State of the Hogs: Swanson

Former Arkansas center Richard LaFargue had a blast watching Travis Swanson the last four years. He knows he'll get to watch him again on the next level soon.

testCheck back through the lineup cards at Arkansas and you find lots of three-year starters at center. Perhaps it's because coaches generally identify the most athletic linemen, train them and then don't mess with success.

It's almost a skill position. Things can get ugly in a hurry if there's not a good one at center.

An old offensive line coach told me years ago if you want to learn what's going on with any given play, glue your eyes on the center. He'll take you to the ball. And more times than not, you'll quickly figure out that every good offensive line starts with solid play at center.

And, if you want to see a worried coach, check his face when the starting center leaves, like Travis Swanson did in the Florida game this year. The good news is that it was about the only extended period that Swanson went to the sidelines in a glorious 50-game career, all as a starter. He's the only Razorback to start 50 consecutive games.

Swanson, named USA Today first-team All-America on Wednesday, has a chance to become the second straight UA center to win the Rimington Award on Thursday night in Orlando. Jonathan Luigs, his predecessor and another four-year starter, won it in 2007 as a junior.

Like a lot of collegiate centers, Swanson didn't come as a ready made center. Bobby Petrino recruited him as a guard, but thought his quick feet and athleticism would allow him to make the conversion to center, learning behind Luigs in a redshirt year. But he didn't use him like Bret Bielema's offense did this year as a pulling center, a master stroke that will likely make Swanson a large stack of money with a long NFL career.

It was those kinds of athletic plays leading Alex Collins and Jonathan Williams outside that made Richard LaFargue light up this year. LaFargue, Springdale resident and DeWitt product, has always pointed out the play of centers when I've joined the former All-Southwest Conference center in the stands at UA scrimmages. He almost giggled when he pointed out Swanson to me years ago in a spring workout.

"I guess I do lock in on center play," LaFargue said Wednesday. "I'm so happy for Travis because I do think he's going to play 10 to 15 years in the NFL. Obviously, I'm biased because he's a Razorback and he is ours, but I've felt he was very good for quite some time. I think everyone is noticing it now."

It helps when you start 50 straight. LaFargue finished his sophomore year in 1973 as a starter and went on to start 25 straight. He can't imagine 50.

"My first year, in 1972, was about the start of freshman eligibility and you couldn't redshirt," LaFargue said. "You could redshirt as a sophomore, but I didn't. So I only had a three-year window to play. Not many true freshman played then."

LaFargue marvels at the way true freshman Dan Skipper and Denver Kirkland exploded as true freshman starters in the fourth game of the season. Since he studied Swanson, it was easy to notice the young guards.

"I probably see more of that interior play than most," LaFargue said. "So watching the center, I saw what those young ones were doing each week and their progress. If you want to see something fun, just follow Skipper for an entire play. I don't think many liked playing against him.

"To be good in the offensive line, you have to be nasty. I promise you, Skipper is nasty. So was Travis. And I think that's what helped to make those guards as good as they were this year. I know Travis had to help them a lot with the way he played."

It's hard to imagine Swanson as under rated this week after earning first team All-SEC by the Associated Press earlier in the week and second team from the coaches the next day, followed by the USA Today All-America award. Swanson was the only first team selection except for the Memphis punter that didn't play for a winning team.

"But I thought he was under valued," LaFargue said. "He meant a lot to our offensive line and I think he was here at a good time for what Bret does up front and the way he coaches them. I think that raised his value and his rating this year.

"I don't think everyone realizes all that a center does. Even 37 years ago when I played, the center was calling the defense and made the checks in the blocking scheme. But it's even more complex now. You see Travis point out the scheme and declare the mike linebacker. He just was great.

"I know everyone was disappointed in the results this season, but there was growth. I saw it in the offensive line and know they are just getting started in that area. I just wish they had Travis around for another year."

LaFargue knows that offenses are different these days when he was the center in offensive coordinator Bo Rein's veer attack. But he said the words of his line coach, Don Boyce, still apply.

"It was drilled into me by Coach (Frank) Broyles, Coach Rein and Coach Boyce, if you control the line of scrimmage with the offensive line, you control the game," LaFargue said. "It's still the same. Every game I've ever watched it is the same.

"That's what we are building here now. It's like Coach Rein told us when we were in the veer, and he could break it down, no matter what the defense does, there is an answer. If you do your job in the offensive line, you are going to be right.

"And I think that tone is set by the center. I saw Travis set the tone. He did it with all the disappointment that was thrown their way the last two years. He never changed and always played so smart and so well.

"I hate it that they couldn't quite get that last one at LSU and they did let it slip away. Because, I thought they did so many great things in that game. I thought Travis played a great game. I watch the center play closely.

"I saw Travis play with such a great attitude and lead that team. And I think you are going to see those young ones do that going forward. Skipper and Kirkland are just going to be monsters."

LaFargue isn't sure who Bielema will tab as the next UA center. But he was sure of the skills needed.

"He'll be smart, have great flexibility, overall athletic ability and want to play hard every snap," LaFargue said. "He'll have the ability to bend in the hips, with great center of gravity. That's what you are looking for at center.

"He'll have the smarts to call the defense and the leadership to set the huddle and make sure everything is in order when the quarterback steps into the huddle with the play. I know they'll find someone like that. We've been doing that at Arkansas for a long time."

Luke Charpentier is next in line, but O-line coach Sam Pittman indicated that there will be competition there in the spring. Cordale Boyd, a backup guard, will get a look. Perhaps someone else moves from another position to squeeze out more greatness at the center spot at Arkansas.

There were some greats through the years, dating back to the arrival of two-platoon specialization, the three-year starters like Rodney Brand, Andy Upchurch, Earl Scott, Grant Garrett, Kyle Roper and LaFargue. There were so many others that were highly decorated like Jay Bequette, Mark Henry and Kenny Sandlin.

The mention of Roper leads us to the answer of a trivia question. He's the last UA center, in 2005, not to win the Rimington. And, he was another four-year letter winner, an indication of a nice comfort level for UA coaches over the last decade of knowing that center was being played very well.

And then there's that all-important question of who is next?
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