OL analysis: a talented and deep group ready for the show

FAYETTEVILLE — The University of Arkansas football team wraps up its 15th spring drill practice today, and while the Razorbacks won’t be hosting this modified scrimmage at Reynolds Razorback Stadium, there are strong odds that many players are actually in the 76,000-seat spot tonight.

That’s because Razorback Stadium was set up for a live concert by country music star Garth Brooks as part of his long-running stadium tour.

It’s a safe bet that a selection of Razorback offensive linemen will attend the show, and that’s where this story begins.

A curious anomaly occurred during coach Sam Pittman’s two-plus seasons as a former offensive line guru turned Arkansas head coach.

Pittman and his staff are drawing praise from afar for their recruiting accomplishments through three signing classes and the potential lineup of a fourth. But none of the signers from his prized stance group have become major contributors to the Razorbacks’ offense.

The shift to a “Pittman-style” offensive line — huge players with big feet and flexing with early-round NFL Draft potential — appears to be underway, but that transition may not take effect. before the 2023 season.

Why? Because four veterans who accounted for 100 career starts return in 2022, including center Ricky Stromberg, right tackle Dalton Wagner and guards Brady Latham and Beaux Limmer.

The members of this quartet also have professional potential. Stromberg considered declaring himself early for the NFL Draft over the winter, but opted to return for his senior season. The 6-foot-9, 337-pound Wagner could try his luck in the pros unless his current name, image and likeness with World Wrestling Entertainment’s “Next In Line” program pays off sooner.

Announced offensive line coach Cody Kennedy, who was one of 15 semi-finalists for last season’s Broyles Award, which is given to college football’s top assistant coach, oversees the most experienced unit the Razorbacks will have this autumn.

Pittman riffed on the group in early spring.

“I hope it’s one of the best in the SEC,” he said. “We have experience coming back. We have the intermediary in Stromberg. Again, he looks better. He changed his body tone. Become stronger.

“But whenever you have a midfielder and two tackles that are good players…we still have to find the left one, but we really believe we have them on campus.”

Finding a replacement for three-year-old starter Myron Cunningham at left tackle was the focus of spring drills.

The best candidate to handle quarterback KJ Jefferson’s blindside block is 6-foot-5, 327-pound Luke Jones, a Pulaski Academy product who signed with Notre Dame after high school but transferred to his home country. original in 2019 after a season with the Irishman.

Jones worked in various locations as a utility lineman. He credits the unit’s work ethic and what appears to be a better pass rush for helping the offensive line evolve during spring training.

“I think we’re a really hard working unit,” Jones said. “I think our D line makes us better every day. Our defense definitely makes us better. Great leaders like KJ on offense push us through workouts, through practices. We have a good unit.

Jones has the kind of size Pittman wants to see, and Arkansas coaches have recruited under this philosophy recently adopted by offensive coordinator Kendal Briles: if you miss, miss big.

Behind the scenes are big guys like the 6-foot-5, 347-pound Ty’Kieast Crawford, who’s worked a lot with starters in the spring with Wagner resting; 6-9, 366 pounds Devon Manual; 6-6, 311 lbs. Andrew Chamblee; 6-7, 362 pounds E’Marion Harris; 6-4, 315 pounds Eli Henderson et al.

The last three on the list are all true freshmen and early enrollees starting their college careers with “college-ready” types of executives. Fellow freshman Patrick Kutas, a 6-6, 303-pounder from Christian Brothers in Memphis, who will arrive this summer, joins Chamblee and Harris as 4-star last-class signers.

Crawford, who played six games at North Carolina-Charlotte in 2020 and then spent much of last season losing weight and getting in shape, looks set to get a job or earn more playtime this fall.

“Ty’Kieast looks really good at 347 [pounds]so he probably lost another 20 pounds,” Pittman said.

Briles said Cunningham’s work at left tackle was highly valued by coaches and players alike.

“He limited a lot of the mistakes we made protecting KJ’s fullback last year and did a really good job in the running game,” Briles said. “Luke Jones played in this position. He did a good job. Luke knows that and we told him that physicality has to be the most important thing for him and he did a good job this spring.

Crawford has taken over most of his work at right tackle in Wagner’s absence, but he could compete at left tackle, where Latham and Manuel also got to work in the spring.

“Latham, he can play there,” Briles said. “We would like to be able to keep him on guard, but he is athletic enough to be out there and play. Ty’Kieast Crawford has had a great camp so far. He was on the safe side because we were very smart with Wagner, making sure we kept him healthy.

“The guy played a ton of ball, so Ty’Kieast got a lot of those reps. I think Jones did a good job. Ty’Kieast would be the one who, if we moved him there, could really challenge him. at this stage.

Latham, a 6-5, 303 pounds and 23-game starter over the past two seasons, has the potential to play any spot on the front.

“They moved me a lot this spring,” he said. “I mainly played guard and tackle, a bit in the middle. I’m quite comfortable wherever they want me. So I think that’s why they moved me, to make me comfortable in different positions. It was funny.”

The coaches were also smart with Stromberg, who twisted a knee early in the spring and sat out last week’s major work for the veterans. This allowed the 6-foot-5, 287-pound Marcus Henderson to work substantially with the starters. Once praised for his athleticism and footwork by Pittman as a potential left tackle, Henderson struggled to gain weight and fell back to sophomore.

Now he’s mixing it up with the team’s best defensive tackles and gaining the kind of competitive edge he’ll need as Stromberg’s likely successor.

Otherwise, training the next wave of offensive linemen to be nimble and physical with big weight is the direction Pittman would like to go.

“If they have feet and twitches,” Pittman said of the potential for increased physique. “You can have a car in there, but if there’s no gas, you can’t move anyone. So if they have quick feet and twitches, the bigger the better, that’s my philosophy.

Pittman isn’t ruling out contributions from an incoming lineman this year, though earning a starting job is rare for a true freshman.

“It just depends on how quickly freshmen prepare … because Chamblee and Harris are very, very talented,” Pittman said.

Offensive line at a glance

RETURNING BEGINNERS C Ricky Stromberg (13 starts in 2021), RT Dalton Wagner (10), LG Brady Latham (13), RG Beaux Limmer (11)

LOSSES LT Myron Cunningham (13), Ty Clary (5), Ray Curry Jr.

WHO IS BACK Luke Jones senior, Ty’Kieast Crawford junior, Dylan Rathcke*; sophomores Marcus Henderson, Jalen St. John; redshirt freshmen Cole Carson, Devon Manuel, Terry Wells,

WHO IS NEW Andrew Chamblee, E’Marion Harris, Eli Henderson,

MARKETS Josh Street

*DNP in spring with medical problem

ANALYSIS The Razorbacks brought in four starters for position coach Cody Kennedy, but Stromberg and Wagner missed plenty of time, giving Henderson and Crawford plenty of work to do with the starting unit. Kennedy trains almost every member of the bloodline, trying to develop four reliable centers and many features. Arkansas’ defensive front has done a lot of delays and blitzes this spring, giving the offense a critical job of recognizing and picking up twists and pressures. Jones will get the first crack at LT, with Crawford, Lathan and Manuel all in the mix. If Stromberg and Wagner are healthy in the fall, the Razorbacks should have their best depth here in years.

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