For the first half of the 2011 season, no unit was scrutinized more than Arkansas' offensive line.
Having replaced three starters from the year before, the line was constantly looking for the right pieces, all the while the running game was stagnant and quarterback Tyler Wilson was taking a beating.
The Razorbacks' linemen will readily admit to the woes, which served as growing pains.
"At the beginning of last year, we had some chemistry issues trying to figure out how each other plays," said center Travis Swanson. "We thought we had that figured out in fall camp, but Tyler took some hits last year. I really wish I could pinpoint one thing; it was just mental breakdowns and lack of execution.
"I know this group feels a lot better. I think we can be a lot better next year than we were last year."
Arkansas' offensive linemen understand they will be scrutinized again in 2012 with a pair of valuable assets lining up behind them. In addition to Wilson, running back Knile Davis will return to the Razorbacks' offense in 2012, giving Arkansas a pair of Heisman Trophy favorites.
Those and other trophy aspirations for Arkansas hinge on a better cohesiveness from the men up front.
"I think it really motivates us," said senior tackle Tyler Deacon. "I don't think it's pressure, but it's something to drive us and make us better to help those guys and the offense run smoothly."
Like last year, Arkansas must replace multiple departing starters in tackle Grant Freeman and guard Grant Cook. In addition, returning starters at the other guard and tackle spot, Alvin Bailey and Jason Peacock — who was arrested in March — spent spring practices working with the second team.
The reasons were more disciplinary for Peacock, who was arrested in March. But for Bailey, who has started every game since the beginning of the 2010 season, the reasons seemed motivational.
"It pushes him," said offensive coordinator Paul Petrino. "He knows he didn't start the spring game, so he knows he has some competition. It's a day-to-day thing and he needs to step it up and make sure he's the starter there."
Bailey's competition at strongside guard comes from a pair of younger players, Luke Charpentier and Marcus Danenhauer. It was one of several positions on the line up for grabs in the spring.
Deacon worked ahead of Mitch Smothers — who started four games a year ago at tackle — at weakside guard, while David Hurd worked ahead of Peacock at weakside tackle.
"Hurd is good in pass protection," Petrino said. "He does a really good job with setting his hands and moving his feet. He just needs to continue to improve some of his run blocking."
Brey Cook, one of the nation's most sought-after offensive line recruits in the class of 2011, worked with the first offense at strongside tackle, ahead of Chris Stringer.
"I saw a ton of progression across the line, especially from Brey," Swanson said. "He didn't get to play much last year, but you can tell on film that from point A to point B where someone is at, and I think he's made the biggest jump.
"I think the competition we have is good. The second-team guys are only one snap away from being in the first-team. I think it's good to throw different combinations in there to get a feel for how everyone plays with each other."
While there are several unknown variables on the line, the constant has been the play of Swanson. The Kingwood, Texas, native has started 26 consecutive games and is the unquestioned leader of the unit.
"He's the brains of the group, makes the calls up front and allows us to do a lot of things because he has a really good knowledge of the offense," Petrino said.
"We do a lot of things offensively, so our center has to be smart. On top of that, he's a good player and I liked his leadership and the way he went about things, and how he worked."
At 6-foot-5 and 305 pounds, Swanson is part of a leaner group of linemen, which focused its attention to agility in the off-season. In the weight room, like on the gridiron and in meeting rooms, he established himself as a team leader.
"He's younger than me, but I still look up to him," said Deacon, who worked with the first-team offense at guard in the spring. "He's a great leader and a great guy, and real fun to hang out with. He's real confident and has always been helpful. If you need anything, he's someone you can go to.
"He's trying to get the best out of everyone. He's a guy who draws people to him."
Swanson was one of the upperclassmen other players looked toward in the onslaught of bad news during the coaching change in April.
"We have gone through a lot of adversity and I think us upperclassmen are trying to help the younger guys who might not be able to handle something as well," Swanson said. "I'm pretty sure us doing that ever since all that has happened has made us a better team.
"I've always liked to have the weight and pressure on my shoulders, and that's why I like playing the position I do so much."
With an onslaught of negative news in the rearview, the Razorbacks are hopeful the next batch of adversity comes from an opponent.
Coming within a win of potentially playing for a national championship isn't lost on Swanson, who said knowing the team's only losses came to the two teams playing in the title game serves as motivation.
"We know this isn't only the best conference, but it's the best division in football," Swanson said. "That's one of the reasons I came here. We have to work every day to beat Alabama and beat LSU.
"I'm going to try to preach as much as I can to come to work every single day because I know we can't afford to have one bad attitude. The biggest thing is we did have mental breakdowns at times last year, so mental focus is key."
Mental breakdowns in those games last year — both on the road — led to 24-point losses.
The loss at Alabama in the fourth game of the season was especially hard for Arkansas' linemen, which were oftentimes overmatched by a strong front seven for the eventual national champion Crimson Tide. The Razorbacks also struggled with the noise, leading to multiple false start penalties.
Arkansas opens the 2012 season with four straight home games, including one against Alabama in the third week. Not only should the stretch help iron out any wrinkles in cadences, but it should also better help the Razorbacks' linemen understand the personnel around them.
"Going places like Alabama and LSU, you're going to have problems," Swanson said, "so the first four games here will help us."
"I know all 11 guys on this offense have faith in each other. We have guys we can count on when their name is called; they'll make the big catch or the big run, the big block or whatever it is."
Swanson: Avoid Mental Breakdowns
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