FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. — Arkansas quarterback Austin Allen was hit or sacked 125 times on drop-back passes in his first 17 games as a starter. That number led all FBS quarterbacks by a wide margin.
That doesn’t include last Saturday, when Allen was knocked out of a loss at South Carolina with a right shoulder injury sustained from yet another hit. Allen is day to day with the injury as the Razorbacks prepare to face No. 1 Alabama on the road this Saturday (6:15 CT, ESPN).
Some of the hits Allen has taken can be attributed to holding onto the ball too long. The coaching staff has been quick to point that out at times, seemingly deflecting blame from the offensive line.
The truth is the vast majority of those 125 hits or sacks are the fault of the offensive line. Before Austin was the starter, his brother Brandon was very seldom hit or sacked. Arkansas led the SEC in sacks allowed during each of Brandon’s three seasons (2013-2015) as the starter.
There’s also been a drastic dip in production running the ball over that same time. Arkansas is averaging 4.2 yards per carry over the past two seasons. The Hogs averaged more than 5 yards per carry during the first three seasons under Bielema.
The obvious difference between then and now is a new offensive line coach. Sam Pittman left for the same position at Georgia following the 2015 season. Kurt Anderson arrived from the Buffalo Bills and took over the unit. Things clearly haven’t been the same since.
But Bielema insists this is not a coaching problem. Instead, he’s looking at a lack of productive players as the reason for the downfall of Arkansas’ offensive front.
“I think, obviously, a coach is only going to be allowed to coach at a level of what his personnel is,” Bielema said. “It gets frustrating, but I think there’s some guys we recruited three or four years ago that just haven’t developed into what we want them to be.”
That lack of development has left Bielema wishing he’d signed more offensive linemen in previous recruiting classes. The number of offensive linemen on scholarship dropped from 14 in both the 2014 and 2015 seasons to 12 in 2016 and 13 this season.
“The only regret I had was probably three years ago, four years ago, if I would have signed two more guys in each class,” Bielema said. “Just because the numbers we had used didn’t give us the depth we need now, especially when some guys early departed.”
The drop in scholarship numbers on the line isn’t drastic enough to definitively say that’s the issue. Besides, adding more scholarships to the offensive line takes away from another spot. And it’s not like the Hogs have loads of depth at any position.
Regardless, Bielema wishes he had more options on the offensive line. It seems clear he doesn’t trust many of the ones he has now, no matter how talented they may be.
Brain Wallace, a former 4-star recruit, has been relegated to special-teams duty this season after starting 10 games a year ago. Bielema says the staff has spent more time coaching Wallace than any player in the program.
Jake Raulerson, a former 4-star who transferred from Texas in the summer of 2016, lost his starting job midway through last season and has hardly played since. Bielema insisted he’d be better with an offseason at Arkansas under his belt. That hasn’t been evident.
Jalen Merrick, another former 4-star recruit, hasn’t played a meaningful snap other than special teams in three seasons with the Hogs. And 4-star 2016 signee Jake Heinrich hasn’t played at all since arriving.
That’s four former 4-star prospects that Arkansas’ offensive line has received no contribution from this season. Zach Rogers, a junior, is another highly-recruited player who hasn’t started a game in his career.
“If they were the best opportunity for us to be in there, they would be in there,” Bielema said.
But why aren’t these players Arkansas’ best options? Bielema indicated it’s on the players. The statistics suggest it’s the change in offensive line coach.
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