Since Bret Bielema arrived at Arkansas, the Razorbacks have built their reputation on tough, physical football. That is particularly true of their offensive line, which has been one of the SEC’s better units in recent years.
After losing three starters from the 2015 group, this season hasn’t been quite as smooth for the Hogs up front. A microcosm of the tough transition was a two-play sequence in the first half of the Razorbacks’ 52-10 victory over Alcorn State.
On third-and-2, the Razorbacks tried to run for a first down but came up a yard short. On fourth-and-1 from their own 45, they elected to go for it and were stopped short, turning it over on downs.
It was a minor blemish on an otherwise successful and productive day for the offensive line, as Arkansas ran for 353 yards and an impressive 9.3 yards per carry. But considering the short-yardage struggles they had the previous week near the goal line in a loss to Texas A&M, it became clear that the Razorbacks’ front is still a work in progress.
“We had a unique scenario in the fact that we lost a guy early in Denver [Kirkland], a year ago, who we were planning on being in our rotation for one more year,” Bielema said. “And of course you've always got to plan for injuries and early departures, but that kind of put us on an accelerated cycle at one position and then obviously, we knew we were losing a couple other guys to graduation.”
The result has been some mixing and matching on the right side of the offensive line in particular, where Colton Jackson began the season at right tackle but that spot is now manned by Brian Wallace, who made his first start vs. Texas A&M over Jake Raulerson. Raulerson has spent most of his time this season at right guard and has also seen time at center, a spot usually occupied by Frank Ragnow, one of the Razorbacks’ two returning starters and one of their best linemen. Sophomore Zach Rogers has also played both center and right guard. (The left side of the line hasn't seen as much transition, with, with left tackle Dan Skipper -- the other returning starter and a preseason All-SEC selection -- and left guard Hjalte Froholdt starting all five games at those positions).
“We've got a number of bodies we feel that are capable,” Bielema said. “We've got to continue to coach and develop and bring them along. As far as where they're going to line up and what they're going to do, it's kind of a case-by-case [basis] and we'll figure out the best five for us on Saturdays.”
The short-yardage issues are certainly something that have to be shored up. Against Texas A&M, the Razorbacks had multiple occasions when they drove inside Texas A&M’s 10-yard line and were turned away from the end zone, including one sequence when they ran four plays from inside the 3-yard line and turned it over on downs, meaning a 19-play drive that ate up nearly 10 minutes of clock time yielded zero points.
The Aggies have one of the best defensive fronts in the country, so they deserve credit, but in recent years the Razorbacks have usually been able to assert their will in those types of situations. So far this season, Arkansas’ conversion rates on third-and-3 or shorter and fourth-and-3 or shorter are down from the previous two seasons.
In 2014, the Hogs converted 69.1 percent of third-and-3 or shorter and 66.7 percent in 2015. So far this season, the Hogs are down to a 54.5-percent conversion rate in those situations (12-for-22). On fourth-and-3 or shorter, the Hogs converted 60 percent of their tries in 2014, 80 percent in 2015 and only 40 percent (2-for-5) so far this season.
With the Razorbacks taking on Alabama this week, another team with an elite defensive front, those rates must improve if they hope to win.
As for the two-play sequence vs. Alcorn State, Bielema said at his Monday news conference that there were a few errors that contributed to that result.
"They lined up in a pretty heavy front that we wish we could have checked out of it,” Bielema said. “They gave a new look, a new alignment, one that obviously caused [problems]. But we also had some missed assignments at the point [of attack] from our players as well.
“When we're in those scenarios, we either have to execute better or provide a different option for our offense to go to. But again, we've been doing it that way for a while but on the same account, you can't just force a square peg into a round hole. You have to make sure you have another option for what we're doing.”