FAYETTEVILLE — More than ever, it seems with starting left tackle Colton Jackson idled by injury, Arkansas’ offensive linemen needed biggest winners and biggest losers from its summer conditioning program.
Jackson, a fourth-year junior from Conway, mostly a starting tackle these past two seasons, underwent back surgery two weeks ago.
Optimistically, he’s on a plan actively to return to coach Chad Morris’ Razorbacks by midseason though recovering from back surgery allows scant opportunity for all-round conditioning running and in the weight room.
The Razorbacks, on Friday, start their preseason practices.
“Obviously, early on, he has to stay straight up and can’t move a ton,” Arkansas offensive line coach Dustin Fry said. “But we’re hoping he can start riding a bee here soon and kind of work back into that. Well see. Right now he can’t do much, but Colton is the type of kid that’s going to work and work and work until he gets back. He knows what he’s trying to do. He knows there is a goal that he could come back this year. Right now it’s a little slow going but that will amp up as he gets to do more and more activity.”
With Jackson out, it’s paramount that replacements be conditioned to step up in an already depth depleted offensive line.
Trumain Carroll, Arkansas’ first-year conditioning coach that first-year coach Morris brought with him from Morris’ 2015-2017 tenure head coaching SMU, asserts redshirt freshman Dustin Wagner has gained for the physical part at left tackle and that versatile guards Johnny Gibson, the senior from Dumas, and Jalen Merrick, have lost to be mobile to help wherever needed.
“I guess I would have to say the biggest gainers throughout this offseason process would have to be, first of all have to be Dalton Wagner,” Carroll said at Monday’s meeting of media and Razorbacks staff at the Paradise Valley Country Club in Fayetteville. “When we met him in January, he was (6-foot-9) 275 pounds. He’s walking around today at 302. He’s feeling good and looking good and he’s got more confidence than anybody in this room.”
Since the room periodically included Morris and Fry, that is a hopeful sign for a line needing hope beyond senior bellwether Hjalte Froholdt.
“I was excited to hear the news on Dalton Wagner,” Morris said. “We’re going to anticipate him helping us out at left tackle, moving him over and starting him out there at the left tackle position during the start of fall camp. Obviously, being able to move guys over. Johnny Gibson (the starting right guard) is another one who has transformed his body, played some left tackle last year. There will be some moving parts there.”
Carroll proudly called Gibson and Merrick “the biggest losers.”
“As far as the biggest losers, two guys to really highlight, first of all Johnny Gibson Jr.,” Carroll said. “He’s a (6-4) guy that weighed in January at 345. He weighed as much as 348 at times. He’s walking around today at 319. He’s looking lean and mean and he’s able to move a lot better. Able to bend and able to … His conditioning level has been raised tremendously from when we saw him in January. Another guy is Jalen Merrick.”
Carroll amplified on Merrick, a 6-4 junior reserve guard from Oak Hill, Florida.
He weighed in at 345 also,” Carroll said upon their meeting in January. “And now, he’s walking around today at 316. A guy that’s lost 29 pounds. He’s moving a lot better and feeling a lot better. Those guys are able to sustain adequate conditioning to run coach Morris’ style of offense.”
Morris said Merrick has played little the previous two years under the previous Bret Bielema regime and by necessity has an opportunity now.
“It’s time you know,” Morris said. “He’s had a really good, impressive summer. It’s really time for Jalen to really take that next step. When he does, that allows us to have some depth there and be able to move Johnny around.”
Carroll and Morris also touted senior right tackle Brian Wallace’s summer conditioning.
“Brian Wallace is a guy who weighed 323 pounds in January and he weighs 320 pounds today,” Carroll said. “But he dropped five percent body fat, so he essentially loses 16 pounds of fat and put on 14 pounds of muscle. His body, if you look at before and after pictures of him, he looks completely different.”