)gun,” Bielema said.
Of all the new philosophies around Arkansas this fall in Bielema’s first year, perhaps the most intriguing is his fit with offensive coordinator Jim Chaney. They seem to be an odd fit at first glance, with Bielema’s belief in power football and Chaney’s reputation as a pass-happy mad scientist of sorts.
The two, however, are both preaching the same key to offensive success this season with the Razorbacks — balance.
When Bielema was hired in December, the former defensive coach and defensive lineman in college moved quickly to deflect any criticism of his style of play. More specifically, to take on the perception he was a run-only, defensive-minded coach.
Yes, Bielema has had a former offensive lineman taken in the first round of each of the last three NFL Drafts. Yes, he coached former Wisconsin running back Montee Ball, who broke the NCAA career records for total touchdowns (83) and rushing touchdowns (77).
He also coached current Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson in 2011, when the Badgers finished sixth in the country in scoring — with Wilson and Ball each accounting for more than 30 touchdowns.
“A lot of times in recruiting, people take shots at us that we’re just going to be four yards and a cloud of dust,” Bielema said. “If you look back at our history, we were one of the few teams that averaged over 220 yards running and throwing the ball, which to me creates great balance, which makes quarterback a little easier to read defenses.”
When Bielema was looking for a Southeastern Conference flavor on his coaching staff, he didn’t have to look for to find Chaney. The former Tennessee offensive coordinator first made a national name for himself as Drew Brees’ offensive coordinator at Purdue, and he followed that up with a three-year stint as an assistant during the “Greatest Show On Turf” days of the St. Louis Rams.
Chaney is no stranger to offense, and in particular to the passing game. He spent the last four seasons with the Volunteers, helping oversee the development of quarterback Tyler Bray, and he helped the school finish second in the SEC last season in total offense — finishing second in the league with an average of 315.6 yards passing per game.
Tennessee’s offensive success came while attempting nearly 40 passes per game last season under Chaney’s direction. In contrast, Wisconsin attempted just 20.8 passes per game under Bielema a year ago.
So, just how will the two coaches mesh their offensive philosophies again?
Chaney wasted little time in using his quit whit to answer that question, using the third-and-two situation during preseason camp as an example. He said he’ll always have Bielema’s “little voice in the back of my head” during games, and that he has a clear understanding of the team’s balanced approach.
“It’s a funny thing about paychecks; they tend to voice their little view at you al all specific times,” Chaney joked. “I’m very clear on the philosophy we’re trying to get done here, and I believe in it or I wouldn’t be here.”
Arkansas senior receiver Javontee Herndon admitted to some initial concern about the team’s offensive approach after Bielema was hired, purely based on Wisconsin’s reputation as a run-first school and comparing that to the pass-first mentality the Razorbacks had the last four seasons.
Herndon said that concern was put to rest after meeting Bielema and Chaney, and then seeing how well Arkansas adapted to its new offense during the spring and summer.
“The offense is opened up for everybody to get the ball, not just running backs, tight ends or receivers,” Herndon said. “It’s for everybody, and we use all the weapons accordingly.”
Pittman, who worked with Chaney last season at Tennessee, believes the offensive coordinator and Bielema will have no problems agreeing on play-calling this season. He said they’ll meet each week and come up with a game plan.
Once that’s in place, it’s just a matter of following the script.
“Jim’s a very, very intelligent man and football coach,” Pittman said. “He knows what he wants to do, and he’s had success. Once we set that down on paper, that’s what he’s going to do and hopefully we execute it.”