Clay Henry is the publisher and executive editor of Hawgs Illustrated. He is a member of the Football Writers Association of America and its All-America Committee, voter for the Heisman Trophy and has been inducted into the Arkansas Sportswriters and Sportscasters Hall of Fame.
State of the Hogs: Offensive line room fuller, healthier for spring
Arkansas offensive line coach Dustin Fry speaks to reporters Thursday, Feb. 21, 2019, at Fred W. Smith Center in Fayetteville.
FAYETTEVILLE No one was fired on the Arkansas football coaching staff after a 2-10 season, except maybe a few players. The departures have been by the dozens. Some left looking for playing time.
It’s the way of the world, not just the college football world. I promised as I wrote my lead at halftime of the Missouri game, a 38-0 Arkansas loss in the season finale, that a purge was coming.
Three months later it’s a highly different personnel landscape for the Razorbacks as Chad Morris begins his second season as head coach. His staff added one of the best classes in the two decades of legitimate rating services.
It couldn’t happen faster for offensive line coach Dustin Fry, so short on players last fall that there wasn’t even a two-deep some days in practice.
It was a constant juggle up front as Fry changed combinations to account for injuries and to also keep from burning the redshirt on Noah Gatlin, the one true freshman who was close to being ready to play. Gatlin could play four games anywhere during the season and those were scattered throughout.
Junior Austin Capps moved from the defensive line to left guard late in August camp and did play at times. But that was tough for someone who hadn’t played offensive line since high school.
Despite losing seniors Hjalte Froholdt, Brian Wallace and Johnny Gibson, Fry is upbeat about the possibilities up front one week before the start of spring drills. As he met with the media Thursday, Fry at least has options now. He smiled as he mentioned the word "depth" over and over.
“What I’m enjoying most is that we finally have some depth,” Fry said.
“Not only do we have depth, we have a lot of hunger in our (offensive line meeting) room. We have young guys who don’t want to sit (on the bench).
“And, I have enough that I can hire and fire guys, hold them accountable each day. They look around and see that.”
Gatlin's classmates, Silas Robinson and Ryan Winkel, are progressing and in the mix. Fry said all three don’t act like freshmen anymore. There’s also excitement about the third-year sophomores: Dalton Wagner, Shane Clenin and Kirby Adcock.
Then, there’s a new cast of characters, most notably junior college transfers Myron Cunningham and Chibueze Nwanna. Fry hopes their arrival produces some urgency from their competition at tackle.
“I hope the (returning) tackles are upset we signed them,” Fry said. “We need to see some fire out of those guys.
“My job is to bring in guys to make us better. We are going to bring in better players every year. I told them, ‘Your job is to not let them beat you out.’
“We added more than the JUCO guys. There are four good freshmen coming and some quality walk-ons.”
Fry has seen the O-linemen work for about 10 days following signing day. He’s excited about what they did in the weight room and the running sessions early in the morning.
“We do it a little different as a staff when recruiting is done,” he said. “Some take a break that first week after signing day, but when we get off the road, we want to get embedded into those early morning workouts.
“Seeing my guys work got me really excited. There has been a lot of progress made in many areas. My guys are stronger and more flexible.”
Wagner continues to add bulk to his 6-9 frame. He’s up to 310 pounds and it’s really good weight. And, he’s bending better.
“You see him and you go, ‘Wow,’ but now I want to see him take that to the field in spring practice,” Fry said.
Fry’s eyes lit up when Capps was mentioned. He’s improved his speed, flexibility and just overall confidence with the offense.
“It’s going to be great to get him out on the field in the spring and work more,” Fry said. “Austin was a guy that when we got here last winter, we’d talk to high school coaches and they’d tell us what kind of offensive linemen he was in high school.
“There really wasn’t much we could do in the spring because he was out with (hernia) surgery. And, we wanted to make sure what we had in fall camp in the defensive line, just make sure that Coach (John) Chavis had his guys in the defensive line.
“There’s just not a lot you can do at that point, but we did put him in games. That’s going to help him a lot as we move forward.”
Capps, a 6-4, 311-pound senior, has the mass and strength to battle SEC nose tackles at left guard. And, he has great, quick strong hands, something that will probably be better utilized on the offensive line.
“It’s his speed that we’ve noticed this winter,” Fry said. “He bends so well and he is running well. Just so fluid in how he moves.”
