FOXBORO -- What is it about Arkansas? What is it about that program that had Bill Belichick and Nick Caserio hoarding their players earlier this spring?
They selected defensive end Deatrich Wise in the fourth round of the draft, then they signed undrafted free agents Brooks Ellis and Cody Hollister soon thereafter. The trio was added to a roster that already included Trey Flowers, a fourth-round pick out of Arkansas in 2015.
It feels like a pipeline.
- Brooks Ellis has a pretty good fallback plan if football doesn't work out -- medical school
- Deatrich Wise says ex-Arkansas teammate Trey Flowers is 'an older-brother type'
Of course there are no absolutes. A degree from Arkansas -- or Rutgers, or Alabama, or any number of other schools from which multiple Patriots have been plucked in the past -- doesn't earn you a roster spot in New England.
But a background with a particular coach, an understanding of a particular philosophy, a grasp on particular concepts . . . those can't hurt. And the recent Patriots run on Arkansas products -- only Arizona State has as many players on the Patriots 90-man roster -- is a good illustration of why.
For some insight into what makes these Arkansas players fit in Foxboro we spoke to Razorbacks head coach Bret Bielema for Quick Slants the Podcast, as well as former Arkansas defensive coordinator Robb Smith, Wise and Ellis for their takes. (Story continues under the podcast.)
To understand why the Patriots have dipped so frequently into the pool of talent coming from Arkansas, you must first understand the people involved.
Start with Bielema. He was a linebacker coach at his alma mater, the University of Iowa, when Kirk Ferentz took over in 1999. Ferentz was coming off a six-year run as an offensive line coach for the Ravens and Browns, which began in Cleveland in 1993 under Belichick.
"It's been a long history," Bielema said. "One of my first coaching jobs, I was a linebacker coach at the University of Iowa for Kirk Ferentz. Kirk and Coach Belichick are I think fairly close and worked together. [They] share a lot of similar thoughts and ideas, and that's when I first kind of became aware of Coach [Belichick] and what he believed in."
Then there is agent Neil Cornrich. Before the Browns moved to Baltimore, Ferentz hired Cornrich as his representative after Belichick suggested the idea. Cornrich has counted Belichick as one of his clients, and he represents Bielema as well.
Cornrich has worked for a variety of players out of Arkansas and Iowa, including Flowers, Ellis and Patriots undrafted rookies LeShun Daniels and Cole Croston, both of whom hail from Iowa. Cornrich also represents Patriots running back Rex Burkhead.
Smith deserves to be part of the conversation, too. He serves as a fascinating thread in the web that connects the Patriots to both Arkansas and Rutgers. Not only did Smith work as Arkansas defensive coordinator from 2014-16, but before that he was a longtime assistant to Greg Schiano, one of Belichick's most trusted confidant's in the coaching world.
Smith was introduced to Schiano while recruiting in New Jersey for the University of Maine, and eventually he was hired by Schiano to coach special teams, linebackers and defensive backs. Smith was named defensive coordinator in 2012, and he went to the NFL with Schiano in 2013 to be the Buccaneers linebacker coach that season. Patriots safeties Devin McCourty and Duron Harmon, former corner Logan Ryan, linebacker Jonathan Freeny, safeties coach Steve Belichick, Flowers, Wise and Ellis -- Smith has worked with them all.
Through the relationships linking Arkansas and the Patriots, trust has been established, ideas have been exchanged, and referrals have flowed.
Before Flowers was drafted, Steve Belichick and Patriots defensive coordinator Matt Patricia paid Arkansas a visit. Schiano, who was spotted with Belichick at the 2015 NFL Scouting Combine, also made his way to Fayetteville before that draft. The Patriots ended up taking two Razorbacks from that class: Flowers and sixth-round tight end AJ Derby.
Before that, in 2014, Bielema and his staff were invited to Foxboro by Belichick to see how the Patriots operated during their organized team activities.
"We share a lot of similar thoughts," Bielema said. "But just that organization, the way people interact, the way they're coached, to see a practice first-hand is pretty impressive in the way they go about things. [There's] a lot of things we've tried to model since that point in time, and our emphasis on certain things.
"He's is one of the best in the business, if not the best, and to watch the inside dynamics from A-to-Z is a really, really special thing . . . He's never afraid to go with what he believes is correct, and I know that's why they have success."
"I think [Belichick] had some familiarity with our system at Rutgers, obviously, under Coach Schiano, and then got a chance to get to know Coach Bielema and see him first hand and see how he runs a program," Smith said. "And it just kind of, I think, evolved from there."
Even during one of the most hectic weekends on the NFL calendar, the Patriots will follow up with Bielema personally for his perspective. Gathering those last-minute details, Bielema says, is indicative of the effort that he believes characterizes every facet of the organization.
"As long as I've been doing this, on draft day, I've really only heard from two or three organizations during my entire 12-year career that reach out to me during the draft," Bielema said. "To be quite honest, it's New England, Seattle, and in the last couple of years the Falcons. And I believe that's obviously because of the legacy that's at Atlanta through New England. It's not a surprise to me when these things happen. It's very, very clear why it happens and why they have success."
Belichick gave some insight into one of the keys of getting his players to buy in to the Patriots culture when he joined Paul Rabil's podcast "Suiting Up" earlier this month.
