State of the Hogs: O-Line Improvement

Dan Skipper's play at left tackle gives Bret Bielema reason to be positive about development in the offensive line one week into spring football practice.

Dan Skipper still looks lean. He's around 335 on that long, 6-10 frame. He still looks like he could pack another 50 pounds and not look heavy.

You have to remind yourself that Skipper is still just a rising sophomore, with only nine months on campus as you watch an Arkansas spring football practice. That's because he commands such a presence both in atttitude and absolute length, perhaps exactly what Bret Bielema has in mind as he works to improve the offensive line in his second spring.

There's not enough data to know how Skippier is going to do at left tackle, but Sam Pittman isn't concerned about switching the Denver product from guard. He's actually more at his natural home than he was last year when it made sense to leave David Hurd at tackle and not mess with two new starters on the left side in the middle of the season.

But three practices – one open to the media – was enough last week for Bret Bielema to nod his head in approval at what he's got going on the left side with Skipper at tackle and converted tackle Grady Ollison at guard.

Skipper is at home as the blind side blocker for Brandon Allen. He's perfecting his technique under Pittman, the veteran offensive line coach with a knack for producing NFL talent both on the recruiting trail and on the practice field.

"He's at the right position," Pittman said Thursday. "He's going to do fine there. He looks like a left tackle to me."

The Ollison move fascinates. It speaks to what Pittman wants at guard, a pulling man with great speed and quickness. He's got that on the right side with the massive, but quick Denver Kirkland at guard. Ollison has toiled mainly at tackle, but he's not going to beat out Brey Cook, now the man at right tackle after blossoming in the final six games last season.

There's no getting around the void left at center by Travis Swanson. No one on campus now is capable of doing what Swanson did as a pulling center. But watching Luke Charpentier and Cordale Boyd battle last week gave Pittman a feeling that the Hogs were going to be at center, too.

Boyd looks trim and quicker than he did during his battles at guard the last two years. He is going to push Charpentier, the fifth-year senior from the New Orleans area. And, if those two don't get it done this spring, look for a challenge from Frank Ragnow or Sebastian Tretola.

Kirkland has reshaped his body. He's still in the 345-pound range, but there is less baby fat. His movements are the quickest of anyone along the offensive front. It's said that the linemen who gets his first two steps down the quicknest owns the neutral zone. That would be Kirkland. He steps as fast as a water moccasin's strike.

There aren't many centers that big, but his quickness suggests he could solve the issue in the middle if something doesn't work out. I wouldn't be surprised if Pittman doesn't let him snap the ball a few times this spring. You can't have enough men who know how to snap. There is enough talent coming in the offensive line that several could fill spots at guard if necessary.

Bielema is always going to work to build a fine offensive line. It's the core of what he does. He likes what he sees all the way around in the front, noting it's still early.

"Dan, I thought, each practice has gotten a lot better," Bielema said. "(The third practice in full pads) was really intriguing for me, because he put the pads on and played as good as he's played all spring.

"He's a guy that I think naturally fits in at the trickle position. We moved Grady from tackle to guard just to give him a chance to own that position. He's really done some good things. He's adjusting to it well. He's got a size and a frame and he bends well.

"Charpentier. has been very, very positive at center. Obviously to replace, or try to replace, someone with the production of Travis Swanson is not going to be an easy task. But we've been pleased with him. Denver has continued to grow at guard. And then at left tackle, Brey Cook continues to be solid.

"I'd say our next best player is probably without a doubt Cordale Boyd. And whether he gets in at center or guard, when we bring Trottolo (sp?) and Wallace and the other guys in, and Frank Ragnow, it will about who allows us to have the best 7 or 8 players on the O-line.

What sets up the Ollison move?

"I think two things," Bielema said. "First, the part that we hadn't seen him do live was play tackle. So when we made the decision to move Denver Kirkland and Dan Skipper into the guard position — which I still think was probably the best move the entire year — that put Brey in a situation wthat we wanted him to really still try to be a starter, and move him back out to tackle.

"And obviously it's a situation that he capitalized on. He continued to play better than any other option out there. And right now for us to keep Denver in at a guard, that's been a position that Brey continues to flourish at."

I spent most of last Thursday checking out the deep group of cornerbacks as they battled an improved and deeper bunch of wideouts. But if there is a padded practice, there needs to be time watching inside run, especially with a Bielema team.

This offensive line is light year's better than where the Hogs were at this time last year. There was hardly enough to make one offensive line, but I found myself grading second team talent there and thinking there was finally enough to have a competitive scrimmage beyond the first team.

Austin Beck is a competitive tackle. John McClure seems quicker and more physical than he was last year when he wasn't able to match those two attributes of the interior of the defensive line. Both the top two offensive linemen did plenty of chirping as the inside run ane eventually the 11-on-11 work finished the day.

Bielema seemed pleased with the competitive fire that produced at least one after-the-whistle confrontation, perhaps starting with tight end Hunter Henry. Wide receiver Demetrius Wilson, getting close to full speed after ACL surgery in August, was jawing with the defensive backs from start to finish. Bielema said that was a signal that Wilson is back to his old self.

That's as good a sign that these Hogs are better. They were so lost trying to figure out the Bielema system last spring that they were often meek in practice, something that wasn't perhaps noticeable until you see them now. Bielema said that was one of the things Jim Chaney mentioned as they watched last year's opening day of spring drills the weekend before they started this year.

Bielema told Chaney that he shouldn't punish himself by going back to that tape. But both were glad they did. They got a quick reminder that the 2014 Razorbacks are already better. I knew that as soon as I saw Dan Skipper go through his paces in his first spring practice in full pads. It's great to see that kind of talent at left tackle and know he's got a lot of games left for this Arkansas football team.

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