Full pads bring out the truth with Hogs

“When the pads come on, the truth comes out.”

I’m sure I’m not the only one who heard that saying or something like it a thousand times as a kid playing football.

It’s one of those motivating statements that I imagine offensive and defensive line coaches chant in their sleep, but essentially it’s the truth.

Linemen and linebackers get a lot of work done in the early stages of practice without pads. It’s a great time to teach and learn technique with steps and hand work and other aspects of position that separates the average from the good and hopefully the good from the great.

However, those techniques only become window dressing if linemen don’t live for the fundamentally physical nature of the game. If a lineman can’t perform those techniques while physically engaging with his opponent, then the techniques are all for naught. Those techniques all have to be learned, but what’s not learned is that innate nastiness and drive that makes a player want to grind his opponent in the dirt.

And make no mistake. Those of us who love football, love it because of the managed aggression and violence of the sport. I’m a proponent of player safety, but the fundamentals of football are blocking and tackling. They are the cornerstone. Everything else comes afterward. The team that blocks and tackles the best usually wins. That aspect only comes to the fore when players can hit, and hitting comes with pads.

The Razorbacks don full pads for the first time Wednesday, and while everything done up until then matters — everything matters is 2019 Razorbacks’ motto — practice will hit high gear for the next two weeks.

This is the point when positions are won and lost, where pecking orders are developed at running back, receiver, the secondary, and tight end. Competition is the essence of the game – who is going to push his teammate to be better, and which player is going to fight his guts out to retain his spot?

It was sad to hear that redshirt freshman tackle Noah Gatlin is out for the season after tearing his anterior cruciate ligament in the Hogs’ first practice. It’s the type of injury that would have jeopardized his career 25 years ago, but with today’s technology and a ton of painful work on his part, Gatlin should return, possibly, in time for some work in spring practice.

It’s hard to tell what the impact on the team will be. Gatlin (6-7, 302) started in two of the three games he played in last year before redshirting. He was slotted to run second team behind Dalton Wagoner (6-9, 308) at right tackle.

While the Razorbacks have the bodies to absorb the loss of Gatlin, redshirt freshman Ryan Winkel (6-6, 285) may or may not be up to pushing Wagoner like Gatlin would have for that starting role.

Now, we don’t know how things are ultimately going to shake out, but the fact that junior college transfer Myron Cunningham (6-6, 290) who was working second team left tackle behind senior Colton Jackson (6-5, 298) gives an indication of just how much offensive line coach Dustin Fry and Arkansas head coach Chad Morris value quality competition.

Playing left tackle in the SEC is an arduous and thankless task. With the left side being a right-handed quarterback’s blindside, a left tackle is going to face the best of the best pass rushers in all college football not just the SEC.

Left tackle has to be a battle-tested position, and by Cunningham staying put shows how necessary Fry and Morris deem competition at that position.

No. 1, they need to see who really is their best left tackle. The work leading up to Saturday’s scrimmage will tell them a lot, but that scrimmage will no doubt tell them the most.

Following the first scrimmage of preseason camp, there usually is some movement in the pecking order at positions. It’s a good time to use the data gathered from the work in pads and make adjustments with another full week of work before the second and usually final live scrimmage of the preseason.

Next week we might see the battle at left tackle between Jackson and Cunningham wage on, or there could be any sort of movement. The same can be said of any number of positions on the offensive line or at other spots.

Of course, quarterback is the spot that is on the minds of most. I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t on mine.

We saw the ugly result of subpar quarterbacking last year. Not saying quarterback was the only issue a year ago, but it was the most glaring. I’m fairly the confident that either transfer quarterback would offer improved quarterbacking over last year, but will it be Ben Hicks (6-1, 217) or Nick Starkel (6-3, 214).

What kind of a role will freshman quarterback K.J. Jefferson (6-3, 228) have this year?

Could Jefferson play a role on the goal line like Tim Tebow had with Florida when he was a freshman? Not sure if Morris’ offense will allow that or if Jefferson is up to that, but it’s an intriguing thought.

Morris has said he’d like for one of the quarterbacks to take over quickly and that might happen, but if I were betting, I’d wager the battle will go through at least two scrimmages because there’s no real advantage of making a decision until then.

Some time after the second scrimmage, Morris and the staff will cull out scout-team offenses and defenses out of the 110 preseason roster, and we’ll get a very good idea of which players are expected to play key rolls this season, and those slotted to redshirt or play a reserve role.

It’s time for the Hogs to put on those pads and shift into high gear. The countdown to kickoff for the Portland State game is just 24 days.