FAYETTEVILLE – Arkansas received national attention when it put its offensive line on the cover of its media guide in 2015.
Two years later, two of those players are in the NFL and one will likely be selected in next month’s NFL Draft. The lone remaining piece from the cover shoot is Frank Ragnow.
And the center from Minnesota may prove to be the best one of the bunch.
“I’ve had a lot of players play really good at that position and he’s as good as I have ever had,” head coach Bret Bielema said. “In my opinion he could be something special not only at our level, but beyond.”
That is high praise coming from a coach who’s had 11 offensive linemen drafted into the NFL over the last nine years.
It is also deserved, as he’s coming off a year in which he earned second-team All-SEC honors and was named the top offensive lineman in the country by Pro Football Focus.
Ragnow played so well last season that there was some thought he could enter the NFL Draft as a junior. After getting some feedback, though, he decided to return to Arkansas, much to the delight of his teammates.
“Frank is one of the leaders of this team,” running back Rawleigh Williams III said. “For him to come back was huge for our offense. He’s done nothing but lead every single day and done nothing but make us a better team.”
As well as he played, last season was the toughest of his life.
A few hours after the Razorbacks beat Alcorn State in Little Rock on Oct. 1, Ragnow’s father died of a heart attack.
Ragnow flew home to Victoria, Minn., and spent most of the week with his family before returning to Fayetteville just in time for Arkansas’ game against No. 1 Alabama.
It’s been nearly half a year since his father’s death, but the subject is still raw for him. When asked how he was doing personally following Arkansas’ practice Tuesday, Ragnow choked up and struggled to find the right words.
“I have my highs and I have my lows,” Ragnow said. “If I didn't have football, I'd probably be home right now. I'm just trying to survive.
“It's tough knowing you’re far away from your mom and your brother and your sister. But in the end, I know my dad's with me and as tough as it is, I've just got to take it day by day.”
He credited his coaches and teammates for helping him through the difficult time, including offensive line coach Kurt Anderson and strength and conditioning coach Ben Herbert.
Ragnow has spring practice to keep his mind occupied, too.
Other than Ragnow and graduated left tackle Dan Skipper, the Razorbacks’ offensive line struggled mightily in 2016.
After leading the SEC in fewest sacks allowed for three consecutive seasons, Arkansas ranked 13th in the conference last year. The Razorbacks allowed 35 sacks, compared to 36 over the previous three seasons combined.
Despite those struggles, the offensive line is primed to be better in 2017, with five players other than Ragnow – Hjalte Froholdt, Johnny Gibson, Colton Jackson, Jake Raulerson and Brian Wallace – having starting experience.
There is no question, though, that Ragnow is the group’s leader at the center position.
“It’s big to have Frank back,” quarterback Austin Allen said. “You see him out there just how natural he is, making out calls, telling the guys what to do.”
Bielema said that Ragnow is actually talented enough to play all five positions along the offensive line and could even play tight end.
When they were recruiting him, Bielema said he thought Ragnow had the potential to be a “great” defensive end, a position he also played at Chanhassen High School.
Ragnow showed his versatility last season, moving to right guard for Arkansas’ game against Texas State and earning SEC Offensive Lineman of the Week honors.
He’ll stick to center on offense this year, but the Razorbacks could use him in some defensive packages as a “six-technique defensive end,” Bielema revealed on Sports Talk with Bo Mattingly Wednesday.
“As the season goes on and we get into fall camp, he’s a guy that we’ll probably use on defense in a certain capacity,” Bielema said. “He’s just too talented.
“When we’re running a 3-4, once you get into a certain area of the field, you need more and more defensive linemen. If he could be a guy that gives us a valuable asset there, we’ll probably use him on the defensive side of the ball."
It has been several years since Ragnow played defense in high school, so it’s unclear how he’d fare in the SEC.
One thing Bielema did make clear, though, is that Ragnow will receive a similar “star treatment” that Trey Flowers and Jonathan Williams got when they came back for their senior years.
That means limited action in scrimmages throughout the spring and fall, which is something Ragnow admits he is “anxious” about.
“It’s kind of one of those positions where the first time I’m not scrimmaging, I don’t even know how to handle it,” Ragnow said. “It’s a humbling thing to be looked at with the ability that I can be held out, but I am going to be out there chomping at the bit to at least be speaking to the guys. We’ll just see how it goes.”
Arkansas has its second of 15 spring practices at 4:30 p.m. Thursday. The practice has been moved to inside the Walker Pavilion because of the threat of rain.
The Razorbacks will still be in helmets only by NCAA rules, but will finally go full pads Saturday.