FAYETTEVILLE — Travis Swanson remembers his first snap at Arkansas.
He was still an offensive guard at the time, stepping on the practice field as a wide-eyed freshman from Texas in 2009. It was Arkansas’ first practice in preparation for its second season under Bobby Petrino, who put his newcomers on the field for an hour-long workout before veterans arrived.
One of them — Swanson — was asked to show what he could do at center.
“I don’t think it was too good,” Swanson said Tuesday after wrapping up his final full pads practice as a Razorback. “I had to kind of get used to having someone over me and have to snap and maneuver and all that.”
It’s pretty clear Swanson adjusted. The fifth-year senior has been a constant in the trenches for the Razorbacks throughout his career, which will wrap up when Swanson reaches a milestone with his 50th start in the season finale at LSU.
He’ll become the first Arkansas player to log 50 starts since linebacker Jerry Franklin in 2011. Swanson’s first came in the 44-3 win against Tennessee Tech in the 2010 season opener. He has been in the lineup every game since, playing a key role for Arkansas teams that went 21-5 his first two seasons and 7-16 since.
The rough ride the past two years hasn’t jaded Swanson, who said several weeks ago he was determined to enjoy the end of the ride even though Arkansas’ losses were mounting. Losing eight straight has been disappointing, but Swanson smiled when asked what reaching the 50th start mark will mean Friday.
“It’s going to mean a lot,” Swanson said. “When I first came into this, obviously, you’re not thinking, ‘I want to start 50 straight games.’
“It kind of just happens and I’m thankful for it.”
So is Arkansas coach Bret Bielema, who didn’t know what kind of “blessing” was waiting for him last December. It didn’t take long to realize the Razorbacks had an important block to build around, though, as they tried to lay the foundation for a program that prided itself on physical play in the trenches.
Swanson was the only team captain from 2012 returning. He was Arkansas’ most experienced and decorated player. He was in a very important position, too.
So the Razorbacks instantly turned to him for leadership with a young quarterback (sophomore Brandon Allen) and running backs (sophomore Jonathan Williams and freshman Alex Collins). He’s also served as a coach, of sorts, for true freshmen guards Denver Kirkland and Dan Skipper through their eight starts.
That’s why defensive end Chris Smith described Swanson as the “daddy of our offensive line.” Fullback Keiro Small has been equally inspirational to the young group, but the Arkansas staff has applauded Swanson for his perseverance.
“I couldn’t have asked for a better leader on offense than Travis,” Arkansas offensive coordinator Jim Chaney said. “He’s just a special kid and he’ll always be remembered here at Arkansas obviously for playing as much football. But particularly with our existing staff, coming in first year, he’s really supported us and backed us on all the philosophical changes and he’s done a nice job.
“I think the world of him as a human being. And he’s a pretty damn good player.”
Swanson entered the season as a candidate for the Rimington Trophy, which is awarded annually to the nation’s top center. He also was a preseason first-team All-SEC selection and may be named to the season-ending team in the next few weeks.
He has backed up those accolades with Arkansas taking advantage of Swanson’s talents. They’ve leaned on his athleticism in the run game, using him as a pulling center. He’s been even more important in the passing game, reading, recognizing and understanding what pressure is coming at the line of scrimmage.
“He’s a coach on the field. He understands,” Arkansas offensive line coach Sam Pittman said. “He gets us in the right protections, and it’s not just the protection of the call, it’s where you’re turning your line, and man, he’s good at that.
“I think that’s a big part of that, and the way Jim calls plays, is why we don’t have very many sacks this year. You attribute that to a lot of things, backs blocking, all those things, but you attribute a lot of it to the way Travis turns the protections.”
Pittman paid Swanson an even bigger compliment when asked what it will be like replacing the center next season. Pittman said Arkansas will put someone in the lineup and he’ll do a good job, but Swanson “is a guy you can’t replace.”
“He’s been even better than what I thought,” Pittman said. “The very first day we came in, we watched all our kids from the scout-team players to everybody, and he has certainly exceeded what we thought he would be. We didn’t know his character. And obviously, when you know that, you know that he’s going to be better than even maybe he’s capable of being just because of his want-to and desire.”
It was demonstrated in the two times Swanson had to leave the field this season.
The first came at Florida, when he suffered a knee injury and had to be told he couldn’t return in the 30-10 loss. Swanson stalked the sidelines the rest of the game.
He also dislocated a finger late in the fourth quarter against Ole Miss and had to leave the field. But he only missed two plays after getting the finger snapped back into place, allowing Swanson to finish the game.
They were the only significant snaps he has missed during his career.
“Travis has been a big part of this team,” Small said. “He’s a guy that has seen everything from as much success as you can pretty much have to being pretty low. He’s never wavered. He’s always been himself, and that’s a guy that I can see a lot of the young guys patterning their game after, patterning the way they live after him.”
Bielema, who had two centers selected in the first round of the NFL Draft during his tenure at Wisconsin, believes season Swanson may be the best he has worked with at the position. He’s confident Swanson’s work this season – and throughout his career – will lead him to a lengthy and successful career in pro football as well.
Swanson has taken the first step by accepting an invitation to the Senior Bowl and will take part in the prestigious pre-NFL Draft event in January. He’s also likely to get an invitation to participate in the 2014 NFL Scouting Combine later this winter.
“I really do truly believe, Travis got invited to the Senior Bowl, and if he goes and performs the way that I’ve seen him perform in practice, he will be no less than a second-round draft pick,” Bielema said. “I’m just blown away with what he can do, how incredibly physical he is, and how much stamina he holds.”
Swanson said he isn’t thinking that far ahead, though.
Instead, his only goal was making his final week – and final start – as memorable as possible. The senior has counted down the last moments all week from his last full pads workout, his last trip to the media room for interviews and his last practice.
He’s not sure what Friday will bring as Arkansas has its final chance to end the losing streak this season. He can guess what Saturday will feel like, though, when his Arkansas career has officially ended.
“Rough,” Swanson said. “It’s like reality hits.”
But no matter what, Swanson said he has enjoyed every part of the journey during his 50 starts as a Razorback.
“I’m thankful just to be able to play this game,” Swanson said. “I know people would kill to be in the position we’re in. I have a supporting family, a supporting fiancé that has been there every step of the way. I’ve had a great run these past five years. It could’ve been worse. Obviously, it could’ve been more. But I just had a great time.”