Razorbacks sorting out starter at left tackle as countdown to kickoff begins

(UA Athletics)

Kickoff for the 2023 Arkansas Razorbacks’ 2023 football season is eight days and counting, but the hay isn’t exactly in the barn yet for Sam Pittman’s Hogs.

There is still some jockeying to be done with the Razorbacks’ offensive line thanks to a few injuries that have kept projected starting right tackle Devon Manuel sidelined for a good deal of practice this August and a recent injury to stalwart three-year starting guard Brady Latham.

When the Hogs host Western Carolina for their season opener at 3 p.m. 12 p.m. on Sept. 2 at Little Rock’s War Memorial Stadium for a game that will be streamed on ESPN/SEC Plus, Manuel (6-9, 310) and Latham (6-5, 312) are expected to be ready to go, but Pittman wasn’t ready to announce who would start at the left tackle spot.

Latham will start at guard, where he has for the better part of three years if he can play, but offensive line coach Cody Kennedy and Pittman, whose expertise is offensive line, have a difficult call to make at left tackle.

Manuel came out of spring practice as the starter, but reportedly a concussion and now an ankle injury has kept him unable to practice for at least a week of preseason camp.

In Manuel’s absence, freshman Andrew Chamblee (6-6, 304) got most of the first-team work at left tackle and he is making strides there.

Complicating matters, senior Ty’Kieast Crawford (6-5, 326), who has worked at guard and tackle is making a push. Crawford might be the most athletic of all of the Razorbacks’ offensive lineman.

So entering game-week preparations, Kennedy and Pittman are going to have to make a decision on what is the best course to take for the opener, and it will be interesting to see who gets the nod.

Pittman explained starting jobs are week to week with the Hogs, based on game performance. So the starter at left tackle for the opener against Western Carolina might not be the guy for the Kent State or BYU game.

With everyone healthy, Pittman said he has confidence that eight of his offensive linemen can perform at a winning level in the SEC, but what Kennedy and he have to pinpoint over the next week is exactly which of them are the best five.

Latham, a second-team preseason All-SEC performer is a lock to start at guard if he is healthy. Florida transfer Joshua Braun (6-6, 348) is steady at the other guard. Beaux Limmer (6-5, 307) is another second team preseason All-SEC pick at center. Patrick Kutas (6-5, 313) is a sophomore with reportedly a mean streak at right tackle.

That’s a solid four, but who will nail down that fifth spot for the opener? Chamblee, Manuel, or Crawford?

No matter who starts in the opener, it’s a position to watch during the early part of the season. Crawford’s name hasn’t been mentioned much in the preseason, but he is the most experienced of the three and very athletic. If he gets the nod in the opener, it might be hard to wrestle the position away from him.

Manuel and Chamblee are obviously the future at the position. The question, though, is the future now?

The good news for whomever starts at left tackle is that quarterback KJ Jefferson and running back Raheim “Rocket” Sanders will be lining up behind them. They are of the caliber of player who make offensive lineman look better than they are because of their skill, talent and moxie.

You might have to go back to 1988 and 1989 when quarterback Quinn Grovey and Barry Foster were sophomores and juniors in the same backfield to find a quarterback-running back tandem as talented for the Razorbacks. Grovey, Foster and their teammates won back-to-back Southwest Conference titles those seasons.

Sanders has excellent talent stacked up behind him in Rashod Dubinion, AJ Green, and Dominique Johnson, and if Jefferson has to miss time this year like he did last when he was out for the Mississippi State and LSU games, and missed time against Alabama, the Razorbacks are in a much better situation with Jacolby Criswell of Morrilton as his backup this season than last year.

My hope is that the Razorbacks can take care of business in a fashion against Western Carolina and Kent State so that Criswell can get plenty of action in the second half.

Of course, you can never count on something like that happening, but with an improved defense boasting a deep defensive line under first-year coordinator Travis Williams and his co-coordinator Marcus Woodson, the outlook on defense appears more promising than any squad since 2015.

The Razorbacks have clearly helped themselves this season in the transfer portal with key additions at every position group but their already stacked running back room. That depth should be key for the Razorbacks as they battle their way through another challenging SEC schedule.

What is good for this Razorback team is that they have an extended ramp provided by the games against Western Carolina and Kent State to build this team.

That all changes when BYU visits Razorback Stadium on Sept. 16 at 6:30 p.m. for what should be and idyllic night On the Hill before the Hogs hit the road for four weeks before returning to face Mississippi State on Oct. 21. The Bulldogs recently hired away Arkansas’ NIL coordinator, making that game a bit more interesting than it already was.

That game with the Cougars should be very telling as the Razorbacks enter the meat of their schedule. Games at LSU, with Texas A&M at Arlington, Texas; at Ole Miss, and at Alabama follow in quick succession.

My preseason hope is that the Razorbacks have the type of team that relishes that type of challenge, and win their share of those games.

Going 3-2 over that five-game stretch would set up a very promising second half of the season. Anything better, and Hog fans might explode with excitement.

It’s one of the toughest set of consecutive ballgames the Razorback program has ever played in its history, and one way or the other, the outcome of those five games will probably tell the tale of this season.

But first things first. One hopes the Central Arkansas crowd responds by filling up War Memorial Stadium next Saturday to make the Razorbacks’ season opener a success.

No, it’s not the most appealing opponent, and yes, it is Labor Day weekend when many might be squeezing in that last trip to the lake of the summer.

But one has to believe that attendance at such a game will be factored into the equation that determines if the tradition of Razorback games in the state’s capital is to be continued.

Full stands is without a doubt the best argument for continuing them. A half or three-fourths full stadium is ammunition against it whether the opponent is Arkansas State like in 2025 or not.

The countdown to Razorback kick off is on, and I can’t wait.

Arkansas Razorbacks 2023 football schedule

Countdown to Kickoff: 8 Days

Sept. 2 – Western Carolina at Little Rock (12 p.m. ESPN+/SEC+)
Sept. 9 – Kent State (3 p.m. SEC Network)
Sept. 16 – BYU (6:30 p.m. ESPN2)
Sept. 23 – at LSU (TBA)
Sept. 30 – Texas AM at Arlington, Texas (TBA)
Oct. 7 – at Ole Miss (TBA)
Oct. 14 – at Alabama (TBA)
Oct. 21 – Mississippi State (TBA)
Nov. 4 – at Florida (TBA)
Nov. 11 – Auburn (TBA)
Nov. 18 – Florida International (TBA)
Nov. 24 – Missouri – (3 p.m. CBS)