State of the Hogs: Arkansas changed its approach recruiting linemen

By: Clay Henry
Published: Thursday, February 9, 2017
Arkansas offensive line coach Kurt Anderson watches warmups prior to a game against LSU on Saturday, Nov. 12, 2016, in Fayetteville.
Photo by Jason Ivester
Arkansas offensive line coach Kurt Anderson watches warmups prior to a game against LSU on Saturday, Nov. 12, 2016, in Fayetteville.

— I'm like any other man heading into Valentine's Day. When I hear sexy, my ears perk up.

They did last week when Arkansas football coach Bret Bielema said the recruiting methods of the past (under former line coach Sam Pittman) probably were more for the “sexy” player. They've moved away from that because “it didn't get it done.”

Remember, this is the coach who used "borderline erotic" to describe the kneel-down in the final seconds of the 31-7 victory over Texas in the 2014 Texas Bowl. He sells his program with the best of them.

But what was he talking about at that signing day event to detail the 2017 offensive line class of Kirby Adcock, Ty Clary, Shane Clenin and Dalton Wagner? I asked that specific question Monday before the Baxter County Razorback Club meeting.

“Don't fall for the stars,” Bielema said.

That's in reference to the recruiting stars from the national ranking services. They go from two to five stars. Bielema said they've been burned by some highly-rated players in the past couple of classes, the reason they were left playing a walk-on (Johnny Gibson), a converted defensive tackle (Hjalte Froholdt) and a graduate transfer (Jake Raulerson) while rebuilding the offensive line last season.

Gibson, Froholdt and Raulerson still are in the mix for starting assignments going into the 2017 season. All are highly coveted at this point, but there is competition from the 2016 class. Junior-college transfers Paul Ramirez, Deion Malone and high school signees Jake Heinrich and Dylan Hays are highly regarded.

Bielema said there was a clear understanding with new offensive line coach Kurt Anderson last winter that they would head a different direction in O-line recruiting for the 2017 class.

“We both wanted a guy, more like I'd looked for in the past at my last stop, that were blue-collar types,” Bielema said. “That's our style of football. We wanted guys who would roll up their sleeves. We wanted guys who like to play football, love the game.”

New England coach Bill Belichick mentioned almost the same words as he detailed the kind of player he looks for in the draft. He told Fox Sports analyst Jimmy Johnson in a midweek interview at the Super Bowl that it's that “love of the game” and “blue-collar approach” that helps him identify players in scouting.

“I get that from them,” Bielema said. “And it's specific for the offensive line with the Patriots. They are the only team in the NFL who has a scout who just looks at offensive linemen. Every other team, the scout does the entire roster. The Patriots send in their offensive line scout to every school. It's unique to the Patriots.”

Bielema said the offensive line recruiting board was full of players picked by Anderson.

“Kurt identified 10 to 12 guys last winter and spring,” Bielema said. “We went heavy after that group. They all fit that description of being blue-collar, roll-up-the-sleeves types. Now, there is athletic ability in there, too. But they love the game of football, really love it.

“We wanted four, if they were from that group. We got three, then added Ty. He is very talented, too. I don't think he allowed a sack last season at Fayetteville.”

There still is some potential in the early Bielema offensive line classes. Colton Jackson still is an intriguing prospect. He opened the season as the starter at right tackle, but was replaced by Brian Wallace by the Texas A&M game.

“Colton has all of the tools,” Bielema said. “He's in the mix right now. He looks very good.”

The Hogs lost only Dan Skipper - the starter at left tackle - from the 2016 O-line. There are six returnees with starting experience in the offensive line.

Bielema praised the work of several in the offensive line group trying to make a move after struggling at times in the running game last season.

“We were not able to run the ball against the better defenses,” he said. “But I've seen some guys do some good things this offseason. I think it's going to be good competition this spring.”

The midterm graduates – Adcock, Clenin and Wagner – also are in the mix.

“They are very good,” Bielema said. “All of them could play guard or tackle in the line, but Wagner is definitely going to play tackle. He's very athletic for his size (6-9, 339), can bend and move.”

Gibson began at right tackle last year, but with a slimmer frame could move to left tackle.

“Johnny did play some tackle and that could be something we do in the spring,” Bielema said. “I am pretty sure that Frank (Ragnow) will stay at center, but an option is to play him at tackle if that's what gets us our best five on the field.”

Bielema praised the work Raulerson has done in the weight room. Raulerson was a starter at guard for much of last season after transferring from Texas, but replaced by Gibson late in the year.

“I don't know (Raulerson's) current weight,” Bielema said. “But I can tell you that he looks the best he's been since he's been here. He's done a great job with his body.”

Bielema also praised the two junior college linemen, Malone and Ramirez.

“They are definitely in the mix,” Bielema said. “Malone is a guard. Ramirez could play either position. He wasn't healthy for about half of last season, but he is now. They both look good.”

Clenin, who hails from Festus, Mo., reminds Bielema of Ragnow, but bigger.

“He's 6-6 and 305 and the littlest of that new group,” Bielema said. “He's the midget. But he's very athletic, like Frank. Adcock is 6-6, 320 now. Wagner is 6-9, 339.”

Of course, the biggest recruit of the winter was Ragnow, the returnee at center. He could have gone to the NFL after his junior season, probably as a third- or fourth-round pick. Bielema thinks he could move to the first round with another season.

“I've had good ones at center in the past, but the best was probably Travis Fredrick, a first-round pick for the Cowboys,” Bielema said. “But Frank is more fluid and an inch and a half taller than Travis.

“I think Frank has a chance to be a first rounder, my first at Arkansas. He just does so much for us at center. He's so athletic. And, he doesn't make any mistakes. I think he'll be the best center in college football next season.”

Clenin might be an understudy to Ragnow at center. He's for sure going to get to snap this spring.

“He's the one who can play all five positions in this group coming in,” Bielema said. “That's what you see from him in drills.”

That might not be borderline erotic or sexy. Right now, I'm just glad that the offensive line is making a move back toward blue collar.

That might end those second-half melt downs like against Missouri or Virginia Tech. Bielema knows few have forgotten those debacles. He is making sure his staff hasn't.

“We got back in the office (Monday) and the first thing I did was meet with the offensive staff,” he said. “I told them I wanted to go over the last two games again. That's about the third time I've made them do it, relive their worst memories.

“I saw the offensive staff coming out of meetings for lunch. (Coordinator) Dan Enos and (tight ends coach) Barry Lunney passed by me with their heads down. They were not very happy.”

It's going to get better. Valentine's Day is almost here and love is in the air, especially with the newcomers in the Arkansas offensive line. It's a love of football.

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