State of the Hogs: Offensive line coach provides new way to watch football

By: Clay Henry
Published: Friday, March 23, 2018
Arkansas offensive line coach Dustin Fry talks to players during practice Thursday, March 1, 2017, in Fayetteville.
Photo by Ben Goff
Arkansas offensive line coach Dustin Fry talks to players during practice Thursday, March 1, 2017, in Fayetteville.

— The first question for new Arkansas offensive line coach Dustin Fry was simple: What’s the best way to watch a football game?

The answer was more detail for how much football has changed with the arrival of the spread offense. It’s not best to watch a game the way I was taught. You probably should not fixate on the center.

That’s what great Arkansas offensive line coaches like Merv Johnson, Larry Beightol, J.B. Grimes and Mike Bender had taught me through the years. If you see the center, you probably are also going to see the guards. And, those three will generally take your eyes to the ball.

“Yes, that’s possible to do it that way,” Fry said. “But you are right that it’s changing. I tell my guys in the offensive line now when we are watching tape from the end zone look, start with the safeties. Get that back end view, start with the two safeties and work your way back.

“What we know is that what the safety does is going to dictate what happens in the box. You are going to know where the ball is going. It may show up late, but it will show up.

“I tell my guys you can get the answers before the test if you start with those pre-snap reads. I’m not talking about just the safeties, but how the guy in front of you is lining up, how the linebacker is standing. There are a lot of indicators.”

That will pay dividends if the footwork is learned correctly by the offensive linemen.

An All-ACC center at Clemson (2002-06) with four years in the NFL, Fry is charged with teaching the new techniques of playing in the Chad Morris spread. Fry and Morris have been together the last seven years. That dates back to Morris’ second year as offensive coordinator at Clemson.

Fry, 34, spent one year as a student assistant, then two more as a grad assistant for the Tigers. Fry was the offensive line coach under Morris the last three years at SMU.

Obviously, Morris is one of Fry’s mentors, but one of the brightest young offensive line coaches in the game also points to Brad Scott, his line coach at Clemson, along with Robbie Caldwell, the veteran line coach at Clemson now.

“Really, there are a bunch,” he said. “Brad Scott is the guy who held my feet to the fire when I was a redshirt freshman at Clemson. He definitely is a mentor, a very experienced guy. He was an O-line coach (for Bobby Bowden) at Florida State, head coach at South Carolina.

“A lot of the line calls we still use come from Coach Scott. Then, I was a GA under Robbie Caldwell, just a tremendous person. It was interesting, because he’d recruited me for North Carolina when I was in high school. So we went way back.

“You learn something from everyone. Some of what I learned from Robbie is how to recruit. He is a fantastic recruiter. I learned that it was about building relationships. That’s the same for Coach Scott. Both knew how to build relationships.”

There is something from a lot of others in his coaching methods. He cited Grimes, a former Arkansas assistant now at Auburn.

“You try to learn things that make it easy to change things up and still do the same things,” Fry said. “Offensive line is about repetition. My job is to make it where they will keep working on the same things until it’s second nature.

“What you have to have is the ability to recognize a defensive look, or stunt or pressure and know that the basic technique or step that is required, then hit it under game pressure. All of that footwork has to be routine so you can do it under pressure.

“So when you get that crucial third-and-1 in game 12, you don’t have to think. It just comes natural. All that repetition is crucial, so you have to perfect it now and keep it fresh with new takes while you are doing it. It’s repetitive motion.”

While he’s perfecting the physical techniques with repetitive drills, Fry is also trying to get the minds right of his new players. There are some mental battles with how they’ve performed in the past. They were called the weak link the last couple of seasons.

“They’ve been beat up pretty good,” Fry said. “I heard as soon as I got here.”

From whom?

“Anyone I talked to,” Fry said. “Just getting to town, it was anyone I met.”

Fry would introduce himself as the new offensive line coach and he’d get an earful about how his players had performed in the previous two seasons.

“It was from fans, or anyone,” he said. “They’d tell me, ‘Coach, you’ve got your work cut out.’ So I came back to the meeting room and told my players, ‘This is what people think about you.’ They already knew.”

But it’s been nothing but fun.

“I told them that it’s going to be tough sledding, but we’ve got the answers for everything,” Fry said as he explained both the strength and conditioning plans and the Morris spread.

The best news for the offensive line: the days of the loaded box from a defense are over.

“Really, that’s what I told them,” Fry said. “We saw it in our first scrimmage. We were on the goal line in a third down at the 1-yard line. We got a three-by-one look. It’s an easy block.”

