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A Closer Look at Arkansas’ Offensive Line

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What went wrong on the line and could a lineup change be coming?

NCAA Football: Arkansas at Texas A&M
Austin Allen didn’t have enough clean pockets on Saturday.
Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

In case you haven’t heard, Arkansas’ offensive line is having issues. Ever since Kurt Anderson replaced the departed Sam Pittman before the 2016 season, the line has struggled mightily.

After the Texas A&M game, the topic is back on the table. Arkansas’ running backs and receivers looked (mostly) excellent, and Austin Allen played pretty well considering the circumstances. Run blocking looks okay, but pass protection was (again) a nightmare. Allen was sacked six times. Two of them were his fault for holding onto the ball for too long, but four sacks and numerous other pressures were on the line.

After not changing the lineup through the first two games, the Hogs used three different combos against Texas A&M. Here’s how they did:

The offense didn’t do too well with the original starting 5, but that may not be the line’s fault. The original unit finished second in line-yards per carry and had the lowest sack rate. (GLOSSARY: Line-yards are the number of rushing yards gained when all rushes are capped at 6 yards. So a 6-yard run, a 9-yard run, and a 75-yard run are all counted as 6 yards. The theory is that the line is only responsible for the first six yards; after that, running back skill and downfield blocking by receivers are more important. So this stat helps track how many yards the line “creates”.)

I divided all running plays into two groups: left and right. The two jet sweeps by Jordan Jones aren’t counted here. So the “LY/Carry To” stat counts the line-yards per rush to the side that player is on. That’s why there’s nothing for Frank Ragnow, the center. Hjalte Froholdt played the entire game at left guard, and the Hogs averaged 3.9 line-yards per carry running left.

Interestingly, the best lineman for the run was Paul Ramirez, who played a little bit on both sides. The Hogs averaged 4.1 line-yards per carry when running to whatever side he was lined up on. However, you can see the downside: on one-fourth of Allen’s dropbacks with Ramirez in the game, Allen was hurried or sacked by the guy Ramirez was supposed to be blocking. Not good.

I counted pressures myself. That’s a disclaimer. The NCAA website doesn’t track official hurries so I guessed, and I was pretty conservative. Gibson and Froholdt probably could have had at least one hurry counted against them, and Ramirez may could have had another one. Still, I think my numbers are close.

Let’s walk through the game and see why the coaches decided to pull freshman right guard Ty Clary, who didn’t play after the opening drive of the second half.

Original lineup

The Hogs opened in their original lineup. Arkansas scored a touchdown on the opening drive and the line didn’t allow a pressure on any of Allen’s four dropbacks. The second drive didn’t go as well: the Hogs went three-and-out, and Allen was sacked by defensive tackle Zaycoven Henderson (via intentional grounding) on third down.

Here’s the look:

The Aggies targeted Clary with pressure game called “tex”: Henderson came outside and the defensive end actually crossed over him back inside when Clary tried to block Henderson. The Hogs actually had the play blocked, as David Williams picked up the end. But it appears Clary saw the end, panicked, and left Henderson before Gibson could pick him up.

Here’s what it looked like:

It didn’t matter, but notice that at the bottom your screen, left tackle Colton Jackson whiffs badly on a spin move by the end. Arkansas has 7 blockers against 4 rushers, and three Aggies get through. Yikes.

Ramirez enters the game

Arkansas came out for the third drive with Ramirez in at left tackle in place of Jackson. Based on Bret Bielema’s comments on Monday, this may have been planned, but it could also be because of Jackson’s miss shown above. With the second lineup, the Hogs march down the field for an easy touchdown. Running plays gain 5, 4, 13, 30, 8, 2, and 3... and the 2-yard came on a 3rd-and-2 and kept the drive moving.

Things went well on Drive 3, so the staff decides to stick with this line for another drive. Once gain, things break down.

