Old hands line up
Experience, continuity fuse Hogs’ front five
FAYETTEVILLE — There was a lot of new with the Arkansas Razorbacks’ offensive line last season.
The Razorbacks had to replace three starters. Kurt Anderson was in his first season as the offensive line coach. Hjalte Froholdt moved from the defensive line.
Anderson is back this season, and the line has six players with starting experience.
“I feel like we’ll be a lot better considering all the experience we got last season,” junior right tackle Brian Wallace said. “We know what to expect now.
“I know what it’s like to play in games. Nothing’s going to catch me off guard.”
Wallace started the final
10 games last season. He was among three new starters who finished the season on the first-team line, along with Froholdt at left guard and Johnny Gibson at right guard.
“I feel comfortable about the whole offensive line,” said Froholdt, a junior who started 13 games. “We work well together.
We communicate very well up on the line, and we respond well to adversity, too.
“We’re not perfect on the field, but when we have a bad play we’re good about picking each other up and getting back into it.
“We’ve taken this to a different level. It’s not just the basic stuff anymore. We analyze the game a lot more. It’s a lot better than last year.”
The five players who finished spring practice as starters have been in the same spots throughout preseason practice, with center Frank Ragnow and left tackle Colton Jackson joining Froholdt, Wallace and Gibson.
“I think that’s obviously big when you talk about five guys playing as one,” Anderson said. “Whenever you get an opportunity to jell like that, it’s important for the communication piece of it, continuing to build on eye progression with each other.
“Because a lot of times you’re not seeing things through just your eyes. You have to see it through the
eyes of the guy next to you to be able to communicate and get things done.”
Ragnow, a senior and team captain, has made 26 consecutive starts and is on several preseason All-American teams. “Any questions or concerns we have, we just check with Frank,” Jackson said. “It’s basically like having a coach play alongside you.”
Anderson said Ragnow’s talent and leadership are invaluable for the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville.
“I think any time you have a senior leader in your room, that pays huge dividends,” Anderson said. “But it’s even more beneficial when it’s your starting center, because he is the mouthpiece.
“He’s vocal on every play in terms of getting us on the right page, getting our eyes in the right spots and identifying certain things.”
Ragnow said he’s prepared to be a vocal leader when needed, but he doesn’t expect to speak up constantly.
“There are times I look to my left and I don’t even have to say anything,” Ragnow said. “I can look at Hjalte and he knows what to do.
“It’s the same thing with Johnny on the right side, and all the guys. With the offensive line, the continuity is so huge. It’s definitely showing up this year.”
Pass protection was a major problem last season when the Razorbacks allowed 35 sacks. Quarterback Austin Allen, a senior returning starter, also was hit numerous times when he passed the ball.
“I think a lot of that comes with the amount of reps that you get together,” Anderson said of the improvement of blocking on pass plays. “I think the expectation for us is that we want to run the football and we want to protect our quarterback.
“That’s been a huge focus of ours. I feel good about the direction that we’re headed.”
Allen said he’s confident he’ll be well protected by the linemen.
“All summer those guys worked their tails off,” Allen said. “They were doing extra film work, getting extra field work.
“Having a guy like Frank come back and rub off on all those other guys is a really good thing for us. He’s going to be one of the top linemen taken in the draft next year. As much as he can get them going, it’ll be a pretty special line for years to come.”
Gibson, a junior and former walk-on who went on scholarship before the Belk Bowl, started the final five games last season. He was demoted to the second team for the start of spring practice — Coach Bret Bielema said he needed to show more maturity — before regaining a starting spot.
“Johnny’s doing a really good job in camp,” Anderson said. “He’s obviously a powerful guy. I really like where he’s at in terms of the communication with me, in terms of trying to get himself to be the player that he envisions in his head.
“I think for the first time probably in his life, he has the same high expectations for himself that his coaches have had for him.”
Gibson said the starters are pushing each other to be better.
“I feel like we’re going to make a huge leap as a line this season,” Gibson said. “We’re all working together and everybody’s understanding what we’ve got to do better, how we’re going to attack on a certain play each time.
“It’s a big thing when five people have been practicing together day in and day out, and you sit close together in the film room and listen to the coaching.”
Jackson, a sophomore, started the first three games last season at left tackle before Dan Skipper — now a rookie with the Dallas Cowboys — moved there from right tackle, where Wallace became the starter.
“It hits you,” Jackson said of losing a starting job. “It takes a toll on you mentally, because nobody wants to have that happen.
“You have to take a step back and look at why it happened and do better so it doesn’t happen again. I’ve learned from my mistakes.”
Jackson said inexperience was an issue for him.
“The year before I was redshirting and on the scout team,” he said. “To go from that to starting in the SEC was a big jump.
“I feel a lot better going into this season. I feel a lot smarter knowing the playbook and the scheme, the philosophy, what to do.”
Anderson said all of the linemen are able to learn and play at a faster pace.
“You can take it two, three steps further than you could in the past,” Anderson said. “That’s an added bonus because you’ve got guys that have been in my system in terms of terminology and footwork and technique.
“Last year it was a lot of myself talking, a lot of them listening and not really knowing if they were grasping what was being said. Now we have good, intelligent football conversations, and we can get a lot more accomplished that way.”
Arkansas quarterback Austin Allen lines up behind returning center Frank Ragnow, with returning starters Hjalte Froholdt (next to Ragnow) and Colton Jackson flanking him. The Razorbacks will depend on the offensive line’s experience this season.
Arkansas offensive coordinator Dan Enos talks to his offensive line before the Razorbacks scrimmaged at Reynolds Razorback Stadium in Fayetteville on Saturday.