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 grind.''
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 season.
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 defenses.
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 season.
''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.''