FAYETTEVILLE — Much seems on the line for the Arkansas Razorbacks’ 15 spring football practices that begin Tuesday.
It’s on the line for the offensive line and the quarterbacks operating behind it.
For the first time in his now going on four years as Arkansas’ coach, Bret Bielema begins spring drills without Brandon Allen as his starting quarterback.
He still has an Allen for openers. Austin Allen, whose stardom at Fayetteville High actually exceeded his older brother quarterbacking the Bulldogs to consecutive state championships, takes the first snap with 100 percent Razorbacks game experience than Arkansas’ other quarterbacks.
That 100 percent isn’t much. Other than Austin Allen playing the second half against Ole Miss in 2014 with Arkansas extending a 17-0 lead to a 30–0 victory while his brother was injured, Austin Allen had five mop-up appearances scattered over two seasons.
At least he has had that plus the urgency of practicing as the backup a heartbeat away from starting.
This marks the first real chance for third-year sophomore Rafe Peavey. Obviously it’s the first chance period both for Ty Storey, the Charleston native redshirting as a freshman last year, and Ricky Town, redshirted last fall upon transferring from Southern California.
Offensive coordinator Dan Enos will intensely evaluate them all.
It’s been since 2013 since a true freshman has started on the Arkansas offensive line. And unless an incoming freshman proves amazingly precocious, Bielema likely prefers to keep it way.
Dan Skipper, and especially Denver Kirkland, were precocious when Bielema and former offensive line coach Sam Pittman started them as rookie offensive guards in 2013.
But it was more lack of quality linemen than their precocity that caused Kirkland, a tackle last year now turned pro, and Skipper, a tackle since 2014, to start so fast.
Coaches prefer aging their offensive linemen like fine wine, a redshirt year at the least and another year or two as a sub before starting is the general collegiate ideal for offensive linemen.
So with only senior right tackle Skipper and junior two-year letterman Frank Ragnow, a starting guard last year certain to start at either center or guard this year, as incumbents, new line coach Kurt Anderson will check thoroughly if any linemen nurtured through redshirting have come of age and that includes Colton Jackson of Conway.
Senior Jeremy Sprinkle is fully capable of picking up where turned pro Mackey Award winning tight end Hunter Henry left off.
The big tight end key will be how redshirted freshman Will Gragg of Dumas, Austin Cantrell and C.J. O’Grady pick up the slack that Sprinkle filled the last two years as 1A to Henry’s 1 and plus being a mainstay on special teams.
The defensive line, particularly with last year’s late-season emergence of end Deatrich Wise, is the deepest facet of the defense and linebacker the thinnest even with Fayetteville High grads Brook Ellis and Dre Greenlaw returning as senior and sophomore starters.
New defensive backfield coach Paul Rhoads brings a fresh take to a secondary returning all starters save for graduated safety Rohan Gaines.