On 2nd-and-8 on the 4th drive, the entire line gets blown up:

You can barely see the line of scrimmage. It’s to the very far right of your screen. Allen is a full 10 yards back and still has a guy in his face. The Aggies, as they often did, have not sent any rushers through the A-gaps (the gaps to either side of the center). Basically, they’re not giving Ragnow anyone to block, since trying to rush against him is essentially throwing away a rusher. Instead, the four rushers are targeting the other four linemen. Clary gets driven back by Daylon Mack so fast that Ragnow can’t help him, so he settles for helping Froholdt knock another guy out of the play. Both tackles — Ramirez and Gibson — are struggling, and Allen can’t step up because Mack has pushed Clary into his face. He ends up scrambling left before throwing the ball away.

On 3rd-and-8, Clary gets beat for the last time.

Arkansas has called for “slide protection”, where the line blocks to one side and a 6th blocker (Williams, in this case) picks up their backside. This is a slide right, with Williams taking a play-action fake and then blocking left. The Aggies are again targeting Clary, this time with a stunt. The defensive end will cut inside while the linebacker will blitz back through the gap to Clary’s right.

As you can see from the diagram, Clary isn’t supposed to pick up the end: that’s Ragnow’s responsibility. But he tries to anyway, leaving no one to block the blitzing linebacker. Clary realizes his mistake, but it’s too late.

Allen scrambles before being sacked. Clary was removed from the game for the next two drives and played just 10 snaps the rest of the way.

Ramirez replaces Clary

For the 5th drive, Arkansas takes over in plus territory after the pick by Henre’ Toliver. Jackson returns to left tackle, and Ramirez fills at right tackle, while Gibson slides over to right guard to replace Clary.

Once again, the new combo yields a touchdown on its first drive. A pair of Chase Hayden runs is all the Hogs need to get into the endzone to make it 21-7. After an awful call turns an Aggie touchdown into a field goal, the Hogs get it back up 21-10 with a chance to start to pull away. But once again, the drive stalls.

Allen completes a couple of throws to start Drive 6 and then gets a short run by Hayden. On 2nd-and-6 from the Arkansas 40, Allen holds onto the ball for too long and is sacked by Jarrett Johnson, who got around the block of Williams. This one isn’t the line’s fault: it was a three-step drop and Allen had nearly 4 seconds to throw it. He’s got to get the ball out.

On 3rd-and-12, the Hogs call a designed rollout to the right and Allen was sacked. I can’t tell what happened here, exactly. Linebacker Tyrell Dodson easily runs by Ramirez, who had rolled right in protection. If it is indeed Ramirez’s fault, it seems like a design flaw, since that’s a lot of field that you’re asking your right tackle (especially your backup!) to cover. I’m wondering if either Allen rolled too far to the right, or he was supposed to throw the pass sooner. Or perhaps another lineman was supposed to help. I’m not sure.

Here it is. Decide for yourself.

Original line returns

Having lost a critical opportunity, the Hogs get the ball back up 21-17 just before half. A big kickoff returns puts the ball at the Arkansas 39 with 1:47 on the clock and all three timeouts. The original lineup (including Clary) is back in the game. Ramirez is out, so maybe that last play was his fault.

The Hogs call a slow-developing swing pass to Jordan Jones coming left, but it doesn’t matter because Jackson is blown up and a defender is in Allen’s face immediately. The pass is probably thrown early and Jones is dropped for a loss. Bielema waves the white flag and the Hogs run the first-half clock out.

Drive 8 begins the second half with the original lineup still in. The Hogs march to midfield before a holding penalty makes it 1st-and-17. The Hogs dial up a play-action pass, but the entire line is blown up, pushing Allen too far back to even try to throw, so he scrambles and picks up 3 yards. The drive stalls.

Drive 9 finds the Hogs down 24-21 in the 3rd quarter, line problems having ruined any chance to pull away. The original lineup is still in. Two runs by Hayden bring up 3rd-and-2, and the Hogs bring in Cole Kelley and take Clary out, returning to the third combo from the chart above. Kelley gets the first down, but on the very next play, defensive end Landis Durham blows by Ramirez, who just entered the game, and sacks Allen.

Gibson holds on the next play, but the Aggies decline the penalty to force 3rd-and-11. That’s when a rusher gets inside of Jackson and immediately runs Allen out of the pocket. His frantic dump-off pass is dropped by Cheyenne O’Grady but it wouldn’t have have gotten the first down anyway.

