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Can First-Class Offensive Line Lead Turnaround At Arkansas?

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Arkansas’ linemen know the deal when it comes to a football team and who tends to get most of the credit and public accolades.

The pecking order starts with the quarterback, the running backs, receivers. Probably a coach or a coordinator next.

The linemen are a footnote everywhere except for on Arkansas team flights.

The big guys get the big seats. By coach Bret Bielema’s policy, Arkansas’ starting offensive and defensive lines fly first class on team flights to road games. Sorry, quarterbacks and running backs, you’re sitting in coach.

“They get their names in the paper, and I couldn’t be any more excited for them,” Arkansas right tackle Brey Cook told Athlon Sports. “But it’s nice to know in-house that we have a big part in that.”

So far in 2014, the line has been part of headline-worthy play.

Bielema’s goal to turn Arkansas into Wisconsin in terms of offensive philosophy hasn’t been smooth. The Razorbacks head to Arlington to face Texas A&M seeking their first SEC victory since Oct. 13, 2012, against a top-10 Aggies team favored by 8 1/2 points.

Still, Arkansas’ outlook is looking as promising as anytime since before Bobby Petrino’s abrupt and embarrassing exit from Fayetteville.

The Razorbacks are the SEC West’s only unranked team in this week’s AP and coaches polls, though Arkansas is receiving votes in both. For a team that was outscored by more than 15 points per game in an 0-8 SEC season a year ago, this is a remarkable turnaround.

And for that, Arkansas can thank leg room for their linemen, including on the team flight to DFW this weekend.

“Our linemen are treated like most teams treat their quarterback,” Arkansas offensive line coach Sam Pittman told Athlon Sports. “Most teams look at it as there’s only one quarterback. On our team there’s only one center. He’s not on the extra point team. Linemen we look at as skill players, and they tend to like it.”

This season, Arkansas’ linemen have been the stars similar to any skill player.

Of 27 scoring drives this season, nine have gone for 10 plays or more. Arkansas has already rushed for more touchdowns this season (17) than all of last year (14).

Beyond the season numbers, the 49-24 win over Texas Tech in Lubbock two weeks ago demonstrated the Bielema offensive line and run game philosophy in the extreme.

In a tie game in the first quarter on the road, Arkansas called a series like a team trying to milk the clock in the fourth quarter. The Hogs ran on a dozen consecutive plays to march 68 yards down the field to take a lead.

In the third quarter, Arkansas called 10 consecutive run plays in a 13-play touchdown drive, and 13-of-13 plays on a fourth-quarter touchdown drive were on the ground.

“It’s something we always wanted to do with our offense and our philosophy,” Cook said. “For us it was that nail in the coffin. Everyone knows what’s going to happen, and we’re still going to make it work. Those are the drives you dream about.”

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That’s still a long way from where Arkansas started.

When Bielema arrived, the offensive linemen were surprised to learn of the workload expected in practice.

After running two or three periods of inside run drills in practice, for example, Pittman sent them back out for a fourth, fifth or sixth.

“It took a while for them to start enjoying our type of schemes,” Pittman said. “Once they did, we weren’t a bad offensive line a year ago.”

Center Travis Swanson was a quick study and a key cog in that last season, and his experience was instrumental in delivering on-field instruction to freshman starters Denver Kirkland and Dan Skipper.

With Swanson and right tackle David Hurd gone in spring this season, Arkansas started over in a few ways. First, Swanson’s athleticism allowed Arkansas to run outside behind his lead.

That deparure has led to more runs up the gut.

“Because we’re big and physical, we put some more inside plays that could showcase our talents that way,” Pittman said.

Not that it’s been seamless. Kirkland needed to lose 25 pounds during the offseason, and Skipper's adjustment from guard to tackle was a bit rocky at first.

Pittman has praised both sophomores as two of the most improved on the line.

Meanwhile, Arkansas has had to look from coast-to-coast to build the front. 

Cook and center Mitch Smothers are from different high schools in Springdale, Ark. Left guard Sebastian Tretola is a transfer from Nevada who is originally from California. Kirkland is from Miami, and Skipper is from Colorado. Guard Luke Charpentier, who started the first two games, is from Louisiana.

“Everyone brings their own flair,” Cook said. “We’re about as different as you can get.”

What that means for the remainder of the season remains to be seen. Arkansas’ best moment of the season have come against Texas Tech, a team that has has allowed nearly 300 rushing yards per game going back to midway last season.

Texas A&M’s defense remains a rebuilding project. But if Arkansas can run effectively in each of its first five games of the season (that includes a 45-21 loss at Auburn), the Razorbacks will be poised to complete a critical turnaround season.

“As far as where we are in the process, we’re still a recruiting class away, offensive-line wise, depth at fullback and tight end and receiver,” Bielema said.

Granted, a policy of first-class seating for the big guys may be a key recruiting point to help Bielema further mold his ground-and-pound run game.

“He believed the big guys should sit up front,” Cook said. “His philosophies on the field match up.”