2021 PREVIEW: Razorbacks offensive line developing into reliable position group

If the veteran offensive lineman for the Arkansas Razorbacks feel somewhat like a yoyo, it’s easy to understand.

Seniors Shane Clenin and Ty Clary have been through a lot in their time as Razorbacks. Unfortunately not a lot of it has been positive. They’ve yet to experience a winning season as Razorbacks.

The duo have had three different head coaches along with an interim coach for two games, and when drills start in August they will begin work with their fourth position coach in Cody Kennedy, who joined Sam Pittman’s Razorback staff in January as tight ends coach. Kennedy is taking over guidance of the offensive line following the departure of Brad Davis to coach the offensive line at LSU in his hometown of Baton Rouge, La.

Making matters even more challenging for Clenin and Clary, each head coach brought differing philosophies about the weight they wanted their offensive linemen to carry.

Brett Bielema, who initially recruited the duo, favored big lineman. However, his replacement Chad Morris looked for a leaner breed of blocker. Pittman, who served as Bielema’s first offensive line coach at Arkansas before moving on to Georgia, likes them large and in charge.

That much upheaval is enough change to frustrate the progress of any football player in any system, and the shaky ground over the last four years in Fayetteville is explanation enough for the mediocre performance of the offensive line and the dismal results for the football program as a whole.

Pittman and his staff are to be applauded for putting a competitive team on the field last season, considering the the conditions.

The program was mired at the bottom of the SEC barrel thanks to the instability created by Bielema’s firing and the disaster of the Morris hire.

Covid-19 didn’t make the job any easier for Pittman, who went into his first season as a major-college head coach without the benefit of spring practices. As if those challenges weren’t enough, the SEC slapped the Razorbacks with perhaps the toughest schedule any college football team has ever faced.

Despite all that weighing against him, Pittman returned a sense of pride to the Razorback program that had been shaky since the Bobby Petrino scandal that opened the past decade.

Though Arkansas went 3-7 against an all-SEC schedule, the improvement was noticeable on the field and on the scoreboard. The Hogs were a bad call and a few plays away from being 6-4 last year. They just need a bit more push.

Maybe the Hogs’ veteran offensive line will be able to provide that push this season. The Hogs averaged 151 yards per game rushing, 240 yards passing, but just 25.7 point scoring last year. Those numbers need to improve in what is become a wide-open offensive league.

Improved offense starts with better protection for the quarterback and opening up more holes for the running game. The Razorbacks return players with some starting experience at all five positions on the offensive line thanks to the rule that granted all players an extra year of eligibility because of the Covid-19 pandemic.

One of the Hogs’ best and most steady performers is junior center Rick Stromberg (6-4, 316), who will start for the third season in a row and is the pacesetter for the position group. The Tulsa native is strong, smart, physical, and now experienced. He will be backed by Clenin (6-6, 320) of Festus, Mo. Clenin could also see some time at guard, depending on need and how other players progress.

Left guard was a solid battle in the spring with junior Notre Dame transfer Luke Jones (6-5, 310) of Little Rock tangling with sophomore Brady Latham (6-5, 300) of Jenks, Okla. Latham has some starting experience. The competition should make both better players, and it will be interesting to see which one actually earns the start role for the opener.

Clary (6-4, 315) of Fayetteville is also a leader for the Hogs, and his experience stands out at right guard. He will be backed by Beaux Limmer (6-5, 300), a promising sophomore from Tyler, Texas. Both players are smart and tough.

Like left guard, right tackle is a spot where there may be a battle for the starting role. Senior Dalton Wagoner (6-9, 325) of Spring Grove, Ill., is a vocal leader for the offense despite only being a part-time starter in the past. His experience and presence is a value to the Razorbacks, but there is talent behind him in sophomore Marcus Henderson (6-5, 295) of Memphis and Ty’Kiest Crawford (6-5, 355) of Crawford, Texas. The two young tackles may be the most talented pair of linemen on the team.

Myron Cunningham (6-6, 330) of Warren, Ohio, was tempted to enter the NFL Draft after last season, but when he learned he was projected as a lower-round pick, he opted to return for another season with the Razorbacks. It was a huge bonus for the Hogs to get him back for this season. Freshman Jalen St. John (6-5, 300) from Memphis is another promising young lineman who projects to back Cunningham.

Pittman believes in cross-training lineman at a couple of positions, so injury and progress could shake up this projected lineup before the season starts or any time thereafter. Kennedy worked as a graduate assistant for Pittman while both were at Georgia so he knows how the head Hog likes his linemen coached up.

No doubt having spring practice helped this group progress in the second year of offensive coordinator Kendal Briles’ system.

Though the offensive line isn’t loaded with four- and five-star prospects like when Pittman was at Georgia, the offensive line room is developing into a bigger, ornerier pack of Hogs. That should serve the Razorbacks’ skilled players better than in recent years.

* This is the fifth in a position-by-position series previewing the 2021 Arkansas football team.