FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. — In a strange twist, Arkansas’ offensive line is actually a significant question mark entering the 2016 season. Strange because of the Razorbacks’ recent reputation as a ground-and-pound squad that wears opponents down.
But with three starters to replace, Arkansas has a lot to figure out on the offensive line. On which side of the line will senior tackle Dan Skipper play? Who will start at right guard? Where does Texas transfer Jake Raulerson fit into the mix?
The guys actually involved in those discussions and position battles aren’t nearly as concerned as those on the outside, and here’s why: They went to summer school.
“O-line school,” that is.
First-year Arkansas offensive line coach Kurt Anderson asks his players to put in extra work during the summer months when he isn’t allowed to have much contact with them.
The onus is on the upperclassmen to make sure everyone is participating.
“You’re essentially handing them the keys to the house,” Anderson said. “Saying, ‘This is your room. This is your opportunity. Your legacy is gonna be attached to how you approach this summer. It’s gonna be a direct reflection of your hard work, your effort, your communication and your leadership abilities.’”
So what is “O-line school” and what about it has made these guys so confident?
All Arkansas football players work out with strength coach Ben Herbert from 6 a.m. to 8 a.m. during the summer, but after that was over, Skipper and junior Frank Ragnow — the line’s two returning starters — would gather their fellow offensive linemen for additional work.
The Hog linemen would work on their steps and go through other offensive line drills for about an hour. Some days, they would focus on run blocking; others were all about pass protection.
The Arkansas offensive linemen also gathered for two or three hour-long film sessions per week throughout the summer.
All that extra stuff, when combined with summer classes and the already strenuous workouts with Herbert, sometimes could be frustrating.
“Sometimes we’d get angry; sometimes we’d get mad,” Ragnow said. “But when we got back here and had our first practice, it’s crazy to see how big of a step we took and how much different we look from spring.”
The sessions were most important for the younger, inexperienced players Arkansas is going to rely on in 2016. Among them is sophomore Hjalte Froholdt, who is projected to start at left guard after being recruited — and playing his true freshman season last year — as a defensive tackle.
Froholdt has only spent 21 practices, including Wednesday’s, as an offensive lineman. He switched just before spring football began in March.
“I need to get as much time playing the offensive line as possible since it’s already limited,” Froholdt said. “We worked every single day in the summer. I definitely believe we became a lot better as a unit, and I think I settled in more.”
Despite the offensive line’s reputation, the 2016 summer was its first that included this additional work. Anderson said the idea came from his playing days at Michigan.
A two-year starter for the Wolverines in 2000 and 2001, Anderson and his fellow linemen started organizing additional workouts during the summer.
“We were there, so we might as well start perfecting our craft,” Anderson said. “That camaraderie piece that comes along with it and being around those guys, and developing the personality, the identity of a line, I think it was huge for us.
“It was something that over time kinda developed. As I started my coaching career, it was, to me, it was impactful for me as a player and I thought it would be impactful for them.”
Razorback coaches have used a slightly different first-team offensive line almost every day so far through fall camp. Whether that’s because lots of linemen are performing well or because none of them are is unclear, but to a man, everyone involved has said the group looks dramatically better right now than it did in the spring.
Anderson said the work his players put in this summer has made them far more advanced, meaning he’s able to work with them on little things rather than the basics.
“When your father finally tells you, when your mother finally tells you, ‘Hey, I’m gonna let you drive the car,’ … you understand, ‘OK, this is a big responsibility. I can’t go out there and wreck this thing,’” Anderson said.
“It’s kind of symbolic. It’s kinda the same thing as this. I handed them the keys, saying, ‘You’ve got all the tools that you need. Go perfect your craft. And when I come back, then we’ll take you from being a first-time driver and get you on the NASCAR circuit.’”