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. Murphy was the 2017 Arkansas Sportswriter of the Year.
Pittman thinking big on O-line
FAYETTEVILLE -- Sam Pittman knows offensive line play.
The first-year University of Arkansas coach plans to tap into his stock in trade as a key step in rebuilding the Razorbacks' football program.
Trusted offensive line assistant Brad Davis, who already turned down a job offer from Texas A&M since becoming the first assistant to sign on with Pittman, is expected to help execute the campaign to recruit, sign and develop the Razorback offensive front into a force.
Pittman spent 26 years on the college level handling all or parts of the offensive line -- he coached tackles and tight ends in 1996 at Cincinnati -- and Davis has had a continuous 16-year run as an offensive line guru (half of that with the additional title of run game coordinator) since he capped his career at Oklahoma by being named the Sooners most valuable offensive lineman in 2002.
"I trust him, and I know he's a great person," Pittman said of Davis. "He is as good an offensive line coach as there is in the country."
A primary objective for Arkansas' winter-conditioning program was adding strategic weight on its offensive linemen.
As an example, true freshman Ricky Stromberg was listed as weighing in the 260s in fall camp last year. He had the right makeup, beginning with his mental toughness and ferocity, to emerge as a starter at right guard, but he was learning on the job and trying to add weight throughout the 2019 season. He is currently listed at 298 pounds.
Then there's Myron Cunningham, the junior-college transfer from Iowa Central Community College who came to the Razorbacks weighing in the 290-pound range. With left tackle Colton Jackson dealing with a concussion and chronic back issues and the loss of key tackle Noah Gatlin to a knee injury, Cunningham was essential in the offensive line mix last year. He wound up starting 10 games -- the first three at right guard and the other seven at left tackle, including the last five in a row.
Cunningham is listed at 293 pounds on the current Arkansas roster, but he is probably closer to 300 pounds now. Pittman would like to see him carry more weight than that to combat the weekly array of pass rushers in a conference that produces the deepest set of defensive ends in the country.
"As most of you know, I like big, athletic guys," Pittman said on a recent teleconference. "I don't know who wouldn't. But we put a heavy emphasis on strength, on gaining weight. Obviously, gaining the right type of weight. And we're trying to do that in recruiting."
Pittman said he'd like to see Cunningham get up to 310-315 pounds.
"I think he's got a lot of talent, but it's going to be hard to set on a bull [rusher] at 285 pounds, especially when the D-end weighs 275 pounds," he said. "I just don't think you can survive without big people on the offensive line or the defensive line. This is a big-person league, basically. It starts up front with both sides of the ball."
Pittman recalled his first stint on the Hill with coach Bret Bielema and offensive coordinators Jim Chaney and Dan Enos from 2013-15.
"When I first got here -- maybe seven years ago now, whatever it was -- we weren't a very big offensive line then either, and we changed that fairly fast," Pittman said.
Indeed, those Razorbacks did undergo a swift transition up front.
Mitch Smothers of Springdale already was on campus, and he would develop into a quality starting center. The 2013 signing class was pivotal in changing the direction of the offensive line, as it included Denver Kirkland and Dan Skipper, two longtime stalwarts. Sebastian Tretola signed on as a junior-college transfer in 2014, a year in which Pittman's recruiting was key in also landing freshmen Frank Ragnow and Brian Wallace. The Arkansas O-line was off and running.
During the 2014 season, the Razorbacks began billing themselves as the biggest offensive line in all of American football. And in 2015, the quintet of Skipper, Ragnow, Smothers, Tretola and Kirkland were featured on the front of the Arkansas media guide.
Arkansas led the SEC in fewest sacks allowed every season from 2013-15. In 2015, Arkansas ranked ninth nationally with 1.08 sacks allowed per game.
Those were not heavy passing teams, but the sack statistics were phenomenal nonetheless, especially when compared to the 2016 team under line coach Kurt Anderson, which fell to 13th in the SEC and 103rd nationally with 2.69 sacks allowed per game.
Davis and offensive coordinator Kendal Briles have offensive line talent to work with, despite losing Jackson, seven-game starting left guard Austin Capps and key reserve Kirby Adcock, who has taken a medical hardship.
Senior center Ty Clary started all 12 games last year while taking on a bigger leadership role. Clary, a Fayetteville product, has experience at all three interior spots on the line. Junior Dalton Wagner made all 12 starts at right tackle in 2019, while Stromberg started the last 11 games, two at left guard and the final nine at right guard.
The group might still be in rehab mode, depending on when spring drills start based on the current suspension of athletic activities across the nation due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Clary and Wagner both had shoulder surgeries in the winter to repair labrum injuries. Gatlin is seven-plus months out from reconstructive knee surgery. His rehabilitation has gone well, but he would have been limited had spring drills started as scheduled March 16.
In addition to the linemen with previous starting experience, the group features veterans such as redshirt junior Shane Clenin, whose leadership during winter conditioning was noteworthy.
"The guys in that group that stood out with their work ethic -- they all work hard -- but Shane Clenin and Ricky Stromberg have really done some things," Pittman said. "Ricky's gained, I don't know, maybe 25 or 28 pounds. He's right at 300 right now. Clenin looks really good right now."
Additions such as Beaux Limmer, Brady Latham, Austin Nix, Luke Jones, Ryan Winkel, Drew Vest and Dylan Rathcke will have an opportunity to show their improvement when practices commence.
And the incoming class already has the look of a Pittman-style front in size, weight and strength.
Tackles Ray Curry (6-6, 315) of Memphis and Jalen St. John (6-5, 310) of Saint Louis weighed 310-plus pounds each upon signing with the Razorbacks, and guard Marcus Henderson (6-5, 300) of Memphis was also in the 300-pound club.
If past history holds true and the vision of Pittman and Davis comes to fruition, the 2020 signing class will be just the start of an offensive line resurrection for the Razorbacks.
Sports on 03/29/2020
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