The offensive line for the Arkansas Razorbacks struggled during the game against Louisiana Tech.
FAYETTEVILLE – Bret Bielema was mixed about what he saw Saturday. He admitted there was film to be watched Sunday and lots of players wouldn't much care for what they saw. He was also OK with some performances, considering a lack of experience.
Of course, Arkansas beat Louisiana Tech, so that takes some of the sting out of lots of things that did not appear quite up to snuff.
The offensive line had serious problems. The secondary, too. Only two linebackers played in non-special teams snaps. Basically, the three biggest worries for Arkansas' season borne themselves out in the team's season-opener, a 21-20 win over a team picked to finish second in their division in Conference USA.
The biggest trouble spot was the offensive line. Left tackle Dan Skipper was good enough, save a holding penalty. Center Frank Ragnow didn't allow any plays for negative yardage, either. Each of the other three starters on the front five had difficulty, some often.
Left guard Hjalte Froholdt appeared confused more than a handful of times in both pass protection (most often) and run blocking (rarer). Froholdt is making the transition from defensive tackle, where he found himself way down the depth chart at Arkansas' deepest unit. Bielema moved him after the season last year and gave him every first-team rep through the spring and fall. Not once was anyone else seriously considered for the starting spot.
On three straight drives in the first half, Froholdt was completely taken, by technique or game-plan. During the Razorbacks' third series, on a 2nd-and-6, Froholdt wholly whiffed his assignment on a counter hand-off to Rawleigh Williams. The Louisiana Tech defender ran right past Froholdt, who seemed to think his man to block was the linebacker farther upfield. The lineman tackled Williams for a two-yard loss.
Next series, quarterback Austin Allen took the hardest shot in the whole game when Froholdt was plain beaten by Bulldogs defensive lineman again. Allen got the ball away and was smoked on his blindside for the trouble of an incomplete pass. In drive No. 5, Devwah Whaley, in his first career game, was stuffed behind the line for a two-yard loss when Froholdt was cleanly beaten again.
But it wasn't just the Denmark native. Right tackle Colton Jackson gave up two sacks, both times because he was unsure where the blitzer, safety Xavier Woods, was coming from. Jackson blocked no one both times initially and Allen was taken down. A third sack came when Louisiana Tech simply read the naked boot and stayed at home. A fourth came when Louisiana Tech defensive ends collapsed the pocket, forced Allen up and a Bulldogs defensive tackle put a spin move on right guard Jake Raulerson, freeing himself.
The Arkansas offensive line gave up four sacks. The unit gave up 13 sacks all of last year.
Questions about the right side of the line were confirmed not just with pass protection. Of Arkansas' 39 rushes (not counting the team rush out of the victory formation), just seven went to the right side, and that includes the three sacks that came from that direction. Even taking those out of the equation, Razorbacks runners had a grant total of 4 carries for 10 yards going behind Jackson and Raulerson. The left was better as Williams, Kody Walker and Jared Cornelius went that way 18 times for 72 yards. Runs up the middle resulted in 55 yards on 14 carries.
Formations were irrelevant, too. It didn't much matter if Arkansas went single-back with two tight ends, I-formation with two, three wide out of a shotgun, anything. Two tight-end sets were bad, even, with Arkansas picking up just 46 yards on 20 carries. The best option was standard I-formation with tight end Jeremy Sprinkle and two wide receivers. Williams had seven carries for 33 yards in that set. Three sacks came out of single-back formations, two out of two-tight end sets.
None of that takes into consideration the defense, which never saw Brooks Ellis or Dre Greenlaw leave the field. The inability to substitute for those two linebackers was cause for concern last year as fatigue late in games and late in the season ended up costing Arkansas on several occasions. It was hard to tell Saturday if they stayed in the game because of the reason as last year or because they're the best two options in a close game.
Defensive backs had problems with the same issues as last year, too. Defensive coordinator Robb Smith's scheme seems to lend itself more to off-coverage. Rarely was there any press or bump-and-run played by cornerbacks. Safeties came closer to the line of scrimmage in man-coverage situations, but never to press, generally standing six to eight yards away. Quarterback J'Mar Smith inevitably went with quick passes, lots of slip-screens and throws into the flat.
Arkansas had four tackles for-loss to Louisiana Tech's nine. The biggest of the Razorbacks saved the game, though, when Deatrich Wise Jr. and Jeremiah Ledbetter came together to crush Smith on a 3rd-down play late in the fourth quarter. Louisiana Tech punted and never got back the ball.
It is possible changes are made ahead of the TCU game. The likeliest of those would be at right tackle where Brian Wallace took occasional first-team reps during fall camp before Jackson won the job. Paul Ramirez, a junior-college transfer, is the current No. 2 at the spot, though Wallace is commonly thought to the the primary back-up at both tackle spots.
Froholdt or Raulerson could be supplanted by Zach Rogers, who can play right guard and center, but because Froholdt saw so much time at left guard in preparation for the job, it is hard to say who, if anyone would get first crack there. Ragnow could move to a guard spot, too.
Then again, everything could stay status quo. Maybe things can just be chalked up to first-game jitters and the like. A lot like last year when things were funky at the beginning before ultimately fixing themselves – except the secondary. Either way, changes or not, something will need to change for Arkansas to beat Texas Christian, the No. 13 team in FBS.