Don’t expect 2013 class to play yet

By: Nate Allen
Published: Monday, February 11, 2013
Arkansas head football coach Bret Bielema walks past the signing day list of players who committed to the Razorbacks at a press conference in Fayetteville.
Photo by Michael Woods
Arkansas head football coach Bret Bielema walks past the signing day list of players who committed to the Razorbacks at a press conference in Fayetteville.

— Arkansas’ football signing day coup of 2013 may not be headline material again until 2014 or even later.

For the Razorbacks, that might be good news if their recent news just simmers for a while.

The six junior-college transfers that Coach Bret Bielema and his staff signed were recruited to start or at least contend to start right away.

And at some positions, like running back, receiver, linebacker and the secondary, starting right away has become nearly commonplace for precocious freshmen.

However, plans immediately to start a true freshman offensive lineman makes coaches cringe.

So though ESPNU last Wednesday covered live him signing his letter of intent, and recruiting services revised their rankings because he signed with Arkansas instead of the University of Miami where the Miami native originally committed, don’t ink 4-star, 6-5, 320-pound offensive lineman Denver Kirkland into the Razorbacks’ 2013 starting lineup.

Arkansas offensive line coach Sam Pittman certainly won’t.

Pittman is elated Kirkland ultimately chose Arkansas. But when asked on signing day if his newest big Hog could start right away, the brand new coach on a brand new staff wisely waved a caution flag.

“I don’t know,” Pittman said. “It depends on how good we are. It depends what we have on the team and I really don’t know what we have.”

If they have much, expect Kirkland to redshirt his first year. That’s what most freshmen offensive linemen do.

The exceptions usually expose a team not having quality upperclassmen depth in its line.

Occasionally there is the rare rookie lineman just too precociously exceptional not to start right away.

That rare rookie is really rare, recalled Pittman, citing one true freshman starting lineman he coached personally since 1994.

“It’s hard for a young kid to go start,” Pittman said. “It just is. Now at North Carolina James Hurst first came in and started at left tackle but he also came in at spring ball, too. There are not a lot of James Hursts out there.”

Since the century’s turn, four true freshmen in the Razorbacks’ offensive line come to mind.

Shawn Andrews of Camden, who his teammates called the agile 6-4, 330-pounder “an athletic freak”,started as a true freshman in 2001. He was first-team All-American in 2002 and 2003 and in the NFL in 2004.

Wade Grayson of Harrison arrived in 2007 expecting to redshirt, but his versatility as a guard and center enabled him to be an immediate second-teamer and log one start.

Though former Coach Bobby Petrino’s 2011 Razorbacks went 11-2, they were razor thin in the offensive line on a roster top-heavy with receivers.

So true freshmen Mitch Smothers of Springdale and Brey Cook of Springdale Har-Ber for awhile shared a tackle spot despite being over matched.

John L. Smith’s interim regime redshirted Smothers in 2012.

Expect Smothers to be considerably more effective as a fifth-year senior in 2015 than he was as a true freshman in 2011.

Expect the same for Denver Kirkland in 2017 if depth develops in 2013.

Sports, Pages 16 on 02/11/2013