Arkansas’ turnaround efforts center around offensive line

Bret Bielema boasts an offensive line that averages 6-foot-6, 324 pounds and includes two players from his first recruiting class in Fayetteville.

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In Bret Bielema’s interpretation of college football’s feudal system, it isn’t the skill players that get the biggest perks. For a coach who believes in building from the inside out, they expectedly, go to Arkansas’ offensive line.

"It’s nice. … We get to ride first class on away games, the starting O-linemen," said senior right tackle Brey Cook said. "That was not the case before. … I love everything about that."

Little went right in Bielema’s first season in Fayetteville. The Razorbacks went 3-9 and were winless in the SEC for the first time since they joined the conference in 1992 and their only 0-for in-conference season since 1942, when they were in the SWC.

But he did succeed in establishing a ground game behind that Cook-led offensive line that was similar to the one that led Wisconsin to three straight Rose Bowls before Bielema left for Arkansas.

Alex Collins ran for 1,026 yards in earning SEC Freshman of the Year honors, while Jonathan Williams totaled 900 as they combined for 340 carries. The duo is back, as are three starters along the offensive front in Brey, sophomore right guard Denver Kirkland and 6-foot-10 sophomore left tackle Dan Skipper.

Center Travis Swanson is gone — replaced by either senior Luke Charpentier or junior Mitch Smothers — after starting all 50 games of his career and tackle David Hurd made 12 starts. But the ground game, and those who pay the way for it, are clearly benefitting from Bielema’s recruiting efforts.

Collins, Kirkland and Skipper were all part of his first class, along with redshirt freshman Reeve Koehler, who is in the running to start at left guard, and the Razorbacks continue to focus on beefing up the line. Four of February’s signees were linemen, including four-star tackles Jovan Pruitt and Brian Wallace.

"We have an offensive line that lost a couple tremendous players, but overall regained strength," Bielema said. "Hopefully will be one of the biggest strengths in our program, not just this year, but for years to come."

This current version — which averages 6-6, 324 pounds — starts with Cook, a 6-7, 328-pounder with 17 career starts, including 11 last season. He led a unit that helped to produce the second Arkansas tandem of RBs to hit at least 900 yards each, equaling Darren McFadden and Felix Jones in ’06 and ’07, and allowed an average of 0.67 sacks a game (third in FBS).

"He flourished in every game, playing at a level that he just continues to impress us, amaze us," Bielema said of Cook. "His leadership skills have gone off the charts since we’ve been there."

But the talent along the line and two capable backs may not be enough if the Razorbacks continue to be one-dimensional on offense.

Brandon Allen was 99th in the nation in pass efficiency (109.0) as a sophomore, throwing 10 interceptions to 13 touchdowns as Arkansas managed 148.5 yards per game through the air (114th). He’ll also be down his top pass-catcher from a year ago with Javonte Herndon gone, but tight end Hunter Henry (28 catches) and wide out Keon Hatcher (27) return, along with senior WR Demetrius Wilson, who suffered a torn ACL last August.

Cook says he’s seen a progression in Allen this offseason, both in his on-field decision-making and what he provides the program behind the scenes.

"Brandon Allen has done an incredible job growing into his leadership role this year," Cook said. "This summer he has become a guy the whole team, not just the offense, can look up to. He’s able to lead with authority and it is something that he does very well."

Said Bielema: "(He) has had probably one of the best, oddest seasons that I’ve ever seen a positional player have, let alone a quarterback."

The Badgers were rarely pass-happy with Bielema in charge, never ranking higher than 50th — which came in his first season of ’06 — but they were still a threat, averaging 199 yards per game to go along with 209.6 on the ground during his tenure.

That’s what Bielema is seeking as he continues to build Arkansas in his image — though it didn’t translate in his first season.

After struggling with Samford, Arkansas lost to Rutgers — which would go 6-7, by four on the road — then, the Razorbacks lost by 12 to Texas A&M, a 20-point margin vs. Florida, 45 against South Carolina, 52 against Alabama and 18 vs. Auburn. But there were signs of life late though, as they took Mississippi State to overtime in a 24-17 loss and led LSU by six heading into the fourth quarter before losing 31-27.

"Last year, we obviously lost a lot of games, and if you didn’t come out of that learning something then you definitely lost," Cook said. "We took stuff from those games, took something from those experiences."

Rebounding will be daunting, and not just because the Razorbacks play in the SEC West, where they’ll face teams that have played in the last six national title games, along with rising Mississippi State and Ole Miss.

Arkansas also faces Texas Tech in Arlington on Sept. 27 and draws Georgia and Missouri out of the East. It translates to a schedule that Phil Steele ranks as the third toughest in the country, trailing only Notre Dame and Tennessee.

The Razorbacks also jump right into the SEC fray, opening up against defending league champion Auburn on the road Aug. 30. But the Tigers also present something more than a challenge for Bielema’s crew.

It was two seasons ago that Auburn went 0-8 in the conference, only to bounce back by winning the West and earning a spot opposite Florida State in the final BCS title game.

A similar turnaround may not be in the Razorbacks’ immediate future, but they can at least look to the Tigers as proof that it can and does happen, even in the gauntlet of the SEC West.

"In this conference, anything is possible. I’ve learned that each year I’ve played at the University of Arkansas," Cook said. "Something crazy always happens and you can never predict a game. It’s impossible to do in this conference and we’re excited to come out and turn things around."