FAYETTEVILLE – Off last season’s Arkansas film most would presume that new Razorbacks Coach Sam Pittman would start center Ty Clary and guard Ricky Stromberg where they started last year.
In their walkthroughs leading into the now Aug. 17 official start of preseason practice, senior Clary of Fayetteville and sophomore Stromberg of Tulsa both work at center.
Pittman explained why on Thursday’s Zoom press conference. Coaching major college offensive lines including Arkansas’ from 2013-2015, then Georgia’s from 2016-2019 before his first head coaching assignment since 1992 and 1993 at Hutchinson (Kan.) Junior College, Pittman places a premium on center.
He coached two great ones at Arkansas, Travis Swanson and Frank Ragnow, into the NFL plus Springdale’s Mitch Smothers developed into an outstanding collegiate center.
“The hardest place to play on the O-line is center,” Pittman said. “So we’re trying to develop at least three centers. Therefore, we started looking at Ricky at center, and he’s played a lot of it in these walkthroughs for us. And Ty obviously has played center, as well.”
For the last two years under Arkansas’ since terminated Chad Morris regime, three-year letterman Clary has started at center for 23 of Arkansas’s last 24 games.
Stromberg played center at Tulsa’s Union High.
Clary started four Arkansas games at guard as a 2017 true freshman under former Razorbacks Coach Bret Bielema.
So there is considerable center/guard flexibility with the two.
“I’m sure if they both would stay at center, and they’d have a competitive battle there, and then you’d have to see if the one who didn’t win the center spot, is he in our top five to play for us,” Pittman said.
Though Stromberg was an underweight true freshman on a 2-10 team in 2019, he was the most celebrated of Arkansas’ offensive lineman.
Pro Football Focus named him All-Freshman third team.
Now listed 311 pounds, Stromberg, 6-4, is expected Stromberg to throw his weight around this fall whether a center or a guard. Stromberg and senior second-year junior left offensive tackle Myron Cunningham (his 6-7 frame now listed 325 compared to last year’s 285) are the poster examples of Pittman and strength coach Jamil Walker striving to beef up a scrawny 2019 O-line into more resembling the behemoths when Pittman’s 2014 and 2015 Arkansas O-lines outsizing even NFL O-lines.
“If you look at Ricky, I heard he was 260 (when Stromberg reported last summer) and he might be a little bigger than 300,” Pittman said. “And you look at Myron. The key is not only are they getting bigger, but can they move and not lose that quickness and gain more power. I’ve been really, really pleased. Jamil Walker, I think we have as good a strength coach as anybody in the country and our kids have done a good job.”
How soon before the Sept. 26 season opener does Pittman want an offensive line starting five and their backups established?
“Well, with your first five, you’d probably like to do that no later than two and a half weeks before your first game,” Pittman said. “The other guys, 6, 7, 8, they’ll always swing. Until you can get 10 good offensive linemen, you’ll have your third tackle and you’ll have your third guard and you’ll have your second center-guard combination. I’d like to settle in maybe two, two-and-a-half weeks before the first game with exactly what we’re going to do. Of course you know injuries disrupt all that.”
Arriving at the UA in January as a December high school graduate defensive end from Hazen, Blayne Toll, 6-5, 234 was supposed to learn tight end at the spring practices that never happened because of the mid-March all sports shutdown as the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic began its spread.
Now with February freshman signee defensive end Jaqualin McGehee not reporting to the UA, Toll starts the August preseason a defensive end again.
“We thought that he could help us watching him run a little bit and seeing what his size was,” Pittman said. “We thought he might rush the passer over there a little bit for us, so we moved him back over to where we originally recruited him.”
Photos courtesy of Craven Whitlow, CW3, Sports Action