This is the third story in a 10-part series previewing the 2014 Razorbacks. Up next: Special teams
FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas coach Bret Bielema gets a little giddy when he talks about the big men in his program.
It created headlines at SEC Media Days, when Bielema praised freshman defensive tackle Bijhon Johnson’s backside. He said something similar about former Hog Kiero Small, the program’s battering-ram fullback last fall. So it was no surprise Bielema had trouble containing his excitement about the development of Arkansas’ offensive line when the Razorbacks opened preseason camp earlier this month.
“I tell you, it’s just fun to look at them,” Bielema said. “It sounds crazy, you know, but when they come out, they’re beginning to look like an offensive line that I know can play the style of football we want to play. From left tackle to right tackle and everywhere in between, you’ve got some guys that have some size. They have some length. They’re not obese. They can move. They’re athletic. It’s just impressive.”
Arkansas fans will get a chance to see what Bielema is talking about today, when the Razorbacks hold an open scrimmage in Razorback Stadium at 2:25 p.m. Most eyes will be on quarterback Brandon Allen and Arkansas’ skill position players, but there’s no mistaking a stout, physical and punishing offensive line is the foundation of Bielema’s plan to turn the Razorbacks into conference champions.
Right tackle Brey Cook said the objective was clear last season, when center Travis Swanson became the face of the program as it went from the pass-happy approach to its current smash mouth style. Swanson has moved on to the NFL, but the attitude has rubbed off on a deeper and physically improved offensive line this summer.
“(Swanson) was the kind of guy that kind of got everything going,” Cook said. “The difference between last year and this year, we had guys like him who bought in and gave 100 percent and they were successful. And this year everyone is bought in.
“I think we have kind of set that foundation of the O-line, being the premise of the team and we’re excited to lead. It’s fun to be the big guys. Kind of give orders and people listen because the O-line is the foundation of this team.”
Cook has taken the lead role himself. The senior was voted as a team captain this week and has been praised for his work ethic in leadership. In fact, Bielema said the rest of the line doesn’t move without Cook’s permission first.
Cook said it may be a little exaggerated, but appreciated the compliment. He also said it hasn’t taken much to motivate Arkansas’ offensive lineman after last season.
“They’re an incredible group of guys that just take care of their business,” Cook said.
It was evident in the summer, when several members of the line enjoyed a physical transformation under strength and conditioning coach Ben Herbert.
Two examples: Sophomore Dan Skipper added 25 pounds of muscle mass to his 6-foot-10 frame, pushing his weight to 327 pounds as he prepares to start at left tackle. Classmate Denver Kirkland shed 20 pounds, thinning down to 337 pounds.
Skipper, who started eight games at guard last season, said there was plenty of motivation to put in the work. Arkansas offensive line coach put together another impressive signing class, bringing in talented linemen to compete for positions.
“Knowing that there’s able-bodied guys two and three deep just drives you to be that much better in everything you do,” Skipper said. “Knowing that all summer everyone is trying to make their push, that there are new guys coming in just adds competition to everything, and competition brings out the best in people.”
Barring any late-camp changes, Arkansas will head into Auburn preparation with a first-team group that includes Skipper at left tackle, left guard Luke Charpentier, center Mitch Smothers, Kirkland (right guard) and Cook. Allen said there are signs the five have molded into a cohesive unit throughout preseason practice.
“Last year we had Swanson trying to basically direct the whole offensive line and get the whole line doing what they need to do,” Allen said. “That’s tough coming from one guy. So I think this year they all have a better grasp of the offense and you hear every single one of them making calls and getting the tight ends right, the tight ends helping them out. So just the communication up front is a night and day difference.”
Arkansas doesn’t expect a drop-off when it goes to the bench, either.
The 2014 signing class will provide the biggest boost beginning with UNLV transfer Cameron Jefferson, who has started 33 games in his career. Junior college transfer Sebastian Tretola, freshmen center Frank Ragnow, and freshman tackle Brian Wallace also have shown enough to earn second-team work this month.
Offensive line coach Sam Pittman said the development of the reserves is equally important in Arkansas’ plan to set the tone with its play in the trenches.
“When you come in as an O-line coach, this is where you want to be,” Pittman said. “You don’t want to say, ‘Oh, well, here are our five best and the rest are duds.’ I mean, you’re not going to be any good if that happens. So you want to say, ‘OK, we can play this guy and win, or we can play that guy and win.’
“I don’t know it we’re there yet, but we’re as close as we’ve ever been. It’s exciting.”
Of course, Arkansas will have to earn its reputation when the season begins by protecting Allen and opening holes for the offense’s talented tailbacks. But the group — which allowed an SEC-low eight sacks and paved the way for 208.7 rushing yards a game — said they’re aiming for improvement.
That’s good news for the Razorbacks, who have made it no secret their success will be determined by the performance of the offensive line. Bielema’s big men have relished that responsibility and are confident they’ll live up to expectations.
“The line as a whole, people have got trouble coming at them,” Kirkland said.
A Closer Look At … OFFENSIVE LINE
Best of the Bunch: Brey Cook — Travis Swanson was the group’s unquestioned leader last season, but his departure left a void in the offseason. Bielema said Cook filled it in the offseason. Arkansas’ most experienced lineman has shouldered the leadership load and, more, important, has solidified his role at right tackle. He’ll be the anchor of a line should have much more depth and talent this season.
Watch Out For: Cameron Jefferson — Arkansas sent a message to its returning group by signing Jefferson, who was a three-year starter at UNLV. Jefferson has spent most of his career at left guard, but is capable of playing anywhere along the Arkansas front. He may not start right away, but will have a key role this season.
Biggest Question: How much will Arkansas miss Swanson? The four-year starter isn’t easy to replace, but the Razorbacks hope improvement across the front will help soften the blow. Several candidates auditioned for the starting spot at center, but junior Mitch Smothers has held onto the first-team role since late last spring and should start the opener. Freshman Frank Ragnow is next in line.
Projected Starters: LT Dan Skipper, So., (8 starts at LG in 2013); LG Luke Charpentier, Sr., (1 career start); C Mitch Smothers, Jr., (8 career starts); RG Denver Kirkland, So., (8 starts in 2013); RT Brey Cook, Sr., (17 career starts)
Other Contributors: LT Austin Beck, Jr.; LG Cameron Jefferson, Sr.; C Frank Ragnow, Fr.; RG Sebastian Tretola, Jr.; RT Brian Wallace, Fr.
That Figures: 8 — Number of sacks surrendered by Arkansas last season, which was the lowest total in the Southeastern Conference. The Razorbacks want to repeat the feat again with Kirkland calling the line the “no sack zone” earlier this month.
Quotable: “This year I think we’ll be more comfortable. We’ll know the offense and have a higher football IQ. We know what the coaches are looking for and what it takes to win in the SEC. We’re hungry at this point. We’ve been there in the SEC, but we’re 0-8 as starters. That’s not exactly a good feeling.” — Skipper on last seasn’s experience as a true freshman. He and Kirkland were plugged into first-team spots at guard for the SEC opener and started all eight conference games.
— Robbie Neiswanger • Arkansas News Bureau