State of the Hogs: O-Line Play

Bret Bielema knows the formula for winning and it starts with great play in the offensive line. The Hogs weren't quite there last year, but the plan is to get there soon.

Some say the key components for a great offensive line start with the center and the left tackle. That was Travis Swanson and David Hurd for Bret Bielema's first Arkansas front, solid as a rock all of last season.

So the task when spring football begins in about two months will be daunting. The Hogs must replace both as they look to end a nine-game losing streak, 12 straight in SEC play. The good news is that more and more top recruits are coming to campus. It's an area that won't be neglected by Bielema's staff and it will eventually become the force of the team.

There is a simple fix at left tackle, the critical blind side protector on the outside for the quarterback. Sophomore Dan Skipper, the pure nasty who stepped in after four games at left guard, will take his 6-10 frame to the outside.

That leaves left guard and center, where Swanson started his last 50 games on the way to first team All-America honors. He'll likely go in the top two rounds of the NFL draft if he has a good Senior Bowl.

In 30 minutes with Bielema earlier this week, much of the conversation was about offensive line play, particularly replacing Swanson. He's Bielema's third straight All-America at that position, perhaps the best. Who fills that spot next won't be as good, at least right away.

And that took me to what Bielema thinks is the long-range goal of the offensive line, just as it was last year, to control the "A" gap, between the guard and center. The power play where you take the fullback into the hole and follow with a great tailback was not the Hogs' best play, as it was at Wisconsin.

Bielema thinks it still will be, in time. How soon will that happen? Can it be in 2014 when two newcomers are in those three interior spots?

"We could not put the inside running with our perimeter running last year," Bielema said. "We didn't start out physical enough at the inside positions. We were playing against teams with bigger bodies in there and great depth.

"We established that in the spring against our own guys and had an easier time with it. But it was a matter of trying something new. What we do had never been done here. And just not being big and strong enough. We'll get there."

It starts at center. Luke Charpentier was Swanson's backup. He'll be a fifth-year senior with three letters. He was OK in relief of Swanson in the second half of the Florida game, the only time Swanson missed any time. But it will be an intense battle and it's not a given that the Cut Off, La., product via John Curtis Christian School gets the nod.

"Luke has popped in there (in games)," Bielema said. "But we want to look at a lot of guys. We are going to cross train everyone. There are guys that have not played center before that are going to get to snap this spring. There are two that we haven't talked to about it that I want to see snap.

"Cordale Boyd has snapped some. So has Mitch Smothers. Those guys are in the mix at guard, too. But we'll look at several more. We tell them that it's always good to have that on your resume, that you can snap it. When it's time to go to the draft, saying that you know how to snap really helps you. It's good to have as many snap it in the spring as possible, so we will do a lot of cross training."

Swanson had never snapped before coming to Arkansas. Bielema pointed that out, but noted not everyone can handle such a move.

"The first thing you want to see, do they have the right hip flex," Bielema said. "Then, you want to see if they can snap and keep their eyes on everything. A lot of guards can be centers. I've had three years of All-America centers so I think I know what we need.

"There may be some in the signing class who can play center. We are going to look at everyone there and keep cross training guys."

Bielema has had some great offensive lines. He praised the 2013 Razorbacks for effort, but admitted that the next sets should be better.

"We are working hard in recruiting in this area," Bielema said. "What you have to look and see, the last four-year window didn't produce many offensive linemen. What we put out there didn't come from that period.

"Hurd was a walk-on, Swanson was from before then, a fifth-year guy. Grady Ollison started some games for us, but recruited to play defensive end. Brey Cook was the only one from that period."

As for how that bunch played, Bielema said offensive line coach Sam Pittman "maximized our personnel. He and (offensive coordinator) Jim Chaney did some good things with what we had. Those players gave us everything we had. But we had some high tendencies because of the limited things we could do. And we did what they could do best.

"But I'm proud of what those guys up front gave us. They played with great fortitude. Travis was extremely good. And, our left tackle, Hurd, while not real pretty at times, did a great job."

Without a doubt, Skipper and Denver Kirkland, the two true freshman guards, will progress into great players, especially with their first winter under strength and conditioning coach Ben Herbert. They got a head start last summer, but there's nothing like a full year under Herbert, with lots of lower strength work and a heavy diet of sleds.

It's better offensive line play that will make a difference in the fourth quarter when the Hogs were not good enough against Rutgers, Mississippi State and LSU. Modest success at the end against those three would have put the Hogs in a bowl game.

"We just didn't have the depth and strength in the fourth quarter," Bielema said. "I think if you look back at when we were at Wisconsin, we were pretty good in the fourth quarter. I thought we wore down last season at the end of games."

They didn't win battles in the "A" gap at the end of those games.

"I think what we saw is that you need great depth in the SEC," Bielema said. "We'll have that. We'll have better strength going forward. We just didn't have enough players throughout our roster, enough depth.

"I watched all of the SEC teams in the bowl games the last couple of weeks. I saw a common theme of perseverance and depth. They don't wear down. They are able to play until the end. We will get there, too.

"We improved over the last three or four games, but we could not sustain it for a four-quarter game. I do not remember losing the fourth quarter the way we did this year."

It's line play, superior defensive lines, Bielema said.

"I don't think it's things on the perimeter," he said. "To be honest, you can find enough perimeter guys in the Big 10. What separates the SEC, is the depth and ability in the defensive line.

"In the SEC, they have big athletic bodies up front and a lot of them. That's where they sustain their top level of play."

Bielema had interesting thoughts about style of play changes over the course of an eight-game SEC season. To do that with as many as 10 true freshmen playing key roles and high snap counts is almost impossible.

"Another area that gets you is going from an up-tempo spread that taxes your stamina, then to a physical style the next week with an Alabama or an LSU," he said. "You are pushed to the limit, then you don't have much left the next week against a bigger, stronger team.

"It makes a difference if you don't have enough depth in all areas. You just wear out in the fourth quarter."

It's just some of the lessons learned in the last year as he stepped into a new school and new league.

"Recruiting isn't so much different here," Bielema said. "Our staff knows how to recruit. But we had to learn some things in Arkansas and on campus. It's so much easier now to know which professor in our faculty does this so we pair up guys with their academic goals. Now, I know immediately how a recruit is going to mesh here and who to call in for their visit.

"There is a better understanding of how Dallas figures into our recruiting, how that is going to fit with our game in the stadium in Arlington. It just helps to be another year into it on what you bring to the table in each area. I just know Arkansas better now and what it brings to the table."

And, he knows, it's still going to be the Hogs working through the "A" gap and building an offensive line that wins in the fourth quarter.

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