Arkansas counting on offensive line’s experience

Brey Cook smiled wide when asked what he learned during his

first go around through the Southeastern Conference.

The Arkansas offensive tackle saw plenty last season, logging

time in 11 games as a true freshman. As a highly sought-after

recruit, Cook thought he was ready but he was taken aback by the

talent he saw on defensive lines from week to week.

”There are a lot of big guys out there,” Cook said. ”I

learned you’re not the biggest fish in the pond anymore. There’s

competition and speed everywhere you go in the SEC and it’s a


The 6-foot-7, 308-pound Cook returns this season stronger and

wiser. He’s part of an offensive line that grew up on the job last


Arkansas struggled up front early last season while replacing

three starters from the year before, four if you include the loss

of D.J. Williams’ key blocking at tight end. The work-in-progress

was evident, with quarterback Tyler Wilson absorbing a variety of

sacks and hits.

Wilson was subjected to helmet-to-helmet shots, was sandwiched

by two defenders at once and took a pair of numbing back-to-back

shots to the gut in a win at Vanderbilt – a game in which he was

sacked three times.

”I’ve been on the bench for three years, so I need to get hit a

little bit,” Wilson joked at the time.

But the hits were no joking matter.

The health of Arkansas’ first-team All-SEC quarterback was a top

priority, and the coaching staff mixed and matched a variety of

players around returning starters Travis Swanson at center and

guard Alvin Bailey in an attempt to slow down oncoming


The Razorbacks finally began to hit their stride after the win

over the Commodores, limiting their next three opponents to one

sack each. That included a win over South Carolina, which boasted

one of the country’s best defensive lines and star defensive end

Melvin Ingram.

Swanson said the improvement has carried over to this


”The biggest thing I thought was chemistry,” Swanson said.

”The thing the coaches are doing a better job of this year, I

think, is trying to mix and matching trying to find the right

chemistry, finding people who play well with each other. That was

the biggest weakness, I thought, that the offensive line had at the

beginning of the year last year. Midway through the season, I feel

like we fixed it.”

Arkansas has led the SEC in passing in each of the last three

seasons, during which it’s ranked in the top half of the SEC in

sacks allowed despite the premium placed on the passing game. The

Razorbacks allowed 2.15 sacks per game last season, the same number

as the season before – a stat thanks in large part to the midseason

emergence of junior-college transfer Jason Peacock at left tackle

and the play of Cook and fellow freshman Mitch Smothers.

The midseason stability helped propel Arkansas on a seven-game

winning streak that led to an 11-2 record and a Cotton Bowl win

over Kansas State. Still, the group was overmatched in a

regular-season finale at LSU, allowing five sacks of Wilson in a

game the Razorbacks lost 41-17.

”People forget Bailey and Swanson were just sophomores last

year,” Arkansas offensive line coach Chris Klenakis said. ”They

were young. They had experience, but they were still just young

kids. Now they have the physical maturity to go along with the

mental, a year older and a year stronger.”

Klenakis’ optimism is shared by new coach John L. Smith, who was

an assistant last season at Arkansas before being hired to replace

Bobby Petrino in April. Smith is counting on the experience of

Swanson, who was selected a team captain, to lead the group, and

has ”no doubt” it can grow into a top-tier SEC line.

”I think the talent’s there,” Smith said. ”I think we’re

going to be much better; I know we are. Those guys mentally, that’s

such a hard position to play from a mental standpoint. It’s more

that than anything. The more mature they are, the better they’re

going to be. The more reps they’ve taken, the better they’re going

to be.”