Enough to go around: Hogs' offensive line unit ready to push back with added depth

By: Bob Holt
Published: Tuesday, August 13, 2019
Arkansas assistant coach Dustin Fry works Saturday, Aug. 3, 2019, with offensive lineman Austin Nix during practice at the university practice field in Fayetteville. Visit nwad.com/photos to see more photographs from the practice.
Photo by Andy Shupe
Arkansas assistant coach Dustin Fry works Saturday, Aug. 3, 2019, with offensive lineman Austin Nix during practice at the university practice field in Fayetteville. Visit nwad.com/photos to see more photographs from the practice.

FAYETTEVILLE -- Among the University of Arkansas football team's six offensive line signees last year were junior college tackles Myron Cunningham and Chibueze Nwanna.

"We signed two juco tackles for a reason -- and it was to piss off my other tackles," offensive line coach Dustin Fry said before the start of training camp. "I really think it did."

Colton Jackson and Dalton Wagner, who have been working as the starters at left and right tackle since camp started, said Fry told them essentially the same thing about signing older linemen.

"He said, 'I've recruited two junior college tackles and I expect them to take your positions,' " said Wagner, a redshirt sophomore. "It lights you up, gets you all competitive, gets you angry.

"You're like, 'I'm not going to let him take my spot.' So you work extra hard. I mean, it's about competition and we're definitely a lot better for it."

Jackson, a fifth-year senior from Conway who leads the offensive linemen with 21 career starts, smiled when asked about Fry's statement.

"That's just part of the game," Jackson said. "When you go out and recruit, you're looking to replace guys who are gone and create competition.

"I don't let it get in my head or anything. Myron and Chibueze are great players and we're glad to have them with us."

The unusually large offensive line signing class has boosted the position numbers after the Razorbacks were down to eight scholarship linemen at times last season because of injuries.

Arkansas had 17 offensive linemen working at Monday's practice -- including 14 on scholarship -- even with the loss of tackle Noah Gatlin to a season-ending knee injury the first day of camp.

"It's a lot different," said redshirt sophomore Shane Clenin, who is working at first-team right guard. "You go to a meeting and it's full."

The increased depth on the offensive line has allowed Arkansas to work with four teams on two fields simultaneously during practice.

"It's big having so many guys on the line getting reps," Jackson said. "We're expecting to not have any drop-off. It's next man up if somebody goes down."

Joining Jackson, Wagner and Clenin on the starting offensive line in camp have been center Ty Clary and left guard Austin Capps.

Clary, a junior from Fayetteville, has 15 career starts, including 11 last season.

"Ty's got a lot of reps underneath him," Arkansas Coach Chad Morris said. "We expect him to be a dominant player for us."

Clary started the final nine games last season at center after getting two starts at guard.

"There's so much more confidence now in my game and knowing that I've been here before," Clary said. "I'm ready for anything the defense is going to throw at me."

Capps opened camp last year on the defensive line, then moved to offense because of the depth issues.

"When Austin first came over, the first reps he got at guard were in a scrimmage," Clenin said. "So he was like, 'What is going on?' But we didn't have much depth last year, so he was even going with some of the ones and twos.

"Offensive line steps and technique [are] a lot different than defense, so he's been really trying to get with that. I know he spends a lot of extra time with Coach Fry in the film room and trying to work on stuff. He's been doing a great job."

Capps, a senior from Star City who played in 11 games last season, said he's "100 percent" more comfortable at guard now than he did a year ago.

"It feels way better," Capps said. "It's totally different. I actually know what I'm doing."

Jackson underwent back surgery before the 2018 season and was expected to miss the first six games, but he only missed two and made eight starts.

"Last year I kind of rushed my recovery a little bit, because I didn't want to miss the whole season," Jackson said. "It really affected me, and it showed during the season.

"That's a decision I made, but I definitely had some times where I was in super pain. I couldn't move how I wanted to, like I wanted to, because of my back. It limited me.

"But I've had a long, successful recovery with no issues, and to come out here and be ready for practice has been a blast."

At a glance

RETURNING STARTERS Ty Clary (11) starts last season, Colton Jackson (8)

LOSSES Hjalte Froholdt (12), Johnny Gibson (12), Brian Wallace (12).

WHO’S BACK Dalton Wagner (1), Kirby Adock (1), Shane Clenin (1), Austin Capps, Ryan Winkel, Silas Robinson, Noah Gatlin (2 starts last season, out for this season with torn ACL)

WHO’S NEW Myron Cunningham, Chibueze Nwanna, Brady Latham, Beaux Limmer, Dylan Rathcke, Ricky Stomberg

WALK-ONS Luke Jones, Drew Vest, Austin Nix, Audry Horn

ANALYSIS Despite the loss of three senior starters, offensive line coach Dustin Fry said he expects an improved group overall. At times last season the Razorbacks were down to eight healthy scholarship linemen. Even with Gatlin suffering a season-ending knee injury on the first day of training camp, Arkansas has 14 scholarship linemen in practice along with several walk-ons. Fry is counting on the competition and depth created by those numbers to raise the level of play. Having Jackson healthy after he was sidelined by a back injury to start last season is a big plus.

Cunningham has been getting work at both tackle spots and right guard. He got some work at left guard in spring practice.

"We're going to find a spot for Myron, whether it's at guard or tackle," Fry said. "He's too good to be over there holding his helmet."

The three senior offensive linemen Arkansas lost -- Hjalte Froholdt, Johnny Gibson and Brian Wallace -- had a combined 95 career starts, but Morris said he believes the position will be improved.

"There is no doubt that our offensive line will be better this year," Morris said. "It'll be better from a depth standpoint and obviously when you have depth, you have competition."

Fry said the line has no choice but to be better to help Arkansas improve on last season's 2-10 record.

"We should be in a position this year to have much better unit cohesion and be on the same page," Fry said. "I think the group's in a better place.

"Competition is really pushing guys out of their comfort zone. Some of those guys that have been there for three years, it's time to get on the field. I think they see that."

Fry said he believes the returning offensive linemen are motivated by criticism they saw on social media last season.

"Those guys, they read things," Fry said. "They aren't stupid to what people say about them. I know they're hungry to have a really good year."

Sports on 08/13/2019

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