Most focus on the quarterback position. It gets all of the attention, good or bad. But how a rebuilt offensive line does might determine whether 2016 can be a success for the Arkansas football team.
There are three new starters in the offensive line with center Mitch Smothers, left tackle Denver Kirkland and left guard Sebastian Tretola all gone.
With returning right guard Frank Ragnow sliding to center, some might view that new offensive line coach Kurt Anderson has only right tackle Dan Skipper as a returning starter. The good news is that Ragnow has played center, rotating with Smothers two years ago as a true freshman.
With protection issues cropping up over the first 12 days of spring drills, it's no wonder that Ragnow said after a practice this week that the group was “taking baby steps.” No doubt, he's repeating the words of Anderson, taking over for Sam Pittman after working with the Buffalo Bills of the NFL the last three seasons.
Anderson nodded his head about the baby steps, but he said they were steps nonetheless. There have been plenty of positive developments over the spring. Anderson promised to offer a new analogy with a slant towards the baby steps this week as he tries to make his group understand they are moving forward.
“What they are doing is part of playing football,” Anderson said. “They have to take baby steps before they can run. They are taking steps.
“It's funny that you mention that, because I've got an analogy that I'm going to use the next couple of days with the guys. We are going to keep taking baby steps and we are going to get there.”
Anderson thinks there will be a big difference in the fall after they work on the things he's introduced this spring, the technique and the terms.
“What I know is that when someone tries to teach a baby to walk,” Anderson said, “they try it for the first few times and they can't walk. Not one person ever says, 'Well, they aren't a walker, so let's give up.' No, they keep trying.
“We are a long ways away from where we want to be, but we are going to get there. I've been through this before and they will get there.”
Ragnow said there is an eagerness to the offensive line group every day as they come ready for the next steps put down for them to take. Anderson has captured them with his wit, technique-oriented teaching and the technology-based reinforcement of what is a bit of a new system in their blocking. The wit is similar to what the players have seen in head coach Bret Bielema.
“Someone said he's a young Coach B,” Ragnow said. “He is from the standpoint that they both are going to keep coming with the one liners. Now, I haven't seen Coach B's teaching as a position coach so I can't compare him as far as being a technician. But I can tell you that is what Coach Anderson is and it's really good for us.”
Anderson told his group earlier in the week that the definition of insanity is to keep making the same mistakes. He was trying to make them understand that it was time to fix things after they broke once.
“I shouldn't have to keep telling them,” Anderson said. “But that's the nature of the offensive line. There are things that are not natural. You just have to play the position. It's a position that you learn it through experience. We don't have a lot of it right now, but we'll get there. We just have to go through it now and that's tough.”
The starting group as the spring concludes features returnees Skipper (right tackle) and Ragnow (center) along with redshirt freshman Colton Jackson (left tackle), sophomore Hjalte Froholdt (left guard) and third-year sophomore Brian Wallace (right guard).
The top backups are Johnny Gibson at left tackle and Zach Rogers at center and guard. Others in the mix up front are Jalen Merrick (right tackle) and junior college transfer Deion Malone (right guard). Walk-ons Klint Harvey, Jackson Hannah and Cooper Sone round out the group. Junior college transfer Paul Ramirez and high school blue chipper Kurt Heinrich arrive in the summer.
“I started the spring with eight guys on scholarship in the offensive line and that's after we moved Hjalte over from the defensive line,” Anderson said.
He's not complaining. He knew the numbers when he took the job. Those low numbers mean Ramirez and Heinrich need to arrive ready to help. He won't comment on their potential positions until he gets them on the practice field.
“I don't want to put them in a box just yet,” Anderson said. “But I do know that both are tough minded, smart guys with the right demeanor.”
That's what he keeps saying about Froholdt, the 6-4, 310-pounder from Svendborg, Denmark. It is clear that Anderson and Froholdt have bonded. They'll need all the chemistry that can be mustered to get Froholdt on the field this year at left guard after making the transition from defensive tackle.
“I played some offense in high school, but only at tight end,” Froholdt said. “It's a big transition. I learn things every day. I did play last year, so the physical part is not the problem. It's learning the technique. I'm better in run blocking than in pass blocking. The protections have been tougher. I miss some calls, but I'm learning.”
Anderson sees great potential in the player teammates affectionately call The Great Dane.
“He's so coachable,” Anderson said. “The last thing to come when you're a defensive lineman that's moved over to the offensive side of the ball is pass protection, because you've got the physicality, you've got the toughness.
“You figure out where you're going in the run game, but pass protection is something that's pretty foreign to a lot of people. There's a give and take. You've got to give a shot, but you've got to absorb the blow at the same time. You've got to move your feet differently than you would as a defensive lineman. You've got to be heavy-footed. But you want your guys light on their feet.
“So a lot of the stuff, when you're teaching it, kind of seems like an oxymoron. And that takes time to learn. But I'm telling you, he's going to be a very special player if he continues to grow the way he's growing right now.”
Froholdt said he was drawn to Anderson's obvious embrace of his heritage. Anderson calls himself a Viking. He and wife Jennifer picked Scandinavian names for their five children: Hawken, Torin, Dagny, Odin and Raina.
