Arkansas Razorbacks' offensive line starting to come into focus for 2020
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Arkansas' OL starting to come into focus

Marcus Henderson has cracked Arkansas' two-deep depth chart.
Marcus Henderson has cracked Arkansas' two-deep depth chart. (Arkansas Athletics)

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FAYETTEVILLE — As the season nears, Sam Pittman is getting a clearer picture of what the Razorbacks’ offensive line will look like this year.

Arkansas is six practices into camp and Tuesday provided the first-year head coach his first glimpse at the team in full pads as it reached the end of the required five-day acclimation period. Players were back in shells Wednesday, but will have their first scrimmage Friday.

Speaking to the local media via a Zoom videoconference after Tuesday’s practice, Pittman said he thought the offensive line had a nice day.

“I was really pleased with the line today,” Pittman said. “We have to be mentally tough as a team, we have to get tougher that way, but we have to strain on our blocks and I thought they did more today than what I had seen.”

He admitted later in the interview that he wished the linemen had been better in their transition on and off the field, getting better conditioning out of it by running instead of jogging, but he was pleased with their play on the field.

It wasn’t just the coaches who noticed the play of the offensive line, either. The guys lining up across from them in practice have also been impressed with what has seemingly been quite a bit of improvement over the offseason.

“They challenge us every single day,” defensive end Dorian Gerald said. “I wasn’t around a lot last year to know how the practices went, but I definitely know this year they’re a lot tougher. They’re a lot more physical. They’re stronger. Everyone’s bigger. I think it’s going to be a big difference.”

With offensive line coach Brad Davis out with a “pre-existing condition,” Arkansas received a waiver for Joseph Henry - a quality control coach - to serve as the acting offensive line coach and provide on-field coaching. Graduate assistant Ryan Yurachek has also taken on a bigger role.

Considering his background as one of the top offensive line coaches in the country, though, Pittman has led some of the offensive line drills and spent a little extra time with the unit the last few days.

“Certainly I’m not going to not coach the line whether Coach Davis is here or not,” Pittman said. “But I don’t want to lose the trust he has with the room by saying something differently than he does, so I’m really just coaching a lot of technique type things.”

The Razorbacks have not settled on their starting group, but it’s starting to come into focus based on the limited media viewing sessions, videos released by the UA and what Pittman has said in interviews.

“We’re still trying to find the right pieces and as we find the best five we have, we’re trying to find the best No. 6, No. 7, No. 8,” Pittman said. “We’re still — we’re a lot closer than what we were a week ago.”

What seems to be the one constant throughout camp has been Myron Cunningham at left tackle. The other four positions on the line have seen some rotation, with multiple players getting reps with the first unit.

Arkansas has a couple of weeks before reaching the point of camp when Pittman would like to finalize his starting group, so they're still trying different looks.

“There’s probably, to be honest with you, about eight, maybe nine guys in there that seriously have an opportunity to start for us,” Pittman said. “We’ve probably started nine different units in there - maybe just a piece here, a piece there - but we’ve probably had nine different looks in there.”

It has helped that the Razorbacks have split fields quite a bit in practice. With only 16 or 17 available linemen, several guys have been forced to play different positions, giving the staff an idea if they fit anywhere other than their main spot.

For example, Pittman said Ricky Stromberg and Ty Clary - who are battling for the starting job at center - have also gotten some work at guard. Stromberg said most of his time has been spent at center, but he gets reps at right guard when they’re on split fields. It’s likely the same for Clary.

It also seems like the Razorbacks have reached Pittman’s goal of having at least three linemen capable of playing center. In addition to Stromberg and Clary, the first-year coach has praised Luke Jones for being comfortable snapping the ball, plus Shane Clenin has been seen on video snapping the ball.

Jones and Clenin are also seemingly battling for the starting job at left guard. Both have received plenty of first-team reps at that spot. At right guard, Beaux Limmer has gotten most of the reps seen by media, with Ryan Winkel backing him up.

Now healthy after tearing his ACL on the first day of camp last year, Noah Gatlin is making a serious push at right tackle. Interestingly, his biggest competition appears to be Brady Latham, as incumbent starter Dalton Wagner has been running third team.

Although Cunningham is a lock at left tackle, his backup is a bit of a surprise. True freshman Marcus Henderson has climbed the depth chart and has been running with the second team, impressing Pittman along the way.

“He’s learned the offense awfully fast,” Pittman said. “Another thing, he has outstanding feet. He likes to compete. He’s ahead of a lot of freshmen that I’ve coached in my past as far as the mental game of it, the strain, the competition part of it.”

Arkansas tried him at right tackle, but Pittman said it didn’t go well, so they moved him back to left tackle, where he was more comfortable.

While nothing is set in stone with the Sept. 26 opener against Georgia still about a month away, it appears the offensive line has taken a step forward and will be a better unit in 2020.

“I think we've still got a little bit of ways to go and we've got some time, but I think we're going to be good come season time,” Cunningham said. “We're going to be a lot better just because of the added size and added strength, and especially with this tempo offense we're all going to be in better shape for it.”

Star running back Rakeem Boyd returned for his senior year after rushing for 1,133 yards last season, the Razorbacks added quarterback Feleipe Franks as a graduate transfer and all three starting wide receivers are back, so Stromberg has even higher expectations for the offensive line this year.

“I expect Rakeem to have another 1,000 yard season, even more,” Stromberg said. “We're all bigger up front. We can handle the big guys a lot better this year. I expect us to blow it out of the water this year, to be honest. I expect a lot out of our group.”