FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas offensive lineman Luke Charpentier knew the Razorbacks weren’t settled with their starting five after spring practice.
It was no secret. Left guard and center were revolving doors throughout the 15 practices and coach Bret Bielema said after the spring game the competition would continue in preseason camp. So Charpentier — who wrapped up the spring manning the first-team spot at left guard — expected a battle this month.
But he wasn’t expecting Arkansas to announce that Cameron Jefferson — a three-year starter at left guard for UNLV — was transferring in for his final season.
“What goes through your head?” Charpentier said. “You really have to up your game. All the competition is on you. They’re bringing in guys to try to beat you out.”
The fight for starting spots along Arkansas’ offensive line figure to be the most intriguing competition in camp the next four weeks. While Charpentier and Smothers impressed enough at their positions to deserve first-team spots at the end of spring practice, the door has been left open for others to walk through this month.
Jefferson and freshman Frank Ragnow appear to be the two newcomers capable of forcing their way onto the field as the Razorbacks sort through their offensive line depth this week. But Charpentier and Smothers won’t simply let them waltz away with the positions. Neither has any intention of relenting after months of work.
“They’re really talented young guys and they’re going to give us a run for our money,” said Smothers, who is Arkansas’ first-team center. “But it’s going to be good competition and we’re going to work as hard as we can.”
It’s nothing new for Smothers. He has been on both sides of the competition.
The Springdale native started the first four games as a true freshman in 2011, but fell out of Arkansas’ plans. After redshirting in 2012, Smothers worked his way back into the starting lineup last preseason and started four straight at right guard.
Once again, Smothers was replaced. This time, freshman Dan Skipper moved in front of Smothers on the depth chart. He only appeared in one more game.
Bielema said it’s clear Smothers has no intention of losing a first-team spot again.
“Mitch has worked very hard. I know it’s very important to him,” Bielema said. “A local kid who obviously was highly recruited. And I love Mitch to death and I think he’s responded in a very, very positive way. He isn’t going to roll over. He’s going to want to own that position and looked very good (Monday).”
Meanwhile, Charpentier has worked and waited for his opportunity to start.
The fifth-year senior did experience it once. He was in the lineup at guard for Arkansas’ loss to Rutgers in 2012. But it’s the only start of his career.
Charpentier was Travis Swanson’s backup last season and opened the spring as Arkansas’ first-team center. He was overtaken by Smothers, but didn’t fall out of the starting unit after sliding over to left guard next to Skipper.
Now he’s trying to prove worthy of the starting spot at the position.
“It’s always a constant battle in the SEC,” Charpentier said. “Every week every position is open. If you’re not performing and you’re not holding your position, it’s their job to find somebody to beat you out. I feel like me and Mitch have really been doing our part, showing a lot of maturity on the line to hold our spots together.”
Arkansas offensive line coach Sam Pittman said there’s no doubt Jefferson and Ragnow will make it interesting. Pittman described Ragnow as a “bulldog” who is capable of starting at center as a freshman. He said Jefferson should be an “explosive player” in a couple of days after getting used to Arkansas’ teaching methods.
But Pittman also maintained his veterans deserve the first-team roles right now.
“We think at this point we have the right guys with the ones, and we think we have them in the right position,” Pittman said. “It took us a little bit to figure that out in the spring, but that’s what spring is for.
“Whether they keep their jobs, whether somebody beats them out, that’s not for me to decide. That’s for the kids to decide, and they’re all working really hard.”
Charpentier, who trimmed down from 325 pounds to 307 this offseason, feels much more capable of withstanding the competition from Jefferson. The Louisiana native said he’s stronger, quicker and much more comfortable in Arkansas’ system.
He’s cautious, but confident it will pay off as the competition continues this month.
“I’ve been here for five years,” Charpentier said. “I want a starting job.”