“It's just awesome,” Froholdt said. “Of course, I'm Scandinavian. Now, you see those kids and they don't have the Scandinavian look. His wife has a Colombian background and she's got dark hair, dark eyes and that's the same for all of those kids.
“What's neat is that we were talking about our family. My brother is named Lars. So is Coach Anderson's brother. That was pretty weird to learn when we first met.”
Kurt gives Jennifer credit for all of the hard work with the five kids.
“I try to give her some breaks, like an hour and a half to go to the store,” he said. “But I have to admit that I'll pull a couple of the older ones aside when she goes and ask, 'Don't you want to go along with mom?' When I have them, we play a lot of basketball. It's me against five. I play a one -man zone.”
Ragnow said there was an analogy in meetings about the essence of competing that came from Anderson's kids, Hawken, 7, and Torin, 5.
“Coach went home and the boys were in the garage playing floor hockey,” Ragnow said. “They were in the middle of a best of seven series. It was 24-24 and they needed a tiebreaker. So coach used his cell phone as a timer.
“The loser came in crying. He said it just hurt so much to lose. He said he competed on every play. And that's what we have to do every play, every rep. It's about competing.”
Anderson was busy telling the same story in another part of the interview room.
“They were just going to play forever,” he said. “They wanted me to decide the end of the game. So I set the timer and it came down to a goal just before the buzzer, 32-31. The youngest lost that last point and it just hurt him so bad.
“So I told our guys in the meeting room, that's what competition is like. You have to hate to lose more than you love to win. It's about competing in every rep of practice, every play in a game. You can't lose that inner child attitude that hates to lose.”
Anderson is trying to teach the best way to compete.
“They get beat on a play, then 45 seconds later they get a chance to exact some revenge,” he said. “But you have to do it with technique.
“I am trying to teach Brian Wallace when he gets tired, how to push through it. The way to do it is to turn to his technique.
“What we are doing is learning how to win every rep, then it turns into winning every quarter and then that turns into winning games. First, you have to win every step.”
Wallace fascinates Anderson with great ability to go with a 6-6, 326-pound frame. Wallace moved from tackle to guard early in spring ball.
“He plays fast and he plays physical,” said Anderson. “You look at him, and that's what the NFL wants at guard. He has the ability to walk you off the line. He's got that wide base.
“But what we've seen is that he gets tired. It's the old (Vince Lombardi) saying, 'Fatigue makes cowards of us all.' He's no coward, but he gets tired. He has to push through it, and focus on technique, not focus on being tired. He's doing that.”
Jackson gets daily matchups with Wise, the brilliant defensive end. It can be a mismatch some days, but that is happening less and less.
"I think Colton Jackson, from the first practice to now, has been made unbelievable strides," Anderson said. "He's setting better. He's setting with confidence. His hand placement is better. His eye progression's better. I saw him finish a little bit more today. You want to see more finish from him, but at the same time, you can see he's thinking a lot of things through.
"When you've got young guys, that's what happens. Once he feels very, very comfortable in every little detail that I'm asking to do, he's going to play that much faster and that much more physical. But that takes time."
The pass protection has to improve all across the front. If not, the Hogs will not be able to take advantage of an obvious strength, quarterback Austin Allen with a big cast of wide receivers to go along with tight end Jeremy Sprinkle.
“Our receivers are ultra talented,” Anderson said. “But, if we don't get it down with protections from both the offensive line and the running backs, we won't be able to get the ball to them.
“We just have to keep pushing. I'm coaching them hard, but at the same time, patting them on the back. It's got to be a level approach.”
Ragnow said there is plenty of loud coaching.
“He can get heated,” Ragnow said. “He's a big man. When he gets heated, everyone knows.”
There have been times that a veteran defensive line has gotten the best of the younger offensive line. Defensive end Deatrich Wise and tackle Jeremiah Ledbetter have won lots of battles up front.
“That's the way it works sometimes,” Anderson said. “It's a learning curve. Some years the defensive line exploits the offensive line. Some days the offensive line is the older group and they exploit the defensive line.
“What you like is that there are those veterans over there that are making us better. I wouldn't want it any other way.”
It's learning daily lessons. Sometimes they are from a family perspective. Ragnow has been around the Anderson family several times and understands the perspective of his new coach.
"Coach Anderson has had them all here for lunch,” Ragnow said. “He loves those kids.”
It's clear Anderson loves his new family, the young offensive line. The stories keep coming.
“I think from a family perspective, I told them about the Hall of Fame speech from Larry Allen,” Anderson said. “He told about growing up in Compton, Calif. He said his younger brother was beat up in a neighborhood fight. He went back to defend him and came home beat up. His mother sent him back. He got beat up again. The third day, he finally whupped those guys.”
The message was not to back down. That illustrates a point of what has happened at times to a young offensive line during spring drills.
“We are going to fight until we win,” Anderson said. “It's part of playing football. We are going to get our assignments sound. I see it coming. They may not see it, but I do.”
Colton Jackson (74) checks for an adjustment in calls.
Photo by Jason Ivester