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Arkansas' Kurt Anderson Must Complete Sam Pittman's Offensive Line Rebuild

The State of the Offensive Line in the Wake of Pittman's Departure

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Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

When offensive line coach Sam Pittman resigned in December to take the same position at Georgia, Razorback fans descended into panic at the prospect of losing one of Bret Bielema’s longest tenured assistants.  The Arkansas offense depends on a bruising running game facilitated by a stout offensive line, and that emphasis on O-line play has resulted in significant national attention and accolades over the past few years - most recently, Sebastian Tretola won the Jacobs Blocking Trophy and the entire unit was named finalists for the Joe Moore Award.  And as the most public face of the O-line, Pittman was much-beloved by the fanbase.

The attention that the Arkansas O-line received was based on equal parts on-field performance and marketing - the line’s position as heaviest in all of football was frequently a subject of commentary during television broadcasts and Arkansas famously let the big uglies grace the cover of the 2015 media guide.  This marketing campaign was carefully designed to supplement Pittman’s reputation as one of the Razorbacks’ best recruiters, a distinction that had carried over from his time at Tennessee and North Carolina.

The loss of an important position coach and notable recruiter was rightfully a cause for concern.  But, despite all the attention lavished on the offensive line, despite Pittman’s recruiting acumen, despite everything that’s been done to position Arkansas as the go-to destination for outstanding linemen, it’s a little more concerning to see how tenuous the offensive line group really looks going into 2016.

Consider the current depth chart. It’s a little surprising that a unit that could be considered one of the team’s strengths is actually one of the thinnest.  With Mitch Smothers and Sebastian Tretola graduating, and Denver Kirkland declaring early for the NFL draft, the 2016 line is in the unenviable position of having to replace 3 starters.  In general, this situation could be mitigated with an appropriate number of rising juniors and seniors remaining on the two- or three-deep.  Unfortunately, Arkansas doesn’t quite have that luxury.

Of the 18 offensive linemen on the 2015 roster (including walk-ons), 7 are probably gone (in addition to Smothers and Tretola, Austin Beck and Marcus Danenhauer have also exhausted their eligibility; Kirkland to the NFL; and Reeve Kohler and Cordale Boyd are reportedly moving on, as they both were recognized on Senior Day).  Of the remaining 11 linemen currently on the roster, only two will be upperclassmen next year - current starters Dan Skipper and Frank Ragnow.  That’s an awful lot of freshmen and sophomores to have to depend on to retool the line.

Admittedly, this problem didn’t happen overnight. Line depth has been an area of concern since before Pittman stepped on campus - that’s why his reputation as a recruiter was so important. However, Pittman’s reputation as an ace recruiter was never borne out in his actual recruiting output at Arkansas.  Make no mistake, Pittman was responsible for bringing some major talent to Arkansas: guys like Tretola, Skipper, Brian Wallace, and Jalen Merrick.  The problem is, Arkansas consistently never signed enough lineman during Pittman’s entire tenure to even cover normal attrition, much less build depth.

Four linemen were signed in 2013, but 2 of those never contributed.  Out of another 4 signed in 2014, Jovon Pruitt never made it to campus.  The 2015 class only included 3 linemen, even though the coaching staff openly admitted that they needed more (the staff thought Toby Weathersby would sign until shortly before Signing Day when he signed with LSU). And prior to his resignation, Pittman had secured only a single commitment for 2016 class.  You can repeat "best recruiter on the staff" as many times you want, but it’s very hard to argue that this situation isn’t a direct reflection of Pittman’s recruiting.

And while we’re piling on, might as well drop this little nugget: apparently, Pittman was also in charge of field goal protection.  I think we all know how that affected the win-loss record this year.

Under the best of circumstances, new offensive line coach Kurt Anderson would have had big shoes to fill in replacing Pittman.  However, given the current state of the offensive line, it’s even more important that he make a strong impression both on the recruiting trail and on player development.  With glowing endorsements from his former employer (and former Razorback TE Chris Gragg), it’s going to be exciting to see Anderson’s influence on a unit that Razorback fans have become accustomed to belonging to Pittman. I bet Bielema included a non-compete clause this time around, too (Editor's note: it does).