Former Arkansas offensive tackle Dan Skipper was voted preseason first-team All-SEC this past year at Media Days.
When December rolled around, all the print, radio and television personalities appeared to be right. Skipper indeed made first-team All-SEC. And that was with the coaches doing the actual voting, not the credentialed crowd.
Nevertheless, the selection was an odd one. At 6-foot-10 and 310 pounds, Skipper had a recognizable name in conference circles due to his mountain-like size. But the Razorbacks struggled in the trenches most of last season, as they were unable to open running lanes consistently and didn’t protect poor quarterback Austin Allen very well in the pocket.
According to Cole Cubelic, a former Auburn offensive lineman now working for SEC Network, the voting process is flawed.
“It goes back to the voting again,” Cubelic told me last week on the Saturday Down South podcast. “Dan Skipper was first-team All-SEC preseason last year, and I think another misconception with offensive linemen and offensive line play is size. People just get enamored with size and they think, ‘Oh, Dan Skipper is 6-10. He’s a great tackle.’ And it just wasn’t the case.
“He didn’t play great football last year. Nothing against him personally. He wasn’t a great SEC offensive tackle.”
Hogs coach Bret Bielema (below) has built a reputation as a bit of a throwback. He prides himself on having the biggest offensive line in the country and being able to maul opponents up front. That was his MO at Wisconsin before coming to Fayetteville.
However, Arkansas was only tied for 10th in the league a year ago with 164.2 yards rushing per game. The story was even worse from a yards-per-carry perspective, as its average of 4.1 was just 12th. Yes, Rawleigh Williams III was one of 11 players in the SEC to rush for 1,000 yards. But among those 11, he was ninth in yards per attempt.
Not to mention the fact that Allen kept getting chewed up and spit out Saturday after Saturday. He deserves some of the blame, though.
“It was not all on that offensive line last year,” Cubelic said. “There were times when in slide protection the quarterback needs to know, get the ball out. There’s a time in a three-step drop, you’ve got to get the ball out. Five can’t block seven, so you’ve got to know, get rid of the football.
“But there were a lot of breakdowns, there were a lot of missed stunts, missed games — easy, simple tasks that the offensive line should have been able to handle last year that they did not. So if that group doesn’t improve, I’ll be surprised if Austin Allen survives the season. You look at the Texas A&M game, the Alabama game, the LSU game, he cannot take hits like that on a regular basis again this year.”
Despite his all-conference accolades, Skipper wasn’t invited to the Senior Bowl last January and played in the less prestigious East-West Shrine Game. Come April, he wasn’t chosen in the NFL Draft.
Looking at the depth chart for fall camp, the Razorbacks seem to have a veteran group capable of coming together better than it ever did a season ago. All five projected starters have at least two years in the system, led by first-team All-SEC pick — take that with a grain of salt, of course — Frank Ragnow at center.
When asked about all the punishment Allen was subjected to last year, Ragnow let it be known that sins of the past can’t be repeated.
“It is not acceptable,” Ragnow (below) told reporters last week at Media Days. “That is one thing, this year, this season, this summer, that we have really tried to emphasis is (it is) not okay. You should be utterly embarrassed if you let your quarterback get hit or sacked or anything like that.”
To reiterate, some of the blame lies with the signal caller himself. A first-time starter, Allen exceeded expectations by leading the conference with 3,430 yards passing and was second with 25 touchdown passes. He got up after every hit he took, too.
That being said, there’s a reason why QBs are instructed to take what the defense is giving them. Far too often, Allen tried to create something out of nothing. Instead of checking down to a back or simply throwing the ball away, he was guilty of forcing it into coverage or waiting for a play to develop that never would.
For the first time in the Bielema era, the Hogs actually allowed more sacks on offense (35) that they recorded on defense (25).
“For me, I just have to take what they give me,” Allen told reporters at Media Days. “A few times last year, I felt like I had to make a play to get us back on track. I thought I had to get out of my comfort zone, and it didn’t always work out. Punting isn’t always the worst thing.
“This year, if I get 4 yards on a 3rd-and-6, I know that it is playing field position and flipping the field. Knowing the scenario of the game and the down and distance will really help me out by playing smarter and staying in the flow of the game better.”
More than likely, Allen’s new blind-side pass protector will be Colton Jackson. A redshirt sophomore measuring in at 6-5, 298, he got some experience in 2016 at right tackle and is now being asked to flip to the left. Being so much shorter than Skipper might actually be a good thing from a leverage perspective.
Even if media members didn’t pay Jackson much attention when filling out their All-SEC ballots, very few of them have ever put a hand in the dirt anyway.