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Arkansas, Bielema to begin spring practice

FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. (AP) - Bret Bielema has spent the majority of his time away from Arkansas since being hired in December.

From speaking engagements across the state to recruiting visits across the country, with a brief vacation to the beach in the mix, the former Wisconsin coach has had little time in his new home in Fayetteville.

Bielema will have a chance to settle into his new surroundings when the Razorbacks begin spring practice on Sunday. More importantly, he'll finally have the opportunity to get a good look at what Arkansas' players have to offer on the field.

The Razorbacks will practice 15 times during the spring, finishing up with the spring game on April 20. There are plenty of questions coming off a disastrous 4-8 season that followed the firing of coach Bobby Petrino for hiring his mistress.

Bielema was hired to restore the program to the levels it reached while compiling a 21-5 record over Petrino's last two seasons.

His first priority, however, is simply finding a starting quarterback in the wake of Tyler Wilson's graduation. Senior Brandon Mitchell and sophomore Brandon Allen are the expected front-runners in the looming competition, but Bielema hasn't tipped his hand so far.

In fact, the coach wasn't even made available by Arkansas to talk in advance of spring practice. A spokesman said Bielema wasn't comfortable talking about his new players until after he had seen them for a few practices.

Bielema did speak to The Associated Press last month prior to national signing day, at which time he said he was looking for a ``clean, physical game'' from the Razorbacks during the spring. More than anything, he wanted the players to embrace him and his staff as they look to bring a more personal approach than what Arkansas was accustomed to under Petrino.

``I'm not trying to be their dad, I'm not trying to be their brother, I'm not trying to be their uncle,'' Bielema said. ``I'm trying to be their coach, and I want them to know I care about the next four years, the next 40 years, of their life.''

Cornerbacks coach Taver Johnson is the lone returning assistant coach at Arkansas from last season. The former Ohio State assistant was hired by Petrino before his firing last April, and he worked under interim coach John L. Smith last season as the Razorbacks' preseason hopes of a Southeastern Conference championship vanished.

Smith's laid-back approach was already a far cry from Petrino's military-like mentality, but so were his results, with a stunning loss to Louisiana-Monroe among the many blemishes on his resume during his brief tenure at Arkansas.

Johnson said following signing day that he looks at Bielema, with his love of reggae music and wearing flip-flops in the office, as a combination of Petrino's discipline and Smith's personality. More than anything, Johnson said it's clear Bielema cares about the players, assistant coaches and program.

``You know, we want to see our guys all the time,'' Johnson said. ``We want to be around them all the time. They don't feel like it's a principal's office, you know what I mean. They feel like this is part of their building, where they can go in any point in time and they won't be judged. They won't be cast away, so to speak. And that's key, just to make sure that they understand that we know they're people.''

As Smith proved, though, a welcoming personality isn't enough to win in the SEC.

It's a fact Bielema is well aware of, just as he knows he'll have little time to turn Arkansas around if he wants to keep the support he's earned so far. He wants to win and win now.

``I've got a class of 20-plus seniors,'' Bielema said. ``I don't want to tell them we're going to be great in three years. I think that they are going to get our best effort, and every effort we do on a daily basis will be to win.''

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