FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. — Trey Flowers chose Arkansas when he was in high school, because he wanted the chance to win a national championship.
The Razorbacks' defensive end chose to return for his senior season, because he wasn't ready to leave a program that had fallen so far from those championship expectations.
Little went as Arkansas had hoped during last year's winless march through the Southeastern Conference under first-year coach Bret Bielema. The coach got a much-needed boost following the 3-9 season when Flowers announced he was returning after receiving a projected third-round draft grade from the NFL.
The 6-foot-4, 268-pound Flowers had 13 ½ tackles for losses last season as a junior, and many expected him to leave for the professional ranks — especially after a tumultuous last two seasons in the wake of the Bobby Petrino scandal.
Arkansas went 11-2 and won the Cotton Bowl during Flowers' freshman season in 2011, but last year's collapse brought the school's two-year record to 7-17. Despite the struggles, Flowers' belief in his teammates and Bielema was enough for him to return for his final season.
"Knowing just a few years ago where we were and how close we were," Flowers said. "On the outside, they see last year's scores, but we see the work and know the belief is there again."
Whether Arkansas, which was picked last in the SEC West, can improve enough this season to reach a bowl game for the first time since 2011 is anyone's best guess.
Regardless, Bielema said Flowers' decision to return will have long-term benefits for a coaching staff still looking for its first SEC win — and the credibility that goes with it.
"What Trey did is he gave us a ringing endorsement as coaches because he's been through a lot," Bielema said.
To help Flowers with his offseason decision, Bielema and Razorbacks strength coach Ben Herbert flew to Flowers' home in Alabama following last season.
The coaches desperately wanted their standout defensive end to return, but they also wanted to present Flowers with all the pros and cons to leaving for the NFL. They talked about Flowers' projected improvement as a senior, but Bielema also said he would recommend agents if he decided to leave school.
In the end, Bielema's directness was enough to solidify Flowers' decision.
"I was already leaning more on staying because of the season we had and wanting to help us win, but it was tough," Flowers said. "The NFL was sort of tempting, but it came down to making a sacrifice by not taking the money now versus taking the money later with the potential to earn more money later."
Arkansas allowed 30.8 points per game last season, a statistic it hopes to improve this season under new defensive coordinator Robb Smith and with Flowers' return.
The Razorbacks also added Rory Segrest to coach the defensive line, and the former Philadelphia Eagles assistant likes what he's seen so far from Flowers — who added 12 pounds during the offseason and is eager to improve on his career totals of 32 tackles for losses and 12 sacks.
"The thing about Trey is he's really focused right now," Segrest said. "The biggest thing is just his determination on where he's wanting to go and what he's trying to do to get there."