Jason Ivester

State of the Hogs: Bielema Strives to Get Best Linemen on the Field

Bret Bielema wants to get the best players on the field as far as his offensive and defensive line. The good news is there is healthy competition for his fourth spring at Arkansas.

Arkansas coach Bret Bielema sounded like all of the great ones I've known heading into the first day of spring practice when he met with the media on Monday. As he previewed the goals for the 15 days of drills, Bielema made a reference to the battles in both the offensive and defensive line.

"I want to get the best players on the field," he said. "In the offensive line, that means finding the best five. On defense, it's the best four."

The good news is that there are good choices. There are SEC type players ready to fill those nine spots.

There were some moves to help all of that fall in place. Hjalte Froholdt was moved from defensive tackle to the middle of the offensive line where he'll work at both center and guard. Jeremiah Ledbetter will move from rush end to defensive tackle, the weakside three technique that is one of the featured positions in Robb Smith's scheme.

There were some other subtle tweaks as far as player movement up front. Taiwan Johnson moves back to nose tackle after a year of not so great results at the three technique. He'll battle Bijohn Jackson at nose.

Froholdt, the massive Dane, spent a year trying to make an impact at both the three technique and the nose tackle. He could not be moved, but he didn't make many plays. It was finally determined that his strength and power -- combined by high ability to learn -- would be better utilized in the offensive line.

Bielema admitted on Monday that there was a need to find someone with explosive ability to play the three technique on the weakside somewhat like Darius Philon gave the Hogs in 2014 when there was a wicked triangle with Trey Flowers at end and Martrell Spaight at weakside linebacker.

The weakside ends or rush ends in the scheme for this spring will be Tevin Beanum backed by true freshman McTelvin "Sosa" Agim. Deatrich Wise and JaMichael Winston will battle at the strongside end.

Ledbetter did play some at tackle last year in third down schemes. He's carrying 276 pounds on his 6-3 frame now, and is still fit and athletic. He has an explosive first step and long arms.

The competition at the weakside tackle for Ledbetter will be redshirt freshman T.J. Smith, perhaps one of the most undervalued signees in the last class. He turned heads as soon as he stepped on campus last summer. He was close to playing at several times last season because of his quickness, power and high football IQ. Both Bielema and Smith raved about him during bowl practices.

"I think he's going to be an outstanding player," Smith said in Memphis. "He's been very good. We considered playing him about the midway point of the season."

Wise was superb the last half of the season. He has the length, burst and size to wreak havoc in the SEC. He's taken on a leadership role in the last three months that wasn't previously seen. Bielema has been positive about his commitment and there has never been a doubt about his athletic ability.

The offensive line will have new leadership with Kurt Anderson taking over after a stint in the NFL with the Buffalo Bills. His ability to coach technique has been widely applauded by Bielema. He thinks the run game will get a boost from some adjustments in both stance and movement as installed by Anderson this winter during agility workouts in the early mornings.

The first order of business to find the best five will be with Frank Ragnow. Where Ragnow plays might be determined by who else steps up at other spots. Bielema said Ragnow can play any of the five spots up front and he might ultimately slide into a place that is deemed in most need of help.

But for now, Ragnow will man the first team center spot. Sophomore Zach Rogers will also battle at center. Bielema also wants to see Froholdt snap, as well as impressive junior college transfer Deion Malone.

If Rogers, Froholdt of Malone steps up as the top center, perhaps Ragnow moves back to right guard, where he was studly over the last half of the season. He got better with every game. He rotated at center two years ago with Mitch Smothers as a true freshman with impressive results. He could be an All-American at any spot on the offensive line and it's clear that Bielema and Anderson covet him as a center in the complex pro offense.

Dan Skipper is set to play right tackle for his second straight year. He played left tackle as a sophomore and left guard as a freshman. Brian Wallace, who was a backup at right tackle the last two years, will slide over to left tackle. He's considered a can't miss prospect.

Others in the mix this spring are Colton Jackson at left tackle, Johnny Gibson at right tackle, Jalen Merrick at either guard spot and Klint Harvey at tackle. Harvey is an impressive redshirt freshman from Corning. He's like Gibson, another walkon, highly regarded when he was invited to campus. Neither has disappointed.

It's a fine group of prospects for Anderson's first Arkansas line. They seem to have meshed with the tech-savvy Anderson in the meeting room and it should provide some fireworks on the field with a talented group of defensive linemen for daily work sessions this spring.

It may not take long to see the fireworks. Bielema said a scrimmage, perhaps not lengthy, is set for the first week on Saturday. That's the first time they can be in full pads and there won't be any wasted time in letting those linemen clash.

It wouldn't surprise to see a few more moves as the second week unfolds as Bielema continues to find ways to get his best five on the field. I like the way he listed them on Monday. I think it's one of the strengths of the team, all of these fine linemen. It's a big reason that his fourth team is listed by at least one preseason top 25 poll.

Yes, quarterback has to be determined. That will be worth a close look on Tuesday afternoon. Can Austin Allen hold off some challengers? But if those linemen are as good as advertised, and there is a flash at weakside defensive tackle at the famed three technique, the quarterback's job is going to get easier.


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