FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. (AP) - Bret Bielema has spent much of his first offseason in Arkansas traveling to fan clubs across the state, reassuring the natives the forward pass isn't going away.
Despite Bielema's public relations battle against the perception 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 against 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.
"If you look at the teams that have won in college football, not only in this league, we've got to have both."
To change the culture at Arkansas, Bielema and Ash have implemented longer periods of the physical inside-run portion of practices.
"You've got to come downhill, fill your gaps and take on runners," senior safety Eric Bennett said. "It's big-boy football every day."
They've also preached accountability on the defensive side of the ball, particularly for a relatively inexperienced linebacker group and a secondary that was abused time and again by opposing quarterbacks last season.
In a stunning overtime loss to Louisiana-Monroe last season, the Razorbacks allowed Warhawks quarterback Kolton Browning to pass for 412 yards. It's a scenario Arkansas hopes to avoid this season, beginning Saturday against a Ragin' Cajuns team that has finished 9-4 in each of the past two seasons and features dual-threat quarterback Terrance Broadway.
The junior accounted for 3,611 total yards (2,842 passing, 769 rushing) last season and figures to give the Razorbacks all they can handle in Bielema's debut.
"I don't really concern myself with what happened before we got here," Bielema said. "... We obviously run a different style offensively, but we've gotten a lot of work, going back even to last spring, against dual-threat quarterbacks and feel good about where we're at."
One area of proven strength for Arkansas is on its defensive front, led by senior defensive end Chris Smith. The Razorbacks were fifth in the SEC last season against the run, allowing 124.1 yards rushing per game, and they return Smith and fellow defensive end Trey Flowers this season.
Smith toyed with the idea of entering the NFL draft following last season, a year in which he led Arkansas with 9.5 sacks, but it was Bielema's commitment to defense that made returning to school an easy decision.
"We've got a defensive-minded coach, and defense wins championships," Smith said. "We're just going to try and be a better defensive team, and we will be."