Center Of Attention

FAYETTEVILLE -- Offensive linemen take all the punishment and get none of the glory. There are no statistics on the Southeastern Conference weekly handout or records to be broken in the Arkansas media guide.

Their performance is measured by grades and by knockdowns, pancakes or, what Auburn keeps up with, something called cockroach blocks.

Not very glamorous. Try picking up a girl by saying you had six cockroaches (instead of catches) in a game and she'll quickly walk away, if she doesn't puke first.

Arkansas senior center Kyle Roper could care less. The 6-foot-3, 291-pounder gauges success in other ways.

"When our guys get an award, it doesn't matter if it's a running back, quarterback or a receiver, it's still part of us," said Roper. "We have to do our job for them to be successful and I think that's how you have to look at it as an offensive linemen.

"They get the glory, but it's part of you, too."

So when tailback Darren McFadden was named SEC Freshman of the Week after rushing for 108 yards and two touchdowns on 13 carries against Auburn last Saturday, it's because the line fulfilled its assignments?

"Exactly," he said.

Roper was the real center of attention last Saturday. After suffering a severe sprained knee two weeks prior, Roper didn't practice much in the week leading into the Auburn game.

Everyone figured right guard Jonathan Luigs would start at center for the second straight week. But Roper sucked it up and performed well enough for coach Houston Nutt to say he "graded out a winner."

He has been slowed in practice again this week, but this time, everyone expects him to play at No. 4 Georgia on Saturday.

"He's the toughest guy I've ever met," said left guard Stephen Parker. "'He said, 'I'm about 60 or 70 percent, but I'm going to roll with it.' before the last game. If you watched it, you would have had no idea he was in that much pain.

"But he was the one in the huddle trying to keep us going. He kept saying, 'Guys, we're too close in this game to give in.' So we didn't. We knew he was hurting. I tried to adjust my blocking assignments to help him out, but he said, 'Don't worry about me, I'll be good.'

"And it'll be the same thing this week. I'm sure he'll be hurting, but we're counting on having (Roper's) No. 70 out there on Saturday."

The toughness comes from his days as a champion wrestler at McEachern High in Powder Springs, Ga. Strangely enough, it also is where he learned the skills that vaulted him into a first-team All-SEC pick by nearly every preseason publication this year. He's also up for the Dave Rimington Award, annually presented to the nation's top center.

"Wrestling helped me tremendously," said Roper, who finagled about 12-15 tickets for friends and family for Saturday's game. "Everything that wrestling teaches you as far as leverage and keeping your hands inside, it's great for an offensive lineman. In wrestling, they teach you to move your feet and how to position your feet to stay balanced.

"That's a lot of what playing on the offensive line is about."

Offensive line coach Mike Markuson loved the fact Roper was a wrestler when he recruited him. He said the wrestling background made his job much easier when Roper arrived on campus, even though his only football experience was as a tight end. He wasn't bad catching the ball either, earning all-state honors after pulling down 20 receptions for 250 yards and a touchdown as a senior.

"He had great leverage already," Markuson said. "Wrestlers, particularly when they play on the offensive line, know how to use their bodies and their hands and how to lean into people.

"They understand positioning and that's huge for an offensive lineman."

Roper said he misses wrestling everyday.

"It's one of those sports where it's you against somebody else," Roper said. "It's one-on-one, just like on the offensive line where it's you against the guy in front of you. It's a team sport and your whole team is expecting to win. It's a bunch of individual battles and everybody has to do their jobs and win their battles for the team to win, just like football."

Markuson said Roper's progress has been a "pleasure" to watch. He got plenty of early tutoring by watching how former Razorbacks linemen Dan Doughty, Mark Bokermann and Jerry Reith handled themselves.

They were players who took what they learned to another level, something Markuson said Roper is starting to do as well.

"He'll say things like, 'Coach, can I make this call or that call.'" Markuson said. "That's when they start thinking for themselves in what we're trying to do and they can make adjustments.

"It's like having a coach on the field. That's what you want. He certainly has improved in that area and we have a lot of confidence in him being able to do that."

Now, it is Roper's turn to be the guy who the young linemen are watching and learning from.

"I've been watching his every move from whenever I first came up here," said Luigs, a redshirt freshman. "I knew he was a hard worker. But watching how he has dealt with practice and dealt with all the yelling, he's helped me get adjusted to college football. He's really been a mentor.

"He's the biggest leader on the offensive line. He's been here the longest. We all really look up to him, not just the younger guys.

"When he's in there, he just gives us a lot more confidence on the line."

Center is the toughest and most important position across the front. Besides having to snap the ball and step at the same time, he's the one who makes all the reads and relays it to the other linemen on who to block in a particular scheme. To do that, Roper has become adept at studying film and learning defensive tendencies.

If there's a breakdown or missed assignment, he usually puts the blame on his shoulders.

"Being able to hear the quarterback and being able to call out everything at the same time, it can definitely get confusing," Roper said. "You just have to know what formation you're in to know what defense they're going to be in and based on that, decide what they're likely going to do. So, you've got to keep your head up at all times.

"It sounds like a lot, but you get used to it."

With or without the glory.

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