Matt Jones has been the online sports editor for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette since 2010. He is also a feature writer for Hawgs Illustrated magazine and is currently pursuing a Masters degree in journalism.
Coaches happy with freshmen starters
University of Arkansas lineman Dan Skipper runs drills before Saturday afternoons scrimmage at Razorback Stadium in Fayetteville.
FAYETTEVILLE Neither Dan Skipper nor Denver Kirkland had played a down at offensive guard prior to last Tuesday.
The freshmen, measuring 6-foot-10 and 6-foot-5, respectively, had been used at tackle throughout their high school career because of their tremendous heights and wing spans. But what coaches labeled a lack of effort along the offensive line against Rutgers opened the door for the freshmen to prove themselves in practice.
They showed so well, they were starting at the positions four days later against the No. 10 Texas A&M Aggies.
"They played with a lot of energy, which is half the battle," Arkansas coach Bret Bielema said. "I think they are both very talented. We had some concerns about Skip, keeping him at tackle and moving (David) Hurd to guard or some other scenarios. I thought instead of swapping guys out, let's just throw both of those guys into the guard spots. They are very competitive. We obviously limited what they had to do. They are both large, physical and athletic, and play with a lot of energy."
In part because Brandon Allen was sidelined with an injury, the Razorbacks struggled to move the ball on the ground against Rutgers two weeks ago. Arkansas rushed for only three yards in the final quarter as the Scarlet Knights overloaded the line of scrimmage against backup quarterback AJ Derby.
The Razorbacks responded with a strong rushing effort against a weak Texas A&M defense, but they are likely to be tested again this week against a Florida front considered one of the best in the conference, despite the loss of tackle Dominique Easley to a torn ACL. Multiple SEC coaches said last week the Gators have the best defense in college football.
"They have physical upfront play," Bielema said. "They lost a very good player in (Easley), but across the board upfront they use their hands well and they're powerful. Their linebackers run and they are more than capable in the back end, which allows their front to be a little more physical because they're a little more protected behind them. It's an imposing group. You can see why they play great defense."
Bielema said he isn't sold on the position changes long-term for the heralded freshmen, adding, "The reason we recruited them is because of their length….We were happy with them at tackle, but we just wanted to get our five best offensive linemen on the field and that's kind of what drove it."
But Bielema added their move has opened the door to some other possibilities on the offensive line. Most notably is Brey Cook, who was able to substitute in for starting tackle Grady Ollison against the Aggies. That's a trend that could continue in the Florida humidity Saturday night.
"Grady is a guy we thought could play 70 snaps, but he's probably more efficient playing 50 snaps," Bielema said. "I will say this, Brey Cook responded unbelievable and looked good out at tackle, so we found a little more depth there by subtraction."
Offensive line coach Sam Pittman said he thought the 6-foot-7 Cook, a tackle in high school, looked better at the position Saturday than he had at guard the first four games.
"I was shocked," Pittman said. "Last week when we moved him, I thought he would have some problems. To be honest with you, at this point he's a better tackle than he is a guard. I was shocked because it wasn't that way in the spring."
Coaches said they didn't sell the moves and position changes as promotions or demotions in the week leading up to the game against Texas A&M, but said they were pleased with the effort showed by all of the linemen as a result.
"Sometimes those things can serve not only as a wakeup call to (them), but to other guys in the same position," Bielema said. "We made some changes at wide receiver as well, and that for the most part worked as well. Defensively, the same thing."