“The success we had at the end of the year helped us with Merrick, no question,” Pittman said. “He was on his trip for the Ole Miss game and that helped a bunch.”
Pittman was pleased that the Hogs signed four offensive linemen in the 2015 class, even more pleased that three of them were mid-term arrivals. Merrick was joined by Zach Rogers and Josh Allen as early arrivals. Colton Jackson will make it to campus in May.
“We tried to get five and that would have been great,” Pittman said. “But we only wanted that fifth if he was the right guy. We have only nine on scholarship this spring, so adding four and three of them already here helps greatly. We'll get to 13 by the summer and that's better.”
Pittman said that the ideal number for the offensive line in a roster of 85 is somewhere between 15 and 17.
“You function best with those kind of numbers,” Pittman said. “We'll be alright with 12 this spring and that gives us a chance to try some things in the spring. You guys know how I like to experiment a little. We did that in our bowl practices and we'll do that in the spring. We'd like to sign maybe five in the next class.”
The number one goal this spring will be to replace Brey Cook, the starting right tackle for most of the last two seasons. Denver Kirkland started at guard the last two years, but got some time at right tackle during bowl practices. His quick feet and pass protection ability makes him a great prospect at tackle.
“I'd imagine Denver has an opportunity to move out there,” Pittman said. “We've got seven guys in the two deep that have 6-5 underneath them or taller. So we have an opportunity to move some guys to tackle.”
Pittman thinks that length helps with the long arms needed at tackle in pass protection.
“The No. 1 thing, you have to find a guy who can protect the quarterback,” Pittman said. “So you have to find more than two. To move Denver out there might be a permanent move, but he's going to move out there one way or the other.
“He's going to move out there either as a backup or he's going to move out there to start. it all depends basically on Brian Wallace, how ready he is. Then how ready some of the guys we brought in are. But we're going to find the tackle first. That's the key. We've got centers. We added some center possibilities. Then we're going to go to tackle.”
Rogers is a natural center, with a low point of gravity. Mitch Smothers is the returning starter at center, but got support from Frank Ragnow there, too. Allen was considered a natural center prospect, too, when the Hogs went after him in the 2014 class. He'll start out at guard now.
“Well, Zach Rogers is a center.,” Pittman said. “That's what he's going to play for us. He's tough. His body says he's a center. I don't think he's a guard. He can probably get through a game at guard. Because of his height, he's a center. But he's a tough sucker. We're very, very happy to have him. He's been with us for a while.”
Pittman was pleased that Allen was available. He went after him hard before he signed with North Carolina last year. It was as a center. When the Tar Heels didn't honor his scholarship and put him back in the pool for this year, Pittman was elated.
“Josh Allen was No. 1 on our board before the center position before we got involved with (Ragnow),” Pittman said. “The second time we recruited him was really easy. We said would you like a scholarship and he said, Yes.
“We know Josh is an inside player. When things didn't work out (at North Carolina), he contacted me. It didn't take much to get him here this time.”
Jackson wasn't even a starter at Conway when Pittman decided to offer a scholarship.
“He came in here in the spring of his sophomore year, then to camp,” Pittman said. “We probably got his high school coach in trouble because we asked why he couldn't start there. The only thing he lacks is the ability to finish plays. If he does that, he will be as talented as amy member of this class.
“Jalen Merrick, I knew we wanted him when he got out there and after two plays I said, 'We have to have him. He has a 31 inch vertical at 340 pounds. He is a freak, a freakish athlete. We recruited him to play tackle but you look at him and you see an All-SEC guard, a (Sebastian) Tretola, a Kirkland. We recruited him as a right tackle and that's where we are going to start him out at.”
Tretola, Kirkland and Ragnow give the Hogs great depth at guard, something that makes the right tackle so important.
“Our two guards might be as good as anybody has in our league, but we're going to go tackle first,” Pittman said. “We've got to do that first.”
It's going to make spring practice a fun time for the possibilities at right tackle.