FAYETTEVILLE — Luke Charpentier didn’t log a lot of snaps last season, but the Arkansas senior feels like he took an invaluable year-long course on playing center.
He kept a close eye on four-year starter Travis Swanson work. He paid attention to how Swanson studied for opponents, read blitzes on the field and blocked defensive linemen and linebackers. He also saw how Swanson gritted his teeth and grinded through each week, running his impressive streak of consecutive starts to 50 games.
“It taught me so much about the game,” Charpentier said. “I never really knew it and realized it until he was gone. Being a backup to a guy like that, I’ve learned some things about the game I never would’ve thought of knowing.”
Charpentier hopes it shows now that he’s with Arkansas’ first-team offense.
The Razorbacks have most of the offense’s key contributors from 2013 back this spring, but there is a noticeable change up front. Swanson, who started every game during his four seasons with the Razorbacks, is now preparing for the NFL Draft. It leaves Charpentier (6-4, 320) and sophomore Cordale Boyd (6-3, 298) competing for the starting job on Arkansas’ retooled offense line.
Charpentier is the leading candidate to win the job after serving as Swanson’s backup last season. He appeared in nine games and earned a few meaningful snaps when Swanson went to the sideline with minor injuries at Florida and Ole Miss.
But now the Razorbacks are counting on Charpentier to anchor the line after Arkansas’ quarterbacks — with Swanson leading the offensive line — were sacked just eight times. It’s a big responsibility, but one Charpentier feels prepared for.
“The reason why we were so good last year was because he put us into so many good situations,” Charpentier said of the front’s protection. “That’s what I’m trying to imitate. I want to get us to be the best protection team in the country.”
Charpentier has waited a long time for the opportunity.
The Cut Off, La., native is about to enter his fifth season. He has appeared in 24 games — and earned one start as a guard against Rutgers in 2012 — but rarely earned playing time at center. Swanson held a stranglehold on the position.
Charpentier was being groomed behind the scenes, though, as Arkansas began to make plans for life without Swanson last season. And offensive line coach Sam Pittman said both Charpentier and Boyd — who earned snaps in practices throughout the season — have done solid work so far this spring.
“I like both of them,” Pittman said. “I think they’ve both done a nice job. But Charpentier has really taken off and run with it a little bit. Cordale is going to be a little further back right now because he hasn’t played that position for very long.”
Charpentier credited his performance so far to preparation.
While last season was valuable, he also took a crash course in the film room over the past few weeks. Charpentier said studying and understanding defense was the goal.
“I spent about three or four weeks just meeting constantly with coach Pittman, going over film, going over this, seeing how Swanny saw this coming,” Charpentier said. “I think it has given me an edge and I feel so much more confident down there.”
But no one is a finished product in spring practice.
For instance: offensive coordinator Jim Chaney said Charpentier and quarterback Brandon Allen need to improve their speed at the line of scrimmage.
“What we’ve got to do from the quarterback-center standpoint is expedite our process,” Chaney said. “We’re too slow at the line of scrimmage right now. And we’ll get that figured out. We’re wasting seconds at the line looking around too much. We need to see one thing, make a call and move on. We’re just too slow at the line.”
Charpentier is confident it will improve with more practice time. And film study.
He has watched and waited a long time to become Arkansas’ first-team center. So his goal is to make sure the Razorbacks know he’s ready to play the position.
“I’ve always dreamed about being a starting center for an SEC team,” Charpentier said. “I’ve seen a lot of great guys play before me and it would mean a lot for me and my family to have the position.”