The 45-year-old has been here since leaving his North Carolina State post in early December to rejoin long-time friend and Arkansas coach Houston Nutt. There’s no denying that Herring has had ample time to take care of interior decorating, but the no-nonsense coach left the walls blank on purpose.
In his eyes, Herring hasn’t accomplished anything worth displaying.
“I want to put up a goal-line stand and blow it up,” said Herring while pointing to his left. “I want to put up an interception against Tennessee in the (Southeastern Conference) Championship Game.
“But this is it right now. I have not earned any pictures, yet.”
It’s clear the hard-nosed and hard-charged Herring will practice the same policy when the Hogs step on the practice fields for Monday’s opening of spring drills.
Herring promises to instantly stress, test and challenge the Hogs. It’s what he was hired to do when he replaced fired defensive coordinator Dave Wommack after Arkansas finished 75th in the nation in total defense (397.2 yards per game) during the 5-6 season of 2004. His approach worked at North Carolina State, where Herring turned the struggling Wolfpack into the nation’s best defense in 2004 (221.4 ypg).
Herring said similar results are achievable despite Arkansas’ youth, but stressed that improvement won’t come without “intangibles” like accountability, commitment, hard work and effort.
His message is simple: You’ll get exactly what you earn.
“At the end of the day the players themselves will know who belongs and who doesn’t,” Herring said. “We still have some guys right now that think they are players, but they’re not. Not under our standards. The bar has been raised and they will be challenged. They will be put in challenging situations where they’re going to have to earn what they get.
“It’s not going to be an easy process.”
Herring’s rugged mentality has been the foundation of a punishing off-season program in which several Razorbacks were admittedly pushed past their limits. Defensive tackle Marcus Harrison broke down during one of the workouts. Defensive end Jamaal Anderson came close during his first off-season experience.
Herring told a few players who attended his introductory press conference to tell their teammates to “be excited, but beware” of the amount of work ahead of them.
Senior linebacker Pierre Brown, who started 10 games last season and finished second on the team with 60 tackles, said Herring’s warning was accurate.
“He’s was right when he said beware,” Brown said. “He wants you to work hard. He’s going to push you to the point of, not breaking, but he’s going to push you pretty close to the edge.”
That was obvious in off-season conditioning drills and Brown is confident that will continue next week.
Herring moved several players like Harrison (defensive end to defensive tackle) and Desmond Sims (outside linebacker to defensive end) to shore up holes in his 4-3 scheme, adding depth and leading to more competition. He has no problem dropping veterans to the back of the line if they don’t perform up to his expectations, and has made it clear he doesn’t care about returning starters.
“We’re all starting fresh,” Herring said. “We’re all starting on the same page, an empty page, a blank page: ‘Now write your story. What are you going to do? Where do you want to go?’
“It’s up for grabs. I don’t care who starts. I could care less. Isn’t it beautiful? No pre-conceived ideas: ‘Go earn it.’”
Not Playing Favorites
A few players like linebackers Clarke Moore and Sam Olajubutu already have gotten that message, loud and clear.
Moore, who has started 12 career games, said he was working at third-team weakside linebacker last week. Olajubutu, one of Arkansas’ most experienced players with 139 career tackles, joined him as the third-team middle linebacker.
“He’s making a statement,” Moore said. “Whoever is going to win the job is going to come out and be separated from the pack. It’s just a matter of who wants it.”
Said Brown: “In his eyes, we’re all straight out of high school, so you have to go out there and compete.
“It’s very humbling. Guys like me and Clarke and the senior linebackers, we’re going to have to compete hard.”
But Moore, who believes Herring could be the most tenacious coach he’ll ever play for, also said he was a difference-maker during off-season conditioning drills.
He demanded effort from the Razorbacks during weight lifting sessions, sprints and individual position work. Brown said the workouts, normally scheduled for 6 a.m., were pushed back to 5:30 and Herring wanted everyone dressed exactly the same.
“He raised the level of intensity, focus, concentration and accountability,” Nutt said. “They know they’re not going to play if they can’t be trusted. If you’re not going to be accountable, and if you’re not going to go 100 percent, you won’t be out there. You won’t be part of it.
“It’s a simple recipe, but it’s hard to do that every day.”
Arkansas’ defensive players will have to follow Herring’s plan closely this spring.
If not, he promises they’ll wish they had.
Herring said effort will be judged on a snap-by-snap basis. The staff will watch film and count the number of times players loaf. For each loaf, the entire defense will jog in place, flop to their stomachs when they hear a whistle, and pop up again.
“There’s going to be a high, high premium on effort,” Herring said. “We’ve got to get to the point where we don’t coach effort. It’s a way of life. The standard that we’ll set effort-wise will be, at first, one that these players think is unfair and unjust.
“But effort around here will not be negotiable or debated. It will be understood.”
Nutt said the Razorbacks will experience some growing pains, but he believes the defense under Herring will be quicker and more solid.
Herring is looking for leaders and players he can count on to perform at each position next fall. He said the tone was set this winter and plans to use the spring partly to “weed out” players who could be the root of attitude problems.
More important, he needs to see his players “hit somebody in the mouth. We need to know what if feels like and see if it tastes good to us or see if we’re scared.”
Arkansas faces plenty of rebuilding challenges, but Herring is confident rewards -- like the possibility of a few memorable pictures for his office walls -- are coming.
“We’re going to work hard so hard in practice and be demanding of their effort,” Herring said. “When it gets down close in the fourth quarter, and they’ve sacrificed their bodies and their mind and their soul and their spirit, they’re not going to give in when they’re in a tough test. They’re not going to wilt or fold under the pressure. They’re going to bow up and they’re going to fight for what they’ve sacrificed.
“When you’ve earned something, when you’ve busted your tail for something, you’re not going to give up on it easy.”