New Starters, Same Results For Hogs' O-Line

FAYETTEVILLE -- Maybe someday Arkansas running backs Darren McFadden and Felix Jones will be able to properly thank their offensive linemen for making them look good.

Perhaps when they get to the NFL, McFadden and Jones could buy each linemen a nice suit or an expensive watch. Possibly treat the whole front line to some Mexican food, their favorite.

In the meantime, Arkansas center Jonathan Luigs said he's fine with a simple "Thank you" after one of the tailbacks scores a touchdown.

"It's just a working relationship," Luigs said. "They don't have to feed us or give us gifts or anything. That would probably be too expensive."

For the most part, Arkansas' offensive line has been one of the few bright spots during a disappointing 1-2 start on the season. The Razorbacks host winless North Texas (0-3) at 6 p.m. Saturday.

Despite replacing three starters -- including at both offensive tackle positions -- the front line has held off defenders and opened up holes large enough for McFadden and Jones to run through.

As a result, McFadden is a Heisman Trophy favorite and the nation's leading rusher with an average of 173.0 yards per game. Jones isn't too far behind at 119.3 ypg.

"Without them, you wouldn't know Felix Jones and Darren McFadden," Jones said of his offensive linemen.

At the same time, Arkansas' unheralded offensive line -- whose only true star is Luigs -- has provided quarterback Casey Dick with plenty of protection in the pocket.

He has only been sacked twice through the first three games, and the front line didn't surrender a single sack in a 41-38 loss at Alabama on Sept. 15.

"It's just gotten better every game so far. It seems like we've gotten so much better since the Troy game," said Arkansas offensive tackle Nate Garner, one of the three new starters on the line.

The offensive line is a big reason why the Razorbacks have managed to grind out yards this season, even as the passing game continues to struggle.

Arkansas ranks third nationally in rushing (329.6 yards per game) and 19th in total offense (484.0 ypg). This has come despite a passing game that ranks 109th with an average of 154.3 yards per game.

It's no secret that the Razorbacks rely heavily on McFadden and Jones for the bulk of their offense. Still, opposing defenses have been unable to contain them so far. The offensive line can take some credit in that.

"All I can tell you is they're a good group of kids, they work hard, they're tough, they know the guys that are behind them and most of them have seen what it's like to win," Arkansas offensive line Mike Markuson said.

Based on what he saw in the spring, Markuson admitted he's surprised that the offensive line has come together so quickly.

Arkansas had an experienced front line last season, and with offensive tackles Tony Ugoh and Zac Tubbs protecting the edges, the Razorbacks dominated the line of scrimmage in wins over Auburn and Tennessee.

But the offensive line went through a massive overhaul in the spring. Markuson had to replace offensive guard Stephen Parker, as well as Tubbs and Ugoh -- who's now the starting left tackle for the Indianapolis Colts.

Luigs and offensive guard Robert Felton were the only holdovers. But the front line came together after experiencing some growing pains in the spring.

"You had to fill a lot of the pieces of the puzzle. We lost a lot of veterans, a lot of game experience," Luigs said. "You always wonder going into a season how it's going to work out, but so far I think we've done well."

The most glaring problem, though, has been the offensive line's inability to finish games. That's an issue that the entire team is dealing with.

In the back-to-back losses to Alabama and Kentucky, the front line couldn't help grind out enough yards to get a critical first down and run out the clock.

"Sometimes, we've got to just finish at the end, that's been our problem the last couple of games," Garner said. "Got to finish."

Massive Overhaul

Arkansas offensive line coach Mike Markuson was forced to replace three starters from last season, including NFL second-round pick Tony Ugoh. But there hasn't been much dropoff through the first three games this season.

Here is how the Razorbacks' offensive line looks now compared to last season:

Position 2006 2007

Left tackle Tony Ugoh Jose Valdez

Left guard Stephen Parker Mitch Petrus

Center Jonathan Luigs Jonathan Luigs

Right guard Robert Felton Robert Felton

Right tackle Zac Tubbs Nate Garner

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