"I'd say a big part of that is the selection process," Belichick said. "If you select people that aren't going to be able to make that adjustment to the culture, then you're really swimming up-stream and it's hard to get it done. Part of getting everything in line is selecting the right people with the right values or the right work ethic that can actually make it functional in a productive way."
If a college program can get that selection process underway with the players it recruits, and if that program can continue to harp on the importance of a strong work ethic once players are on campus, then that may remove some of the guesswork for Belichick and his staff when the draft rolls around.
What is it about Arkansas? Therein lies the reason, Ellis believes.
"I think it has to do with the type of people that Coach [Bielema] recruits, and how he works them, and how they have to come to work every day. And if they don't they're going to get left behind," Ellis said. "That's exactly what we're doing [in New England], just going day by day and getting better. If you do that, then you'll improve."
"The one thing that I really do pride our guys on is I really make our guys hold accountability to doing things right," Bielema said. "Having a certain work ethic and an attitude so that when they get there, they don't have to learn how to do that. It's actually already there.
"Now, they're going to enhance it. I understand the Patriots take it to a whole other level, but I think that ground-level understanding of what you're getting is already there. Now they can build it and mold it into what they want."
There are no absolutes. A player's college does not determine whether he's a sure-thing on or off the field. But there are trends. Rutgers players have been model citizens in the Patriots locker room and in the community, with McCourty leading the way as a multi-year captain. Bielema products have had a shorter history, but a solid one. Flowers is one of the most well-respected young players on the roster, as is James White, who played under Bielema at Wisconsin.
"James, Trey, Deatrich, Cody Hollister, Brooks Ellis now as free agents . . . those guys you're never going to have to wake up and worry about what they did last night," Bielema said. "They're great people. They're great kids. They buy in to being successful. A lot of them have come from two-parent homes or homes that you can realize that they've been raised the right way. I think that's another great thing that the Patriots look for. It doesn't happen by chance that they win all these games."
"Very similar, the program here and the program in college . . . It's just how they run their whole program from the top to the bottom," Wise said. "Show everybody respect. I don't care if it's a CEO, a GM, a head coach, a janitor or a cafeteria lady. Treat everybody with respect. That's what Arkansas taught me, and that's what I'm learning here as well."
It's not all about who your coach was or the culture you've grown accustomed to. There is an Xs and Os component that helps attract the Patriots to players who've studied under Bielema and Smith.
Bielema is known for having run a pro-style offense both at Wisconsin and Arkansas, something which is becoming increasingly rare in the college ranks now that the spread reigns supreme.
"I was actually talking to a coach at another NFL team on the complete other side of the country, and they were talking about how one of our wide receivers was in the huddle and basically telling all the other players where to go and what to do at that position," Bielema said. "They didn't have any recall of that type of offense. I do think it helps the transition.
"AJ Derby, he played literally eight or nine games for us at tight end. He was a quarterback all the way to his senior year . . . [But] there was a lot of carryover. Not necessarily in the terminology, but there was an easy, 'Oh that's this? That means this? OK I got it.' "
Defensively, there's an emphasis at Arkansas on knowing more than just your individual job. Players are expected to understand concepts that help the entire defense operate, just as they are in New England.
"What we do, we teach Hoganese here," Bielema said. "We teach a culture and a language that is unique to us as Hogs, as Arkansas Razorbacks. These Hoganese classes, constantly, year-round -- spring, summer and fall -- are classes that teach not only the individual and the individual groups, but I'm gonna teach a defensive end when he's filling underneath a kick-out block and the corner is there to support, why that happens and what it does. But also when that happens, what player now is exposed?
"There's gonna be times when a player gets to make a fun play. He's a blitzer, he's a stunt or something. But it's the one when he's got a really tough job to uphold the defense that he's gotta come through at his finest. I think that's something our kids have a better understanding of how that happens, and that in the end helps everybody play a little bit better."
It's a philosophy that Schiano, now the defensive coordinator and associate head coach at Ohio State, espoused at Rutgers. And with Smith, Arkansas ran the same defense that the Scarlet Knights ran under Schiano. It's the same defense Smith has taken with him to the University of Minnesota, where he's in his first year as defensive coordinator.
"It's very much personnel-based," Smith said. "We try to match the personnel to the offenses that we're seeing. I think we ask our players to do a lot from a mental standpoint, which I think fits in well with their system . . .
"I think the more that you know in the big-picture -- and how that helps you fit with your particular job and what your role is -- is paramount to your success. We've been pretty lucky with the guys that we've had. And a lot of those guys are with [the Patriots] now. Those guys have been able to do that. Not only know what their job is, but also know what other people do around them."
McCourty, Smith relayed, was the ideal pupil when it came to his understanding of the defense at large.
"When you have a corner who can tell you what your three-technique and what your six-technique are doing and how that ties into your entire defense," Smith said, "that's the mold in which, in that Coach Schiano system, you teach your players."
"It's looking at all the details," Ellis said. "[Smith] doesn't want you to know you have this on this play. He wants you to know why you have this, why you're doing something, why you have this responsibility. It's all the details. Coach Smith did a great job of that, and it applies here because we're doing the same thing."
There are no absolutes. Not everyone who played at Arkansas is guaranteed to stick in New England based on the schemes he learned in college. But with three more of his guys getting shots to make the Patriots in 2017, Bielema is beaming.
"We are very excited," he said. "I have the utmost respect for Coach Belichick and everything that he's done. And to have our guys be a part of one of the best programs in the history of the NFL is pretty special."