FAYETTEVILLE — Senior left offensive tackle and SEC Offensive Lineman of the Week Dan Skipper and junior center Frank Ragnow by far are Arkansas’ best offensive linemen and sophomore left guard Hjalte Froholdt has started the most Razorbacks games in the line between them.
However the Razorbacks do or die O-linemen in Arkansas’ SEC finale Friday at Missouri are none of the above, Arkansas Coach Bret Bielema and Arkansas offensive coordinator Dan Enos say.
They say the newbie starters installed mid and late season, third-year sophomore right tackle Brian Wallace of Florissant, Mo. and third-year sophomore right guard Johnny Gibson of Dumas, hold the key.
In the three games that Gibson and Wallace have started together, the Hogs struggled the middle one, a 38-10 loss in Fayetteville to LSU and its great defense, but dominated 31-10 the heralded defense of SEC East champion Florida in Fayetteville and last Saturday amassed 661 yards in the 58-42 shootout over SEC West rival Mississippi State in Starkville, Miss.
“I think the key has been the play of Johnny Gibson and Brian Wallace,” Bielema said. “And Johnny on the pull, now he is a stout, strong, 335-pound G.A.M. He’s a grown ass man. He really has taken his level of play, his confidence to another level.”
Enos reluctantly flat put the onus on Gibson, listed 6-4, 344, and Wallace, 6-6, 335, in Friday’s 1:30 p.m. CBS televised meeting with Missouri in Columbia, Mo.
“If those two guys play well, we’re going to play well,” Enos said. “I hate to say that .. I’m not putting pressure on them … but Brian Wallace and Johnny Gibson, those guys played well Saturday and it gives us a chance.”
Sophomore running back/SEC Player of the Week Rawleigh Williams and freshman running back Devwah Whaley don’t combine for 317 yards rushing and five touchdowns against Mississippi State without them.
Nor does quarterback Austin Allen stay sack free while completing 18 of 25 passes for 303 yards and two touchdowns.
“It gives Austin an extra tick or so in the pocket to find a guy or an extra tick for a guy to get open,” Enos said of Gibson and Wallace protecting the right side rush. “They’re big, physical guys and when they can get some movement up front they stretch gaps and make defensive run fits hard on guys. It makes everybody’s life easier.”
Enos was asked if Froholdt, now making strides after starting from scratch as a Denmark born moved to America in high school defensive lineman moved to the offensive line last spring, Gibson and Wallace are starting remotely to replace the pieces missing last year when Skipper was right tackle and Ragnow right guard while graduated Mitch Smothers was the center and All-American Sebastian Tretola and Denver Kirkland the left guard and left tackle now both in the NFL.
“It’s hard to compare last year and this year,” Enos said. “There’s so many different moving parts to it. Johnny Gibson’s in his third game. Hjalte’s going into his 12th. Hjalte, you see a guy that’s really taken steps. He did some things Saturday, with the physicality of how he finished blocks and got on guys, his demeanor. His confidence level is growing. Brian Wallace continues to take major steps.”
Austin Cantrell of Roland, Okla. a touchdown catch from a Rawleigh Williams surprise jump pass plus a 32-yard screen pass from Austin Allen against Mississippi State, and Cheyenne (also known as C.J.) O’Grady catching a 23-yard pass against Mississippi State, are redshirt freshmen tight ends emerging from the shadows behind fifth-year senior All-SEC candidate tight end Jeremy Sprinkle of White Hall.
“You’re playing Austin Cantrell, freshman, C.J. O’Grady, freshman, Rawleigh Williams ( sidelined midseason 2015 by a broken neck) didn’t play a full year last year,” Enos said. “Devwah Whaley true freshman, you know what I mean? Austin Allen first-year starter. So in answer to your question, I think hopefully that’s maturity. Hopefully that’s our guys getting more comfortable playing and more confident playing.”
True freshman tight end Grayson Gunter, a Mississippian, caught a 29-yard pass from Allen while returning to his home state.
“I was very happy for Grayson,” Bielema said. “A Mississippi kid to get his first catch at a critical moment in a game. I believe that was on the first drive. He’s had his banged up shoulder and played through it. He turned down some schools to come here because of our tight end tradition. I don’t think he expected to play as a freshman. I didn’t expect him to play. He came in and just was better than we thought and more ready than I thought, so that was awesome.”