Making The Most Of An Opportunity

FAYETTEVILLE -- The heavy sounds of Pantera and Slipknot will blare through Stephen Parker's headphones Saturday afternoon, right before he walks down the ramp and gazes out into a stadium packed with 72,000 people.

It's fitting Arkansas' sophomore left guard will listen to a compact disc loaded with high-energy songs while he straps on his uniform and prepares for the opener against New Mexico State. After all, the fast-paced beat from his favorite rock bands matches his rapid rise from walk-on to starter in the span of a few months.

"I came, pretty much, way out of left field," Parker said. "If you were to ask (offensive line) coach (Mike) Markuson if I'd be a starter after two years here, he'd say, 'Well, there's a lot of work he has to do.'"

But Parker's third season will begin in the spotlight when he makes his first career start against the Aggies in Razorback Stadium. The 6-foot-3, 300-pounder toiled in the system the past two years, took advantage of James Johnson's season-ending knee injury and beat out redshirt freshman Robert Felton for the starting job.

He'll line up alongside junior center Kyle Roper and left tackle Tony Ugoh on an offensive line making its debut. Parker never imagined he'd start in his third year on campus. But that didn't mean he was willing to settle for anything less.

"It wasn't ever like, 'I wish I could do it,'" Parker said. "I came up here and was like, 'I'm going to play.' I've always been pretty strong and I said if (other walk-ons) busted their butt (and got on the field), there's no way I shouldn't be able to do it.
"Coach Markuson can coach up a corpse."

Parker admits he might not have been far from one when he arrived in 2002.

The Mandeville, La., native was a first-team all-district selection as a senior at St. Paul High, but didn't garner big-time scholarship offers. The only attention he got were from smaller Division I schools like Louisiana-Lafayette and Louisiana-Monroe, which Parker turned down for the chance to walk-on at Arkansas.

Parker said it was an easy decision because of Arkansas' track record with walk-ons, which included linemen like Jerry Reith and Dan Doughty. Both fought their way through the system, earned scholarships and became dependable starters.

"I saw how they took care of Jerry, how they took care of Dan and I thought they'd treat everyone the same," Parker said. "I thought I could stick up here. They really want walk-ons up here and give them a chance. Linemen, in two, three years, you can totally transform yourself. That's what I did."

But he followed Doughty's advice: Don't think about a scholarship because it will come when he least expected it.
That came in handy during Parker's first two years because he never got a chance to make an impression.

In turn, he had little responsibility and spent most of his off-the-field time living the life of a college student. It wasn't until last spring, when graduation hit the program hard, that Parker knew he had to change his work ethic.

He has lost nearly 30 pounds since the winter and was given a chance to compete with Felton for the starting job at left guard after Johnson underwent knee surgery in early August. He devoted his free time to memorizing the playbook and studying film, which paid off when he forged ahead of Felton the second week of practice.

"He has improved unbelievably," Markuson said. "He's changed his life a little bit. He's a lot more focused about being a good football player. It means something to him. That's encouraging.
"This summer, he just cut back and really watched what he ate. He feels better and moves better and has dedicated himself to be a good offensive lineman."

Said teammate Kyle Roper: "He has changed ever since the spring when he knew he had a shot at it. He's getting in the books and learning his plays and calls."

Markuson said Parker is a "great weight room guy" whose strength is helping him hold off pass rushers and push back defensive linemen in the run game. Roper said his teammate still has plenty to learn about pass protection, but is defining himself as a powerful run blocker best suited in one-on-one situations.
And to his surprise, Parker was awarded a scholarship on the first day of the fall semester. He figured he'd get one this year, but didn't think it would come until the end of the season.

Just like his rapid rise up the depth chart since spring practice, Parker said it was unexpected.

"(Starting is) going to be a great sense of accomplishment for me," Parker said. "I came up here a decent-sized kid and I've always been strong enough. I got a lot quicker this summer and lost some weight. You throw that together and when I focus in on everything I'm supposed to be doing, it naturally comes together.

"Yeah, I've come a long way. But it's been really nice and (Saturday) is going to be kind of a dream come true."

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