It was a revelation.

“My guys came to the sideline and they said, ‘Coach, we’d never seen that before,’ and it’s what we have been telling them,” Fry said. “We are going to see six in the box and five in the box. It’s a whole different thing.

“We still want to be physical and run the ball. We still will rely on the double team, but we are going to attack stacked (linebackers) differently.”

Left guard Hjalte Froholdt, the leader of the bunch, said there was recognition of an alignment that the defense used to create a lost yardage play earlier in the scrimmage.

“We came to the sideline and explained what we saw from the defense,” Froholdt said. “Coach Fry had the answer for that and we got it the next time we saw it.”

That’s the way it’s been throughout the spring.

“He told us that there was an answer for everything,” Froholdt said. “He’s a great coach. He told us there would be cleaner looks for us in the box and that we’d have things for the linebackers. What we are doing now in the spring is concentrating on the little things.

“Coach Fry is a great technician and a great coach. You get a feel for someone pretty quickly. He’s given us things to work on and to get the footwork right for a different system.

“We know we are learning how to handle pressures that we’ll get in this scheme because coach (John) Chavis gives us new looks every day, a new pressure. We saw pressures the very first practice this spring.”

They’ll handle the great SEC defensive ends with a different plan.

“Those are great players,” Fry said, noting the ACC is loaded with talented defensive ends, too.

“We never tried to block defensive ends with anything but an offensive tackle. You just can’t do it. We aren’t going to leave a tight end on a defensive end. It’s just not what we do.”

It’s part of the Morris plan. There seems to be something for everything, including recruiting in mass quantities. For example, there were over 650 players, coaches and parents at the first scrimmage.

“That’s how we do it,” Fry said. “What I have already seen, we believe that if we get people to Fayetteville, we can sign them. It’s just everything you’d ever want.”

The facilities are great, but so is the campus and the town.

“It’s just beautiful,” Fry said. “Everyone who comes here is blown away. It’s simple things, really. Just the view from the practice field. You stand there and look south and there are the mountains. There is not a prettier place to be anywhere.”

Interestingly, Fry knew what he was getting into before setting foot on campus.

“One of my friends in coaching is Sam Pittman,” Fry said. “He has been a few places, but he told me that he and his wife say Fayetteville is their favorite place they’ve ever lived. I know J.B. Grimes loved it here, too. I knew we’d like it.

“I’ve already seen what they are talking about. Yes, the facilities and campus is great, but the town is tops. Everyone on our staff believes that and we think we can recruit here.”

Fry’s wife, Laura, is still in Dallas with their two sons, Hudson (3) and Ryan (4 months).

“Laura and I dated all the way through college,” he said. “I proposed after getting my signing bonus from the Rams, and bought her a ring. I called her dad and he said, ‘It’s about time.’ We enjoyed our time in the NFL.We decided to wait for kids. I was bouncing around the NFL.

“We put our house for sale and sold it in 72 hours, We’ve been looking every day in Fayetteville. It’s been a job finding a house. I find one every day and check on it. There will already be several offers above the listing price. Hopefully, we’ll find something on Spring Break.

Being away from his family has allowed Fry to get to know his new family. He has been living in an apartment complex, The Links, in Fayetteville.

“Now that was an experience,” he said. “It’s college kids. I’ve had to tell them to quiet down around me a few times.”

It’s all good, especially his new players.

“I love them,” he said. “Froholdt is a stud. He is analytical and takes coaching. He’s a great leader. All the way around, I like what I see of my guys so far.”

There was one caveat about what he missed out on. Frank Ragnow had completed his eligibility and will be in the NFL soon.

“I knew about Frank,” he said. “I actually watched him the last two seasons. SMU played TCU just after Arkansas, so I’d put on the Arkansas-TCU tape and Frank would jump out at me. What a great player; just so fluid.”

Like Morris, Fry comes across as passionate about his work. There was some talk about Morris and their relationship.

“Coach Morris has just given so much to my family and myself,” Fry said. “I started working with him in 2012. He’s believed in me and I owe him so much.

“First, he’s just a great person. I can say I’ve grown – and we all have – since we got to SMU. We are different coaches now than we were then. We keep learning about how to coach this scheme and how to practice and how to recruit.”

Without question, it’s about continuing to learn. An old reporter came away from meeting Dustin Fry with a new way to watch a play develop.

Start with the safeties.

Discussion

Have a comment on this story? Join the discussion or start a new one on the Forums.