FAYETTEVILLE — One of the first things Sam Pittman did when he arrived at Arkansas was scan video of returning players.
The Razorbacks’ new offensive line coach was curious about the returning players, eager to get a quick look at the personnel he would be working with in his new position. Pittman said Tuesday there was one player who particularly stood out that night, but couldn’t figure out why he hadn’t heard much about him.
“I was thinking, ‘Well where has this guy been?’” Pittman said. “He hadn’t played in 18 weeks. So I called him up and I asked him. I said, ‘What happened?’”
Smothers became one of Arkansas’ greatest disappearing acts after being the first true freshman offensive lineman to start a season opener in school history in 2011.
The former Springdale High star was yanked from the field after four starts at offensive tackle and has rarely played since. He watched all but three games from the sidelines the rest of 2011 and then – at his own request – redshirted in 2012.
But Smothers has worked his way back into the starting group this spring, lining up at left guard in Arkansas’ new-look offensive line. He feels much better prepared to make a meaningful mark as a starter and is trying to prove it to the new staff.
“It gave me another year to work,” Smothers said of his redshirt season. “It gave me a year to sit out and just kind of look back and learn more and get better.”
Former Arkansas coach Bobby Petrino made the decision to play Smothers immediately in 2011, calling the freshman an impressive technician in the preseason. Smothers was projected as a guard when he arrived on campus, but made his Arkansas debut as a starting tackle for the season opener.
He did something former Arkansas offensive linemen like Shawn Andrews, Bobbie Williams and Tony Ugoh hadn’t by starting the opener in the trenches as a true freshman. But it wasn’t long before it was clear Smothers was overmatched and replaced in the starting unit by Jason Peacock after struggling in a loss to Alabama.
It was a humbling experience for Smothers.
“No one wishes to redshirt,” Smothers said when asked if playing in 2011 was a mistake. “Looking back on it now it might’ve been better. But I have no regrets.”
Smothers was asked about sitting out 2012 several times Tuesday and insisted it was his suggestion to the previous staff. No matter who made the call, Smothers believes he made some important improvements with his leverage and explosiveness coming off the line. He thinks it’s helping him this spring.
But Smothers remains far from a finished product. In fact, Pittman said Smothers was still lacking in another important area when he first met him.
“He wasn’t real confident. I didn’t feel like he had a lot of confidence,” Pittman said. “It’s starting to grow on him. Obviously, with some success it’s going to come.
“But he’s got really good feet. Obviously he’s got to play as long as he possibly can with his hands. But he’s very strong. He’s got really good feet and he’s smart.”
Pittman is trying to mold Smothers into a versatile lineman as well.
He opened the spring taking snaps behind first-team center Travis Swanson, preparing for a potential role as a backup. He has been locked in at guard the past two weeks and Arkansas offensive coordinator Jim Chaney said the Razorbacks believe Smothers can help at either position next season.
“We’ve liked Mitch since we walked in the door,” Chaney said. “He’s got good makeup. He’s got good stature. He’s doing a lot of nice things. He’s learning the new position. He’s learning new schemes. So he plays slow at times like most of them do.”
Smothers believes he, and the rest of the offensive linemen, have gotten much better through eight spring practices. The group will be tested once again Saturday, when Arkansas is scheduled to hold its second scrimmage in Razorback Stadium.
Smothers is hoping the final six practices and the Red-White Game on April 20 help prove he’s worthy of being a key cog once again as a redshirt sophomore.
“It’s still a little early,” Smothers said when asked if the starting offensive line was coming together. “Nothing is official until the first game. But it’s good.”