FAYETTEVILLE (AP) — Travis Swanson bristles at the notion that Arkansas’ offensive line is the weak link on an otherwise championship-caliber team.
The Razorbacks center’s eyes grow wide with obvious annoyance when he’s asked about the perception. But the fact is, No. 15 Arkansas must replace three starting offensive line from last season’s Sugar Bowl team and the questions are out there for Swanson and the rest of the Hogs to see.
"Every time I look at stuff like that, it makes me mad," Swanson said. "I try to stay away from the magazines and newspapers and stuff like that because I feel like it will get caught up in my head. I’ve got enough to think about to begin with, so that’s the last thing I need."
Add to that the losses of tight end D.J. Williams to the NFL’s Green Bay Packers and running back Knile Davis to injury, and the Razorbacks have plenty of work to do in order to find the power running game that carried them down the stretch last season.
They have spent much of fall camp mixing and matching players on the offensive line, hoping to find the right formula before next week’s season opener against Missouri State.
Swanson and guard Alvin Bailey are the returning starters in a group that figures to have at least one freshman — possibly more — see significant playing time. It’s a group that has gone from question mark to reliable, at least in the eyes of offensive coordinator Garrick McGee.
"I think it’s still coming, but I do like what I see," McGee said. "I think our kids, starting with our offensive line, are starting to get settled in."
Arkansas finished ninth in the Southeastern Conference in rushing offense last season with an average of 148.8 yards per game. That overall average was hampered thanks to a four-game stretch to open the season during which the Razorbacks averaged just 103 yards on the ground — including just 53 yards on 23 carries in a win at Georgia.
Davis, who finished the season leading all SEC running backs with 1,322 yards rushing, discovered just the right chemistry with Arkansas’ offensive line after that. The Razorbacks responded with a six-game winning streak to end the regular season, during which they averaged 188 yards rushing.
But Davis is gone after breaking his left ankle during a scrimmage on Aug. 11 and is expected to miss the entire season. That left Arkansas without its workhorse and the new-look offensive line little time to adjust to someone new.
Junior running backs Ronnie Wingo and Dennis Johnson are expected to fill much of the void left by Davis’ absence. However, offensive line coach Chris Klenakis has spent more time looking at the line’s progress rather than who’s been running behind it.
"We’ve got confidence in whoever is running behind us," Klenakis said. "Whether Ronnie’s running behind us or Dennis running behind us, or any of those young kids who are great talents, our job is to block.
"We shouldn’t even know who is running behind us. We should just go out and do our job."
Klenakis still isn’t sure who exactly will man the five offensive line positions when the Razorbacks open the season, but he’s praised the group’s overall versatility. He’s also had plenty of positive words for three freshmen — Mitch Smothers, Brey Cook and Marcus Danenhauer — vying for playing time.
Smothers saw action with Arkansas’ first-team at tackle last week during a scrimmage, and Klenakis said he plans on the Springdale, Ark., native being "in the mix" early. Swanson, who redshirted his first year before earning all-freshman honors in the SEC last season, said Smothers’ quick progress is an indication of just how talented he is.
"He’s got a lot of potential to be here a while and do great things, but he’s still young," Swanson said. "He’s still really young, and he has a couple of things he has to figure out but I think he’ll be good. I can only imagine what he’s going through."