This is the 10th and final story in a series previewing the 2013 Razorbacks. Arkansas opens the season against Louisiana-Lafayette on Saturday at 3 p.m.
FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas coach Bret Bielema was asked which group had grown the most since spring practice
Strength and conditioning coach Ben Herbert was asked nearly the same thing in early August, when he spoke about the Razorbacks’ summer weight room progress.
The choice was easy for both.
“The offensive line would lead the charge,” Bielema said. “I know (position coach) Sam (Pittman) is going to poor boy and say we’ve got to get better and all that goes into it, but he’s really done a nice job of bringing along our depth. We need to be more complete, I think, from tackle to tackle, but that group has really jumped out.”
Arkansas’ offensive line — according to coaches — has taken tremendous strides since Bielema and his staff arrived last December. It’s good news for quarterback Brandon Allen and the rest of Razorbacks because, in reality, the group’s growth was a necessity. The front five are being looked at as the foundation of a program priding itself on a power run game and overall strength in the trenches.
Neither was Arkansas’ strong suit under former coach Bobby Petrino. It was painfully evident last season, when quarterback Tyler Wilson was running for his life when the Hogs faced big-time fronts. But guard Brey Cook believes the Arkansas line isn’t the same group it was in 2012 and it’s good to see coaches have noticed.
“It’s definitely a compliment,” Cook said of Bielema’s comments. “We've put in the work, and we've definitely noticed it in the last week. We really focused in on the specifics, the things that really help you go from good to great.”
The process began in the weight room, when linemen attacked workouts like Herbert and the Hogs had hoped. The biggest gain came from tackle Grady Ollison, who put on roughly 30 pounds so he could be better equipped to handle SEC defensive ends in his first year on the field. The most visible change belonged to Cook, who tweeted out before and after photos showing more muscle mass.
The changes — which Cook described as “Body by Herb” — were by design.
Arkansas needed its linemen to be more powerful with an emphasis on the run.
“I do feel it,” second-team center Luke Charpentier said. “Like when we’re running some gap plays, which are power plays. Normally, back blocking a 350-pound nose guard isn’t always the easiest thing. Now I can start to feel myself just lifting them out of there. Whereas two years ago, I didn’t have that strength that I do now.”
Said Cook: “You can see it in film, especially. When we really get our technique down, you can see the strength come in and just be able to blow kids off the ball.”
Arkansas has worked hard to solidify the chemistry in its starting unit, which hasn’t changed since the spring.
Swanson will start at center, continuing to anchor a position he has held since his redshirt freshman season. Senior David Hurd and redshirt freshman Grady Ollison will man the tackles. Brey Cook and Mitch Smothers – who each have starting experience at tackle during their careers — will start inside at guard.
Arkansas also is gaining confidence in it depth with freshmen tackles Denver Kirkland and Dan Skipper making a mark this preseason. Backup center Luke Charpentier also played well in place of Swanson during the team’s first scrimmage.
“I have all the confidence in all the guys we have up front,” Swanson said about Arkansas’ growing depth. “Coach Pittman, Coach B and (offensive coordinator) Jim Chaney do a great job in preparing us for anything that gets thrown at us.”
The group’s cohesiveness is key and Chaney said the Razorbacks are getting there.
It helps to start with Swanson, who is a Rimington Trophy candidate and preseason first-team All-SEC selection. The senior is preparing for his fourth season as a starter and has been in the first-team group every game of his career (38 and counting).
“When you have a center like Swanson who is a good, dominant football player, it makes things better,” Chaney said. “He is the glue who puts them all together.
“They seem a little more choreographed. They are bigger and stronger and did a good job with Herb all summer. ... And they understand their roles a lot better. They are more familiar with the plays. So with that said, the nuances and the details start showing up and we are seeing that right now.”
Arkansas running back Jonathan Williams said the success was particularly evident in the team’s second scrimmage, which was closed to the public.
Williams scored on a touchdown run during the scrimmage and noted he was “pretty much untouched.” While the score came against the second-team defense, Williams said the improvement is obvious this month.
“You definitely can see the difference in how they look physically,” Williams said. “You can see it in their body language as well. They feel more confident on the field and feel they can do things that maybe they weren't able to do in the spring.”
Arkansas’ objective now is to carry it into the opener against Louisiana-Lafayette.
The offensive line remains one of the biggest questions about the Razorbacks as they prepare for Bielema ball. Pittman said last week there was nice improvement, but wasn’t ready to proclaim his offensive line a polished group just yet.
Pittman did acknowledge the growth during the preseason, though.
“You obviously feel good if the head coach thinks your group's improved the most,” Pittman said. “But I think the biggest thing about it is, we've got a long way to go. I know that's a coaching cliche and all that, but we really do. …
“We'll get there, because our kids work. We've got enough talent. We'll get there.”
A Closer Look At ... OFFENSIVE LINE
Best of the Bunch: C Travis Swanson — Arkansas coach Bret Bielema believes Swanson is the best center in college football and the senior will get a chance to prove it. The Rimington Trophy candidate and preseason first-team All-SEC selection has played in and started every game in his Arkansas career and will be counted on to be one of the key building blocks in a new-look offense.
Watch Out For: RT Grady Ollison — The sophomore will be in the starting lineup for his first time as a Razorback and the staff has been optimistic about Ollison’s potential since the spring. The biggest moment for Ollison came in the offseason, when he was able to gain roughly 30 pounds to get over 300 pounds. The added weight and strength gains will be critical against SEC defensive ends.
Biggest Strength: Arkansas has a solid amount of experience along most of its offensive line with Swanson (38 starts), Hurd (11 starts), Cook (6 starts) and Smothers (4 starts) each bringing starting experience into the opener against Louisiana-Lafayette. Swanson’s knowledge in the middle is especially key, considering he’s working with a first-year quarterback in Brandon Allen.
Biggest Question: Can Arkansas’ offensive line push defensive fronts off the line of scrimmage? The Razorbacks’ plans rely on their ability to control the trenches, which the group struggled with in 2012. Arkansas hopes position coach Sam Pittman’s influence on the group and its strength gains from the summer will show.
Projected Starters: LT David Hurd, Sr., LG Mitch Smothers, So., C Travis Swanson, Sr., RG Brey Cook, Jr., RT Grady Ollison, So.
Other Contributors: T – Denver Kirkland, Fr., Dan Skipper, Fr., Chris Stringer, Jr.; G – Austin Beck, So., Johnathan McClure, Jr., Cordale Boyd, RS-Fr., C – Luke Charpentier, Jr.
That Figures: 2 —Arkansas starting offensive linemen who are engaged. Center Travis Swanson and guard Mitch Smothers proposed to their girlfriends just before preseason camp began in July. When asked if he had any plans to join them, guard Brey Cook said: “I feel like I’m going to get divorced before I get married.”
Quotable: “This summer, offseason was one that we’ve never experienced. You can just see it. It’s obvious with all of us. We’ve all gained 15 pounds. We’ve gotten a lot stronger. And I think when we first got in with Coach Herb he told us he wants us to never be comfortable. He wants to mentally challenge us every day. And I think it’s really paid off. We’ve had some mental breaks like that, but everybody is getting mentally tougher and stronger. And I think the whole offensive line is understanding that. We’re not the same group that we were last year.” — C Luke Charpentier on what the summer and strength coach Ben Herbert meant to the linemen.
— Robbie Neiswanger • Arkansas News Bureau