FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas offensive coordinator Jim Chaney didn’t notice his two massive guards during the 45-33 loss to Texas A&M last Saturday.
Normally, losing sight of 6-foot-10, 317-pound Dan Skipper and 6-foot-5, 345-pound Denver Kirkland would be a big problem. Not along the offensive front, though, where going unnoticed in the trenches means no egregious errors.
“I thought those kids stepped in there and did a really, really good job,” Chaney said.
Arkansas rolled the dice in its Southeastern Conference opener last week, removing veterans Brey Cook and Mitch Smothers from the starting lineup and replacing them with the towering newcomers. Skipper and Kirkland held up well, considering they’d never played guard. Both are in line for their second straight starts when the Razorbacks (3-2, 0-2 in SEC) play at 18th-ranked Florida (3-1, 2-0) on Saturday.
It doesn’t mean their first experience was mistake-free. Chaney said they made errors, but they were expected. The bigger key: They showed plenty of promise for an offensive front that needed a spark after the Rutgers loss.
“I think they acted like they belonged, which is a good thing,” Chaney said. “They’re large bodies and we’re continuing to try to increase our stature in our offense. They did that and they did a nice job.”
Arkansas has been high on the freshmen since signing day, when the Razorbacks were confident they had two bookend tackles for the future.
Both gained some experience in reserve roles through four games, although Kirkland was pressed into more extensive action when right tackle Grady Ollison left the Southern Miss game with an injury in the first half.
But neither freshman got any work at guard in preseason camp, making last week’s move a surprise. Arkansas coach Bret Bielema, offensive line coach Sam Pittman said the staff agreed the line needed a shakeup. So they made the switch.
“They like to play the game,” Pittman said. “They play hard. And they’re big. … We just needed some guys to go in there and play hard.”
Arkansas’ coaching staff sat the freshmen down when the week began and told them of the change. Kirkland said he played guard for one quarter last season, but only because an ankle injury limited his mobility. The position was foreign to Skipper.
Of course, neither had a problem moving into the starting lineup.
“I’d never played guard until (last) Tuesday,” Skipper said. “So I played guard a week. I guess that’s just college football. Where they tell you to go, you go and say OK and do it to the best of your ability.”
Kirkland said playing inside wasn’t an overwhelming change.
“Offensive linemen are going to make contact every play, so it’s really not that different,” Kirkland said.
Kirkland graded out at 72 percent last Saturday, while Skipper earned an 80. Pittman wasn’t as concerned about the first-start grades, though, saying it was “amazing” to see the newcomers take care of their responsibilities like veterans.
Arkansas enjoyed its best offensive performance since the opener, topping the 200-yard mark in both rushing (201) and passing (282). The offensive line didn’t allow a sack, protecting Brandon Allen in his first game back from a shoulder injury.
Bielema was glad to see both guards play a big part in the success.
“Obviously we limited what they had to do and they’re both extremely large,” Bielema said. “They’re physical. They’re athletic and played with a lot of energy, which was half the battle.”
But Arkansas knows the next test will be much more challenging for the freshmen.
The Razorbacks will face a Florida defense on top of the Southeastern Conference in every major statistical category after the first month of the season. The Gators have limited opponents to 12.8 points a game, 202.5 total yards and 53.5 rushing yards.
So Pittman said his goal is to fill his guards with “a ton of confidence” this week.
“Obviously, if they go in there afraid at Florida they’re not going to play very well,” Pittman said. “ So you have to get them ready, show them how they can win some reps, show them how they can pass protect some guys. Much of this game is about believing. By the time they get there they’ll believe they can be successful.”
Skipper and Kirkland aren’t concerned. They admitted to some first-start jitters last week, but said it won’t be a problem as they settle into their new positions.
“We’ll play even better than we did last week,” Kirkland predicted.