The Arkansas Razorbacks face many challenges going into the 2017 football season, but none are greater than improving the performance of the Hogs’ offensive line.
One of the hallmarks of Bret Bielema’s coaching career since his days at Wisconsin has been strong play along the offensive line that allowed his squads to punish defenses by moving the chains and melting the clock on the ground. Success rushing the ball created opportunities to exploit with timely play-action passing.
However, last season those traits just weren’t a part of the Razorbacks’ offense against most SEC-caliber opponents. The Hogs were below average up front. The Razorbacks struggled to protect quarterback Austin Allen who was sacked 35 times, and failed more often than not in critical short-yardage situations.
The creative play-calling of offensive coordinator Dan Enos, the hard-nosed running by Rawleigh Williams III, solid play by quarterback Allen and a veteran corps of receivers kept the Hogs’ heads above water for a 7-6 season, but Arkansas’ didn’t have the characteristics of a Bielema-coached offense. SEC analyst Booger McFarland nailed it on the head when he tagged Arkansas as a finesse football team last September.
That’s a tag the Razorbacks don’t want any part of this season, and Bielema believes the improvement will be there to remove it.
“One of the major issues with us last year in protection and taking care of our quarterback and being able to run a football is we did not have enough of SEC quality offensive linemen in our program,” Bielema said last week at SEC Media Days. “I myself had not done what I needed to do to give us the numbers early on in those classes to get us there. Or some guys left a little early because they played well.
“I feel really, really good about where that group is. I like the fact that they’ve taken some shots, and they’ve survived, and I really think they’re in a mode to really prove some things this fall.”
First-year offensive line coach Kurt Anderson struggled to find a consistent starting five until the last half of the season. While those growing pains were tough to live through last season, they could pay dividends even with the loss of All-SEC performer Dan Skipper to the NFL.
“We have six guys that started SEC football games for us now on the offensive line,” Bielema said. “That’s so much of an improvement from a year ago. Coach Anderson had another year with this group.”
The first among those six players is senior center Frank Ragnow. The preseason All-SEC selection and nominee for the Rimington Trophy, which honors college football’s top center, could be prepping for the NFL right now, but he opted to stay for his senior year.
“I decided to come back before the Virginia Tech game [the Belk Bowl],” Ragnow said at SEC Media Days. “One thing that I said after that game is that we have been a team that has been able to start strong but then didn’t finish too good, or we start slow and then finished strong.
“One thing that I really wanted to emphasize as a leader of this team was that we are going to start strong, and we are going to finish strong. We are going to put it all together, and we are going to be accountable and consistent. That is one thing that we have really tried to emphasize this off season, and it’s been great to see so many guys buy into that culture.”
Ragnow returned because of unfinished business on the field as well as in the classroom. He is on schedule to complete his degree at the end of the fall semester. However, he also felt he owed a debut of gratitude to his head coach, who gave him unwavering support last fall when Ragnow’s father, Jon, unexpectedly died in October after watching his son play against Alcorn State on television.
“I can’t even express in words how thankful I am for that man [Bielema],” Ragnow said. “He is a best friend, he is a mentor. This past year, he has been so helpful for me, and I will never be able to thank that man enough for how great of a coach, how great of a person, and how great of a friend he has been to me. I am so, so thankful for him.”
Bielema only has glowing words for his senior center.
“Frank Ragnow, is by far one of the most talented players I ever coached, on and off the field,” Bielema said. “Tremendous person. Excited to see him come back and return for his senior season.”
The Razorbacks other starters on the offensive line following spring practice were sophomore Colton Jackson (6-5, 298) at left tackle, junior Hjalte Froholdt (6-5, 311) at left guard, junior Johnny Gibson (6-4, 333) at right guard and junior Brian Wallace (6-6, 337) at right tackle.
While there will be competition at those positions, Bielema wants Anderson to build a cohesive unit that will be more stable than last season.
“I think in offensive line play, you have five guys that are attached in everything that they do,” Bielema said. “You see the lineman, they all go eat together. They go watch a movie together. They do everything together. We breed that in our program. For that left tackle, he’s playing next to left guard, but he needs to understand what the center is yelling and doing, what the right guard is going to do on a kickoff play. There’s a continuity that has to develop.”
Ragnow said the Razorbacks would not suffer through another bad roller-coaster season this fall.
“We don’t act like last season didn’t happen but we definitely learned from it and we are growing from it,” Ragnow said. “It is a blessing that we have been through these hard times. They say you learn more when you lose or go through those hard times, and we definitely have. We need to use that as motivation for this season, for sure.”
It particularly gnaws at Ragnow when the stat of Allen being sacked 35 times is brought up.
“It is not acceptable,” Ragnow said of the hits Allen suffered through last fall. “That is one thing, this year, this season, this summer, that we have really tried to emphasis is [that it is] not okay. You should be utterly embarrassed if you let your quarterback get hit or sacked or anything like that.”