Tom Murphy is a reporter for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. A graduate of Louisiana Tech University, he is a member of the Football Writers Association of America, and voter for the Heisman Trophy and AP Top 25 football poll.
Hogs in no hurry on Day 1
Arkansas center Travis Swanson (64) calls out a play during a Nov. 29, 2013 game against LSU at Tiger Stadium in Baton Rouge, La.
FAYETTEVILLE — A newlywed offensive lineman, a sack specialist and record-breaking kicker Zach Hocker are the most intriguing University of Arkansas players available in the 2014 NFL Draft, which starts today at 7 p.m. in New York City.
No former Razorbacks project to be taken in tonight’s first round, but things could heat up in rounds two and three Friday night, particularly for center Travis Swanson and defensive end Chris Smith, who have the highest draft grades among Arkansas players. The final four rounds of the seven-round draft will begin at 11 a.m. Saturday.
Swanson, who is thought to be the first Razorback to start 50 consecutive games, was married to the former Emily Holder of Cabot on March 22. The newlyweds know their lives are about to change with NFL mini-camps on tap next week.
“She understands, and she’s been completely awesome through this entire process,” Swanson said.
Smith, who ranks fourth at Arkansas with 21½ career sacks, received an invitation from the NFL Players Association to be in New York on Wednesday for the rookie premier.
“They invite the top 35 guys to be in the green room and then another 15 guys,” Smith said. “It’s going to be a great experience and I’ll never forget it.”
Smith, 6-1, 266 pounds, is being projected more as an outside linebacker by draft analysts.
“I know it’ll be crazy and things of that nature,” said Smith, who will head back to his hometown of Mount Ulla, N.C., to be with his family for the draft. “I don’t care where I’m drafted. I just know the team that gets me is going to get a hell of a player.”
Arkansas Coach Bret Bielema concurred.
“He’s an incredibly explosive player and very talented on the edge,” Bielema said. “Once he gets invited to a system and can train, I think he can gain a lot of ground in a short amount of time.”
Arkansas’ new offense in 2013 featured Swanson as a key blocker on pull plays and blocks on the edge in space.
“I think this past year really exploited me in a positive way for the things I could do,” Swanson said. “I was extremely happy with how this past season went for me.”
Bielema, who attended the fund-raising baseball game for Mayflower and Vilonia tornado victims with Swanson on Tuesday in North Little Rock, said Swanson is “a tremendous leader and his football IQ is off the charts.”
“I think his strongest traits are he’s started every game he was available for and he can play at center and guard,” Bielema said. “I think the weakest points of his game are he hasn’t got a lot of reps at doing what we did this year, what the NFL likes, pulling and getting out on the perimeter.”
Hocker, a Russellville native whose 354 career points are an Arkansas record, realizes kickers aren’t a high priority during the draft.
“There’s only about two or three guys in the kicking position that are going to get drafted,” said Hocker, who will hang out with family and friends in Russellville during the draft. “I’m approaching this like all the other kickers are, just hoping for the best and hoping for a draft pick and keeping it in a good perspective.”
Hocker’s career field-goal accuracy of 77.2 percent (61 of 79) and his average of 65.8 yards per kickoff are big sellers, as is his ability to punt.
“The more you can do, the more you’re going to put yourself in an opportunity to get looked at and get an opportunity to play,” said Hocker, who averaged 45.7 yards on seven punts at Arkansas. “There’s a lot of teams in the league, they’ve got three different guys doing those jobs.
“Coming into camp and being able to present talent in all three phases in the game and still having a strong leg on kickoffs, that’s pretty intriguing to coaches.”
Bielema said he can visualize a long NFL career for Hocker.
“I can see him getting taken in the later rounds, just because there’s going to be a special teams coordinator that [is] in his owner’s ear or his GM’s ear, just about his leg strength,” Bielema said.
A large handful of Razorbacks are likely to wind up as free agents or late-round picks, led by fullback Kiero Small, defensive tackles Robert Thomas and Byran Jones, left tackle David Hurd, receiver Javontee Herndon and safety Eric Bennett.
Bielema said Small has gotten “probably the most traffic” on NFL inquiries the past three or four weeks, and offensive coordinator Jim Chaney said Small, 5-9, 255, is an exceptional talent.
“I haven’t been around one like him in a long, long time,” Chaney said. “As a matter of fact, I don’t know that I was ever around one. The kids we had with the [St. Louis] Rams couldn’t thump like Kiero can thump.”
Thomas has a chance to be drafted despite suffering a broken leg Oct. 12. NFL teams liked his tape before that injury, Bielema said.
University of Arkansas players hoping to wind up in NFL mini-camps next week, in general order of their draft prospects:
CHRIS SMITH, DE/OLB
NOTEWORTHY 122 tackles, 30.5 tackles for loss, 21.5 sacks; fourth on school sack list
TRAVIS SWANSON, C/OG
NOTEWORTHY First Razorback to start 50 consecutive games
ROBERT THOMAS, DT
NOTEWORTHY 72 tackles, 13.5 TFL, 7 sacks, coming off knee surgery
ZACH HOCKER, PK/P
NOTEWORTHY School-record 354 points, 61 of 79 FGs, 171 of 173 PATs
KIERO SMALL, FB
NOTEWORTHY 41 carries, 152 yards, 4 TDs, 20 receptions, 135 yards, 1 TD
DAVID HURD, OT
NOTEWORTHY Former walk-on started final 23 games at left tackle
BYRAN JONES, DT
NOTEWORTHY 154 tackles, 13 TFL, 3.5 sacks, 40 starts in 47 GP
JAVONTEE HERNDON, WR
NOTEWORTHY 62 catches, 910 yards, 7 TDs
ERIC BENNETT, S
NOTEWORTHY 202 tackles, 10 passes broken up, 4 INTs, 33 career starts ALSO WR Julian Horton, TE Austin Tate, LB Jarrett Lake, S Jerry Mitchell, S Price Holmes
Sports on 05/08/2014