Love Ready to Get ‘Nasty'

Editor's Note: This is the eighth story in a position-by-position series previewing the Razorbacks. Up next: Quarterbacks.

FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas defensive tackle Malcolm Sheppard knows what it takes to be a successful offensive lineman.

He has never played the position, but battled some of the nation's best the past three seasons. So it's no surprise that when Sheppard looks at teammate DeMarcus Love, he sees an important quality in the offensive tackle.

"You don't want somebody that's going to be your best friend," Sheppard said. "You have to be aggressive and you have to be nasty. He is definitely a nasty offensive lineman."

For the record: Sheppard and Love are good friends — just not on the practice field. That's where Love has spent the preseason grappling with Arkansas' entire defensive line.

The junior hasn't gained many friends, either, especially after getting in a fight with defensive end Tenarius Wright during a drill last week. It wasn't a moment the Razorbacks encouraged or condoned, but was a perfect display of Love's nastiness.

Arkansas is confident it will help make him an important piece to an offensive line trying to toughen up in 2009.

"I've never played next to somebody as talented as he is that can come off the ball and just smash somebody," guard Mitch Petrus said. "He's got the blasting ability. .... He runs a 4.9 (second 40-yard dash). He's got feet as quick as a cat. He's a dream tackle."

Love may be. But this is the first chance the 6-foot-5, 315-pound lineman will get to prove it after playing guard for two seasons.

Love, who started eight games last year, moved in the spring to replace departed starter Jose Valdez at the strong tackle spot. He said the hardest part of the transition has been getting used to the speed of rushing defensive ends, but feels comfortable.

"I feel like it's more of a position that's natural for me," Love said. "I've always been more of an athletic type of linemen. Guard wasn't a bad position, but I was always more of a tackle."

Love — who was named a team captain — will be an integral part of Arkansas' new-look line, which also includes Petrus, center Seth Oxner, guard Grant Cook and tackle Ray Dominguez.

The group has quarterback Ryan Mallett confident he won't hit the turf as many times as Arkansas' quarterbacks did last season, when the Hogs surrendered 46 sacks.

"Him and Petrus and (Oxner), when they really want to get after it, when they really want to go, they're some of the baddest guys I've seen in awhile ...," Mallett said. "When they turn that streak on, I wouldn't want to be the defensive linemen."

Arkansas found out what life without Love could look like when the tackle went down with a knee injury earlier this preseason.

It wasn't a major injury, but forced Love off the field for several days during camp. His absence was felt by the offense.

"He's very important," offensive line coach Mike Summers said after the injury. "He's one of the leaders on our team and certainly the leader on our offensive line and a very good football player.

"He leaves a big hole when he drops out of there."

But Love worked his way back, said the injury was nothing but a "little tweak" and is healthy again. Now, he is ready to help the Razorbacks bury last season's struggles on the offensive line.

Sheppard said they should have no trouble as long as Love, Arkansas' "nasty offensive lineman," is in charge.

"He's a guy you want when it's game time," Sheppard said. "You want him to block for you. ... When his time is done, he's going to be probably one of the best linemen to come through here."

Inside the ... Offensive Line

Best of the Bunch: Mitch Petrus. The Razorbacks may have lost Jonathan Luigs, but regained a starter after Petrus was forced to sit out 2008 for academic reasons. The senior is the offensive line's veteran and will be counted on for leadership.

Watch Out For: Seth Oxner. The sophomore was a summer surprise when he was listed ahead of Wade Grayson at center on the preseason depth chart. Oxner, who played on special teams last season, will earn his first start in the opener.

Biggest Strength: Unlike last season, the Razorbacks feel comfortable with their depth. Backups Wade Grayson, Grant Freeman and Matt Hall are capable of starting. JUCO transfer Zhamal Thomas and Anthony Oden are nice additions, too.

Biggest Question: Can the Razorbacks protect Ryan Mallett? Last year, Arkansas quarterbacks were sacked 46 times last season, which ranked 118th in the nation. So it's no secret that the offense's success in 2009 will depend on the line's play.

Probable Starters: DeMarcus Love, Mitch Petrus, Seth Oxner, Grant Cook and Ray Dominguez

Key Reserves: Wade Grayson, Grant Freeman, Matt Hall

That Figures: 6 — Number of offensive linemen who cracked the 400-pound mark on the bench press this summer. Petrus leads the way at a whopping 515. True freshman Alvin Bailey was the surprise member of the group, benching 415.

The Lingo: "I never have been held captive. But if you're in a situation you really want to do something but no matter what you can't do it, you're either going to go crazy and be immature, or it's going to force you to mature and you're going to have to control that energy and channel it the right way." — Mitch Petrus on sitting out in 2008 for academic reasons.

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