State of the Hogs: Center Attraction

The Hogs are finding out about themselves this spring. Jim Chaney said the new staff is evaluating strengths and weaknesses. How fast can the installation go? Chaney said it will be as fast as the weakest area.

Good football coaches play to their strengths. They also play away from their weaknesses.

Arkansas football coach Bret Bielema has mentioned that a couple of times at Razorback Club meetings this spring, although he hasn't identified either to this point.

That's the challenge this spring for Bielema's new Arkansas staff. Offensive coordinator Jim Chaney, also the quarterback coach, did mention Tuesday that the learning curve is generally tied to the weakest link. Again, that's still a cloudy issue, the weak spot.

However, there is nothing murky about the strength of the leadership or strength of the offense. It's front and center, fifth-year senior Travis Swanson.

References to Swanson drew some chuckles from the media during Chaney's first post-practice media visit of his Arkansas career. He said Swanson has done well, except when "he's tried to think for the other 10 players on offense. I need him to just think for Swanson."

That's just Swanson being Swanson, trying to be the leader coaches expect from the most veteran player on the squad. The Kingwood, Texas product understands where Chaney is coming from in his constructive criticism.

"I think I'm grasping that pretty good," Swanson said. "I just want to do everything I can to help. I want to be a leader. That's just what's in me and it's going to come out. I have a hard time changing what I am. I want to help everyone."

That's what Swanson said is happening with new offensive line coach Sam Pittman.

"He's an awesome guy," Swanson said. "He's the total package. Obviously, he can coach, but he's also great to be with off the field. He wants to eat every meal with us. He wants to have dinner with all 17 guys."

Pittman said he has special respect for Swanson and it started early in their relationship. Generally, a fifth-year senior doesn't get involved in the role as host on recruiting weekends. But when Pittman asked for volunteers when host spots were handed out in January, Swanson was first to step forward.

"I got Dan Skipper," Swanson said. "I wanted to make sure we got him. So he was mine. I knew it was important."

Swanson said it's an exciting time to be a Razorback. He's proud to be at the start of the Bielema era. It was clear that the new coach has a handle on details from the first practice of the spring. It didn't take long for Bielema to set the tone, starting with a garbage detail.

"I think it was at our first break, halfway through the practice," Swanson said. "We were drinking water and everyone just kind of threw down the cups.

"He called us back to the bench area because we'd left trash everywhere. He explained that good teams do everything the right way. We got it picked up.

"It's an exciting time for us. Everyone was anxious to get started. We didn't really know what to expect from this staff. Our eyes were wide open. I can tell you these coaches are very good. They know how to bring out the best in you."

Center is where it all starts in the offensive line. He'll be involved in setting the tone in the offensive line for Bielema and Pittman, but his time is going to be short. It's clear that his coaches are also planning for the future. They have begun the task of finding his replacement.

Mitch Smothers is getting time at guard, rotating with Luke Charpentier with the ones on the left side. But he's also getting time at center behind Swanson.

That may be a better fit than what Smothers, the Springdale High product, was asked to do as a true freshman when he started the first four games at weakside tackle when the Hogs were void there. He redshirted last season, something that Pittman thought strange.

"I had watched some film of two years ago and noticed that Mitch played at the start," Pittman said. "When he didn't play last year, I just assumed that he must have been injured. I didn't really know what happened to him. But that was a lucky break for us because now he's got three seasons left."

Chaney said working at both spots "is a lot on the plate" for Smothers. But it's too early to talk about a depth chart.

"We are still just evaluating their physical skills," Chaney said. "We are just trying to find our weakest link, because you can only go as fast as they can go."

The Hogs won't be held back by Travis Swanson.

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