Offensive line coach Mike Summers addressed the media after Arkansas' first bowl practice on Monday in Memphis. He didn't take long to get to the meat and potatoes of the Auto Zone Liberty Bowl. Will the Hogs be able to control East Carolina's experienced, strong, tough defensive front four?
"They turn a lot of their defense over to those front four guys," Summers said of the East Carolina line. "They're big and they're strong and they're fast. They're experienced players and they do a lot with those guys. They move, they run a lot of line games.
"They're not just going to stand in one spot and let you block them. It will be a real challenge for us. They're good football players and that's the strength of their defense up front.
"Our offensive line knows that. We've watched tape on them. We know that it's a big challenge. We're taking it as a challenge. We know that it's a big challenge."
There were two developments that were front and center in the bowl practice, around two hours at Rhodes College in Memphis. Freshman defensive tackle, a main cog in the UA defense over the season, will not play this week. He sustained a high ankle sprain during bowl workouts in Fayetteville. Also, Grant Freeman is practicing at tight end, his high school spot, after earning playing time at offensive tackle during the season. Freeman's move might be related to Colton Nash's situation. Nash is out because of academics for the bowl game.
Summers was asked specifically about the play of senior offensive guard Mitch Petrus. The O-line coach said the Carlisle, Ark., product has developed nicely.
"He's really, I think, made as big a transformation as anybody on our team," Summers said. "From when I first got here to now, he's dedicated himself to his craft of being an offensive lineman.
"He has become really technically sound. I think he understands football and understands our scheme really well and I think that was a struggle when I first got here. With that understanding, I think his confidence has really grown throughout the season. Right now, I think he feels confident in his ability and we certainly lean on his ability to create movement for us, to give us leadership and we've been very pleased with what he's provided for us so far this year."
Obviously, the Hogs have done a lot of preparation for East Carolina over the last three weeks, but some of the work has been for the young players who have been waiting their turn. The work in the offensive line with the backups has been outstanding and intense. There has been a lot of heavy work and much attention to detail, things those backups might not get as much time with during the season.
"This has been such a great time for us back in Fayetteville to be able to not only go through the physical practices that we've had with our varsity players, but then get the additional time with those younger offensive linemen," Summers said. "It's been good, especially their development based on the way things are, it takes longer for them to be able to understand how to control their body and how to use the blocking schemes and the techniques that we teach.
"Having these extra 10 or 12 practices has been invaluable to those guys. And they've done a great job with it. They've approached it the right way with really an enthusiasm that has shown me they're anxious to be the type player we thought they were when we recruited them. I'm really encouraged with that. We've seen some great things from these guys."(who stood out) "i think all of them, i've seen great things from them.
"Really all of them," Summers said. "Travis Swanson, Alvin Bailey and Anthony Oden, Zhamal Thomas, Matt Hall, all of those guys. They've shown the special attention that we've shown them has helped. They've responded. A lot of times those guys get grouped into the second offensive line or the third offensive line and they don't get that special attention we've been able to show them the last couple of weeks. They responded to that coaching and that opportunity which really is encouraging leading into January and February weight lifting and pointing into spring practice."
The players have all spoken about the physical nature of bowl practices. What are the thoughts from the coaches on that heavy hitting?
"We've flat got after it," Summers said. "We have done a great job and they have done a good job of coming out to practice and wanting the physical part of practice to be the enthusiasm that they bring to this game.
"We've gotten after our defense and they've gotten after us. That, to me, has been a real encouraging part of this bowl season for us to see the offense and the defense get after each other.
"We've put them in situations where the one offense and the one defense has gone against each other. There's a lot of competition between those two units. It's been fun to watch. I think it's been very physical.
"Coach (Bobby) Petrino, several years ago, we all felt like the philosophy going into these bowl games was that you just couldn't take time off of the physical part of it and then show up on Jan. 2 and feel like you're going to perform like you did in our last game of the season. We kept that conditioning part of it coming and I think our players have understood that that is a part of how we prepare for bowl games.
"I think that was a general feeling we all got after our first couple of bowl games, really probably after the first bowl game that we played at Louisville. It just stands to reason that you've been going three or four months a certain way. You can't take two or three weeks off and then expect to be at the same level. Our players, they play at a high level.
"The contact phase of the game is a big part of that. To think that's just going to show up when the lights come on turned out to be wrong when we first started doing this. I think that's how we developed as a coaching staff into that understanding."
Quarterback Ryan Mallett said cool temperatures hampered the Hogs at the start of Monday's practice, but not for long. He said playing in cold weather is part of football and not a problem.
"It was a little chilly to begin with but we got warmed up and cranked up and we're excited," Mallett said. "Ready to go. We can't wait. Today was a pretty good day. Tomorrow we've got to get better on the little things we didn't do right today. We are going to just keep getting better as knock the rust off again."
How did the Hogs maintain those physical practices in Fayetteville without beating up teammates?
"I think we did a real good job as a team in knowing how to practice and practicing hard and keep each other healthy and off the ground," Mallett said. "We did kind of a Thursday practice (today) where it's not full pads or full bore hitting just to get our legs back and our timing back for tomorrow. Tomorrow will be full go."
Forecasts for Saturday's game call for a high of 38 with dropping temperatures after the 4:30 p.m. kickoff. Will that be a problem?
"I doubt it," Mallett said. "It's football. We played in the cold weather growing up so we're used to it. Everybody used to do that, especially when it snowed. That was the most fun time to play. So I don't think that will be a factor at all in the way we play football."
Mallett was asked about the development of the second offensive line.
"Those guys are really coming along," he said. "I was watching Oden and Zhamal today when they were on the weak side, especially. I thought they're progressing so much in their assignments and their pass sets. With Alvin Bailey and Travis Swanson, those are going to be four good ones coming up."
Summers Praises O-Line
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