Razorbacks offensive front occupy cover boy position


By no means do offensive linemen play the sexiest position on the field. So it’s a bit ironic that Arkansas’ offensive linemen are the cover boys on this season’s Razorback football media guide. However, head Hog Bret Bielema would have it no other way.

When questioned about the cover at SEC Media Days, Bielema, who still sports a lineman’s body, said, “Well, selfishly, it’s because it’s the only group that I feel good about taking a picture with. That’s why they got vaulted into the No. 1 spot.”

Bielema joked, but the Hogs’ third-year coach has serious respect for the work linemen perform, and after laboring at the thankless task of playing nose guard as a walk-on at Iowa, he makes sure his lineman know they are appreciated.

“I learned this early in life when big people talk, most people listen,” Bielema said. “When those guys are in charge of our locker room and something needs to be said, they say it. And people listen. That is the identity of our program and is really the chemistry of who we are.”

Bielema believes a solid foundation for a college program is built along the fronts of both lines of scrimmage. With that foundation set, a program can thrive for years.

The University of Arkansas’ 2015 football media guide features the Razorbacks’ projected offensive line. From left to right: Dan Skipper, Frank Ragnow, Mitch Smothers and Denver Kirkland.

“I think, when you have elite players at elite positions, it’s hard to recruit guys behind them because you’ve got a quarterback that might start for three years or a tailback that starts for three years,” Bielema said. “You’ve got five offensive linemen every year that can become starters. It’s easy to build depth there, and it’s easy to build a tradition, and it’s easy to build value because running backs will tell you they love great linemen. Quarterbacks will tell you they love great linemen. Wide receivers will tell you they love great quarterbacks and great linemen.”

The Razorbacks were the only college team in America to boast two rushers with more than 1,000 yards last fall, and senior Jonathan Williams (1,190 yards, 12 TDs) and junior Alex Collins (1,100, 12) both know who butters their bread.

“I love those guys up there,” Williams said of his linemen. “They are the reason. Alex and I work hard, but without them it wouldn’t be possible.”

Likewise Collins paid respect to his O-line.

That’s where it all starts,” the Florida native said. “We can’t get nothing done without them. I always give them credit when I do something good. One yard, 10 yards or a touchdown, they get all the credit because without them, I couldn’t get past the line of scrimmage.”

Despite returning four of five starters from a year ago, the Hogs have shuffled its deck on the offensive front to get its best, most experienced and athletic linemen in the starting line up.

Mitch Smothers (6-3, 315, Sr.) and Sebastian Tretola (6-5, 322, Sr.) return to their starting spots from last year at center and right guard respectively. However, Denver Kirkland (6-5, 343, Jr.) has moved from right guard to left tackle with Frank Ragnow (6-5, 311, So,) moving up to Kirkland’s old spot. Dan Skipper (6-10, 307, Jr.) flips from left to right tackle.

The media named Kirkland and Skipper to its second-team All-SEC squad on Friday, while tabbing Tretola as a member of the third team. Don’t be surprised if one or more of the Hogs offensive lineman make the jump to first team honors by the end of the season.

However, individual honors are not what playing on the offensive front is about. Bielema wants his offensive linemen to work like a fist. There may be five fingers, but when it punches, it punches as one.

Nov 22, 2014; Fayetteville, AR, USA; Arkansas Razorbacks offensive lineman Denver Kirkland (55) stares down an Ole Miss Rebels defender at Donald W. Reynolds Razorback Stadium. Arkansas defeated Mississippi 30-0. Mandatory Credit: Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports

“I think you gain a certain amount of respect for each other when you play next to the guy the same way, same play everyday,” Bielema said. “I want my No. 1 offensive line playing together every day. I want them all on the same page with all those non-communicated things and tendencies that might help the on game day. Then, it comes down to how well they play together and how they can make each other better.”

One way Bielema believes the offensive line can be better this season is executing the Razorbacks screen game under new offensive coordinator Dan Enos. An effective screen game not only can put Arkansas’ athletic linemen to good use, but also help them protect quarterback Brandon Allen.

“It’s a point of emphasis,” Bielema said of screen passes. “Defensive lineman love to come up field in our league, and one way to slow them down is to slip a little screen behind them. We worked on it a lot last year, but we didn’t call it. It’s one thing Dan has been really good at with other programs. We’ve put in some different looks, and our guys are excited. I think it fits our personnel. Our running backs Alex and J-Will both catch the ball really well. I think that’s an area that will be very beneficial for our whole team not just our linemen.”

So call them big uglies or whale tails if you must, but know the Hogs call their offensive linemen valued and respected members of the team. The proof is on their media guide cover.