At this point, the Hogs have been blanked for 4 straight drives, and the line has been directly responsible for 3 of those zeroes. Still, the Razorbacks would leave this third combo (Jackson-Froholdt-Ragnow-Gibson-Ramirez) in for the rest of the game.

The line settles down

By now, Allen’s body language is a concern. He’s clearly irate at his offensive line, which hasn’t given him a chance to do much. On Drive 10, which starts late in the third quarter, the Hogs finally start to turn things around.

After a 20-yard run by Jones, Devwah Whaley rips off a couple of nice runs. Kelley then misses on a wide open touchdown to Williams, but Allen doesn’t on the next play, finding him for a 26-yard gain. Williams then punches in the touchdown to give the Hogs a 28-27 lead.

On Drive 11, though, things go south again. The Hogs are trying to build the on the lead, but on 3rd-and-6, protection breaks down. On a slide protection call, Williams fills left while the line slides right. But Williams is beaten by linebacker Otaro Alaka, who sacks Allen before he can throw. On the other side, Ramirez is also beaten, and his man would have sacked Allen if Alaka hadn’t.

The Hogs start Drive 12 midway through the 4th, down 33-28. On the second play, a play-action bomb to Jones is ruined by Ramirez getting pushed back into Allen’s face, forcing an early throw.

That would be the last pressure allowed by the line. The Hogs ended that drive with a touchdown to Jonathan Nance, scored again later in the quarter, and then lost in overtime on an interception. Allen had a (basically) clean pocket through it all.

Conclusions

  • Colton Jackson struggles in isolation blocking, so the line calls try to protect him. Arkansas used a lot of “slide right”, which calls for a running back to step in to Jackson’s left and help him out. When left alone with an athletic end, Jackson is often beaten by spins and swims.
  • Paul Ramirez is a good run blocker, but a bad pass protector. Ramirez averaged a team-high 4.1 line-yards per rush to his side, but he allowed his man to pressure Allen on 26.8% of dropbacks while he was in the game. He made the right reads, but was beaten by speed off the edge every time. If he could improve his quickness, he could be a starter.
  • Ty Clary is still learning the game. Clary only got out-athleted once — when Mack drove him 8 yards deep — but he allowed two sacks by simply making the wrong read. Texas A&M targeted him with stunts and crosses and the Hogs had to take him out because of it. Once he learns to diagnose the defense, he’ll be a solid starter.
  • Kurt Anderson may not last past this year. It’s getting harder to imagine Bielema keeping him, unless he’s trusting him to recruit/develop “his” kind of guy. The current line is about as bad as imaginable. It looks like Arkansas is starting to fix its receiver problem (even with Cornelius’ injury), and the running backs, tight ends, and quarterbacks are all decent or better. The line kept Arkansas from hanging 60 on the Aggies, there really doesn’t appear to be a solution in sight this year, and Frank Ragnow is a senior. Ugh.

If Arkansas can’t fix the line by next year, perhaps Bielema needs to consider making changes to the offense. I think Dan Enos is a fantastic offensive coordinator who simply doesn’t have the pieces he needs to get to the level. Despite major line problems, Arkansas still scored 43 points averaged more than 6 yards per play against an SEC team. But that obviously won’t happen against better teams. With Cole Kelley taking over, I wonder if making Arkansas’ offense look a little more like Kansas State’s would help. Everyone keeps comparing Cole Kelley to Ryan Mallett, but I’m not so sure Collin Klein isn’t a better comparison. Klein, a converted 2-star receiver, threw for 4,500 yards and rushed for 2,400 at Kansas State and was a Heisman finalist. Kansas State’s offensive lines are never very talented (see: 2012 Cotton Bowl), but Bill Snyder’s offense works because it’s quarterback-centric instead of line-centric. There’s no shortage of former Snyder assistants on staff (Bielema himself and receivers coach Michael Smith) who could help make some changes.

Basically, Arkansas can’t keep running a line-dependent offense with this quality of line. The Hogs need to get better or change the scheme, especially with a new quarterback coming in. For this season, getting better is the only choice.