Re-assembly required for struggling Razorback offensive line

Arkansas quarterback KJ Jefferson (1) is sacked by Texas A&M defensive lineman Enai White (6) during the second half of an NCAA college football game, Saturday, Sept. 30, 2023, in Arlington, Texas. (AP Photo/LM Otero)

Most everyone has had the experience, felt the pain.

You buy a “some-assembly-required” product at a big box store, you get it home, assembly it, but for some reason the product doesn’t work like the TV commercial promised.

You mentally kick yourself for not following the instructions more closely, and then you get back to work, deconstruct the product, and put it back together again with all the parts in the “right places,” and hope and maybe even pray that the product begins to work like it should.

That’s not a perfect analogy for what is going on with the Arkansas Razorbacks’ offense and in particular its offensive line this week in practice, but it is somewhere in the neighborhood.

Arkansas head coach Sam Pittman said in his press conference Monday that his offensive line coach Cody Kennedy would be experimenting with the offensive line to make sure each of the starters are working in the position that best suits them.

The smart aleck would say shouldn’t that have been accomplished in spring practice and preseason drills? Why is it happening five weeks into the season?

And yes, ideally, the puzzle should have been solved in spring, and the results polished in preseason practice, but there is not one thing ideal about this world we live in, and while Pittman and Kennedy are excellent offensive line coaches, there is no one-size fits all manual for building an offensive line. There are tried and true methods, but every group of lineman are different.

The physical nature of football does not allow practices to be conducted fully at game speed, and even if it were, it is still impossible to duplicate a game in practice.

I have no doubt Arkansas’ coaching staff had some publicly unspoken concerns about the offensive line going into this season. The hope was that through playing, improvement would be made and confidence built.

Sometimes what you hope for never materializes or at least not as quickly as you would like.

Arkansas players kneel as defensive lineman John Morgan III is worked on after he collapsed during the second half of an NCAA college football game against Texas A&M Saturday, Sept. 30, 2023, in Arlington, Texas. (AP Photo/LM Otero)

Until a team begins to play actual games, it is hard to know how young players will perform and even how veterans might perform in a new offense. And until things begin to go haywire in a ballgame like things did for the Razorbacks’ offensive line in their 34-22 loss to Texas A&M, it’s sometimes hard to know how deep the issues go.

There is no feeling in the world like giving up a sack or multiple hits on your quarterback, and when you are getting constantly whipped, small issues can grow to gigantic proportions within the course of a game. It can be devastating and deflating on a unit and individuals.

Against the Aggies, we saw smaller errors compound into bigger ones, and as the Aggies’ lead grew, A&M’s defense threw caution to the wind, pinned their ears back, and attacked.

The game got as ugly as it has been in Pittman’s tenure as head coach. Worse than at any point in his first season when the squad went 3-7 during the Covid season.

By the end of the game, the frustration and confusion among the entire offense grew to the point where Pittman decided it was time to shuffle things around in practice this week.

Reportedly sophomore Patrick Kutas moved from right tackle to center. Senior Brady Latham moved from left guard to right tackle. Senior Beaux Limmer moved from center to left guard. Josh Braun remained at right guard, and sophomore Devon Manuel and freshman Andrew Chamblee continued to rotate at the right tackle.

Now, the moves might or might not stick as the week moves on. Other experiments might also come into play. Kennedy and Pittman might decide the original lineup was actually what is best? We probably won’t know for sure what the Hogs are going to do until Saturday.

Offensive lines are a unique unit in sports. It’s five men attempting to work in unison to create space for others to operate in and through. Certainly tight ends, backs, and receivers play key blocking roles in plays, but blocking is all offensive linemen do.

While each lineman has individual assignments, each of those assignments lock together to create a whole. If one lineman is off too much, it can wreck a play. If more than one is struggling in a game, an otherwise effective unit can be neutralized. That’s what we saw against the Aggies on Saturday.

Now, there are other issues with Arkansas’ offense — in every position group. The Hogs’ tight ends, backs and receivers not only could have blocked better but also executed their other assignments better, too.

Quarterback K.J. Jefferson had little time to operate at quarterback, but as strong and tough as he is, he has to learn to throw the ball away when he needs to, rather than take a sack.

Granted there were times when the Aggies were on him too quickly to get rid of the ball, but Jefferson needs to allow the rules of the game to work in his favor instead of against him. It’s much more manageable for him and his struggling offensive line to face a third-and-eight than a third-and-18.

The Razorbacks’ unrelenting schedule continues at 6:30 p.m. Saturday against No. 16 Ole Miss (4-1, 1-1) on the SEC Network.

The Rebels won a 55-49 scoring extravaganza last Saturday with the LSU Tigers. Arkansas played LSU off its feet at Baton Rouge, La., two weeks ago in a 34-31 loss, so we could be in for another pinball type affair Saturday night as Jefferson makes his final return to his home state of Mississippi to play as a Razorback.

Two years ago, the Rebels topped the Hogs, 52-51, in a shootout for the ages. In fact for the last decade, the Ole Miss-Arkansas series has been one where just about anything could happen. Hopefully this Saturday in Oxford, the Razorbacks will shore up some of their issues on offense and be ready for another electric game.

Arkansas Razorbacks 2023 football schedule

Overall: 2-3   SEC: 0-2   Streak: L3

Sept. 2 – Arkansas 56, Western Carolina 13
Sept. 9 – Arkansas 28, Kent State 6
Sept. 16 – BYU 38, Arkansas 31
Sept. 23 – LSU 34, Arkansas 31
Sept. 30 – Texas A&M 34, Arkansas 22
Oct. 7 – at Ole Miss (6:30 p.m. SEC Network)
Oct. 14 – at Alabama (11 a.m. ESPN)
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)