The best news might be just the way he fits in the O-line room now.
“Austin is quiet and doesn’t say much, but we’ve noticed a different guy lately,” Fry said. “Now, his humor is dry and I still don’t expect him to talk a lot, but it’s sure a lot more.
“I think that just indicates an overall higher comfort level with what he’s doing. I see a big buy-in. It’s like he knows he’s an offensive lineman now."
Fry said Capps is still "stoic," but has had a smile on his face the past six weeks.
“I think it comes with knowing you are the left guard," Fry said.
Capps will line up with the ones for the first day of spring drills as the left guard. But nothing is guaranteed day-to-day.
Like Fry said, he will “hire and fire” in what he calls a “very fluid” daily depth chart. Spots will be earned.
Sadly, last year there wasn’t much opportunity to compete for spots. With injuries and low numbers, Fry started 10 different offensive line combinations in 12 games.
“I have seen one other year when there were some injuries and we had a similar situation,” Fry said. “But it shouldn’t be like that. You shouldn’t be scrambling to put five on the field. It should be that competition sorts it out.
“Ideally, you’d be like my senior year at Clemson in 2006. We had a group of seniors that came in together as freshmen, then played three years together. We knew what every grunt meant. We had played together so long we made up our own calls.”
Fry said not to pay much attention to the depth chart for the first day, but he did grudgingly agree to provide a peek at how the Hogs would line up Friday when spring drills begin.
At left tackle, it will be Colton Jackson with Cunningham next. There have been rave reviews about Cunningham’s athleticism. Three different offensive coaches mentioned him Thursday as far as length and movement.
On the other side at right tackle, Gatlin will be first up, followed by Wagner. Nwanna will work at both right and left tackle.
At right guard, Clenin will take the first repetition, with Winkel next. Clenin will also take reps at center. Ty Clary will take the first snap at center, followed by Robinson.
Redshirt freshman Austin Nix, a walk-on from Arkansas High in Texarkana, will follow Capps at left guard.
“I’m really excited about Nix,” Fry said.
Nix played center at Arkansas High and, like Capps, was a solid baseball player, too.
Unlike last season, Fry looks forward to working two units in practice. He wishes he could have done that more last fall even with what little depth was available.
“You think back at where we were, even when we had a few backups available, they didn’t get much work early,” he said. “We were teaching a new system to guys like Brian Wallace, Hjalte Froholdt, Johnny Gibson and Colton Jackson. We had to rep them every single time possible.
“You were on the edge of your seat to see who was going to be able to practice or play. It’s just the way it was.”
That’s changed with better numbers. And, some of the youngsters are growing up.
“We definitely wanted more (muscle) mass this offseason,” Fry said. “But it has to be the right kind. Our training staff, Coach (Trumain) Carroll, knows exactly how to build it.
“But that’s not all, it’s about learning how to strain to the finish. We need that in the run game and we need that in pass protection.
“I want to play with a better attitude, too. In the run game, I don’t want us to have to worry about how many are in the box. We still should be able to run the ball with extra defenders in the box.
“And, the protections have to improve. You can’t just mirror a guy for a couple of seconds. You have to mirror, fight and mirror and not let your guy get to the quarterback. We definitely have to get better there.”
Where is this offensive line compared to 12 months ago?
“Oh, we’ve grown, even in leadership,” Fry said. “Some of our young guys know they can lead, be the one to organize a workout. You see that from a guy like Noah Gatlin. He goes about his business trying to be the best tackle to have ever played at Arkansas. That’s his goal. He’s not flashy, but he’s working to become that.”
That’s the kind of thoughts that make an O-line coach more comfortable.
“I am more comfortable on Feb. 21, 2019, than I was Feb. 21, 2018,” Fry said. “Some of that is just talking about the unknowns. I know what we have now.”
And, it’s clear that there is more to the 2019 Arkansas offensive line. There may even be a three-deep to start spring practice. If not then, when all of the new signees arrive in May.
“It’s about to get fun,” Fry said, smiling at the thought of a full O-line meeting room. “My guys know they are going to be held accountable and earn their spot each day. Competition is the way you get better, knowing that someone is trying to take your job.”
No one has ever said an offensive line room was pretty, but it may be a beautiful sight now for Fry.
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