FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. — Over the past three years under coach Bret Bielema, Arkansas has developed a reputation as a team that gets better as the year progresses.
Much of that is rightly attributed to a big, tough and physical offensive line that simply overpowers opponents in November and December when the grind of a college football season begins to take its toll.
But in 2016, after losing three starters — and highly-regarded offensive line coach Sam Pittman, who joined Kirby Smart’s Georgia staff — there is some understandable angst among Razorback faithful regarding their normally reliable big boys up front.
Between new offensive line coach Kurt Anderson, three new starters and a bunch of new faces — including Texas transfer Jake Raulerson, who announced last week he will join the team with an immediate two years of eligibility — this will definitely be a different-looking Arkansas O-line.
But with an undeniable tradition of toughness and reliable returning starters Dan Skipper and Frank Ragnow, there are reasons for optimism.
Continuing SEC Country’s nine-part series looking at Arkansas’ 2016 position groups, here is a glance at the new-look Razorback offensive line.
Names you need to know
Dan Skipper (senior), Frank Ragnow (junior), *Jake Raulerson (redshirt junior), *Paul Ramirez (junior), *Deion Malone (junior), Johnny Gibson (redshirt sophomore), Jackson Hannah (redshirt sophomore), Brian Wallace (redshirt sophomore), Hjalte Froholdt (sophomore), Zach Rogers (sophomore), Klint Harvey (redshirt freshman), Colton Jackson (redshirt freshman), Cooper Sone (redshirt freshman), *Jake Heinrich (freshman)
* — indicates a 2016 newcomer
Entering the 2015 season, Arkansas’ five starting offensive linemen had a combined 86 Division I starts and 99 game appearances among them.
For the five guys who made up the Hogs’ first-team offensive line in the 2016 spring game, those numbers are now 47 and 73, respectively, with all of the starts and 82 percent of the appearances coming from just two guys.
Only senior right tackle Dan Skipper is expected to start in the same spot on Arkansas’ offensive line that he did last season. Junior Frank Ragnow — who started all 13 games at right guard in 2015 — will move into the starting center role. The other three starters will all be new.
So who will they be? Sophomore Hjalte Froholdt — who appeared in 10 games as a true freshman defensive tackle last year — appears to have the left guard spot locked down after a strong spring showing.
Redshirt freshman and Conway, Ark., native Colton Jackson ended the spring atop the depth chart at left tackle. Against SEC defensive linemen, Jackson will — without a doubt — have some rough moments as a freshman playing that vitally important role.
Redshirt sophomore Brian Wallace appeared to take control of the right guard spot before injuries forced him to miss the spring game. Sophomore Zach Rogers took over in Wallace’s place.
But expect the newcomers to get a look, too. Junior-college transfers Deion Malone and Paul Ramirez are both possibilities for playing time, and don’t sleep on true freshman Jake Heinrich.
Bielema has shown that he’s not afraid to play — or even start — true freshmen offensive linemen in the past.
Then there’s Raulerson, a four-star prospect in the 2013 recruiting class who started five games as a Texas redshirt freshmen before seeing his playing time diminish over the next two seasons. Because he graduated with his bachelor’s degree in three years, he’s immediately eligible with two years to play for the Hogs, and Bielema’s staff wouldn’t have brought him on board if they didn’t think he could help right away.
The five players who ultimately make up Arkansas’ starting offensive line this season will not only have to grow up and quickly establish unit cohesion, but also protect a new starting quarterback in Austin Allen and block for inexperienced ball carriers trying to replace Alex Collins’ incredible productivity.
While some early patience may be required with the Hogs up front — especially in that early, non-conference trip to face a TCU squad returning a scary-good defensive front seven — Bielema’s offensive lines, even the inexperienced ones, have traditionally improved rapidly as games are played.
Give that history, the biggest questions might actually involve the unit’s new coach and how he handles the inexperience.
Anderson spent the last three seasons in the NFL as the Buffalo Bills’ assistant offensive line coach. Can he turn this group of Hogs into the offensive line Arkansas fans are accustomed to seeing?
That remains to be seen.