Exclusive Q&A: All-SEC Travis Swanson, Coaches Bret Bielema & Sam Pittman

Future first rounder? (Courtesy: Arkansas Democrat-Gazette)
Future first rounder? (Courtesy: Arkansas Democrat-Gazette)

I wrote a feature article for SYNC this week about Arkansas center Travis Swanson, who has developed into one of the SEC’s best offensive linemen and is the centerpiece (in nearly every metaphorical or literal way imaginable) of Bret Bielema’s offense.

I wasn’t able to fit a few interesting tidbits into the story, so I throw them out now:

How Swanson Can Improve

By the way Bielema raves about Swanson, you’d think the guy was already the nation’s best college center of the last few years. “I’d be very, very surprised” if he doesn’t lead the SEC in pancake blocks this season, Bielema told me, despite the fact Swanson’s career highlights so far don’t exactly scream “Shawn Andrews 2.0”

Yes, T-Swan is good. Very good, in fact. But he’s not yet a Rimington Award winner and he hasn’t yet made a first team All-American.

The fifth-year senior can still stand to improve some.

How?

His offensive line coach, Sam Pittman, said Swanson has already learned to play with with explosiveness and “pop” since winter (it helps he’s put on 10 pounds of muscle while shedding body fat).

“Now it’s more about shoulder leverage, hand placement – on a tight nose – things of that nature that we’re working on,” Pittman said.

The leverage issue is something other NFL Draft analysts have also mentioned.  “When he tries to generate push he tends to lean too much and it made him easy to shed for guys like Kirby Ennis of A&M and Isaac Gross of Ole Miss,” writes Tom Melton. “There were times that Swanson really seemed to struggle with speed and quickness in the run game, and that was particularly evident against Ole Miss when Isaac Gross regularly beat him despite being listed as a 6’1”, 255 pound true freshman defensive tackle.”

Rob Rang of NFLDraftScout.com adds: “He understands blocking angles and generally seals off opponents from the action effectively in the running game but can be beaten inside by quickness and too often drops his head on contact when blocking on the move, leading to experienced defenders occasionally swimming over the top to break free.”

Swanson wasn’t particularly explosive in the run game last year. If he drastically improves there – which Bielema obviously believes it will – there’s no reason to think he couldn’t break into the second or even lower first round.

NFL analyst Chris Mortensen spoke to two NFL scouts he knows and told me that at this point Swanson projects as a second or third round guy. Bielema told me: “That ranking doesn’t even come close, in my opinion, to what his actual ability his, They [scouts] haven’t seen what we’re gonna do with him yet,” he said. “We’re gonna do some center pulls. We gonna do some stuff where people are gonna say ‘Wow. This guy has really got something.’”

Good days are comin' again, many believe. (Courtesy: Arkansas Democrat-Gazette)
Good days are coming again, Hog players believe. (Courtesy: Arkansas Democrat-Gazette)

Sorry, Mike Anderson

Bielema said one reason Swanson projects as first team All-SEC this season is that he has outstanding footwork. “His feet never leave the framework of his body. Travis is probably 6-5, but he plays like a guy who’s 5-10.  His feet stay under his body. As people get longer, they tend to play with longer strides so it’s the players who grow taller and yet don’t over stride that become successful.”

“[Former Wisconsin player] J.J. Watt, defensive end, he’s a 2nd year player and the best defensive player in the NFL, he’s 6-6 but his feet never play out of his box,” Bielema said. “That allows you to play under control,”

I mentioned to Bielema that the opposite situation plays out in basketball, where it’s typically better for players to “get wide” and use a long reach.

This literally got Bielema out of his seat and – with somewhat surprising alacrity – into a defensive basketball position.

“Basketball coaches are the worst freaking thing to ever happen to football coaches,” he said as he got into a crouch, arms spread wide. “Because their breakdown means this. How many football players you ever seen like that? If your ass is behind your heels, you’ll never play football. But in basketball, your ass is to be behind your heels all the time. That’s the breakdown position.”

“But in basketball you can’t run anybody over. In football, you have to be able to withstand pressure and fight.”

I Want To Pancake Block the Petrinos 

If you’re like me, you dig stats. Not just the normal boilerplate stuff, but the more advanced stuff.  More = good.

Not so under the Bobby and Paul Petrino regime. The former Arkansas Razorback coaches didn’t disclose stats for offensive linemen. If like me you want to know how Swanson’s pancake blocks and grading percentage improved from year to year, tough luck – the Petrino-era coaches didn’t pass these numbers on to the rest of us.

I’ve been told the new staff will keep better track of these numbers and will share some of them with the public. They should. Especially since a few of them have built reputations as developers of future star NFL linemen.

Swanson As Sensei

Travis arrived on the Fayetteville campus in 2009, the same year that Arkansas’ last great center – Jonathan Luigs – left. Swanson said he didn’t have the benefit of an experienced center to show him the ropes during his redshirt freshman and freshman years.

He credits other offensive lineman – DeMarcus Love and Ray Dominguez -as well as Ryan Mallett with showing him to be vocal and assertive as a leader. Nowadays, he’s eager to pass on his knowledge and serve as a mentor to younger O-linemen on this year’s team:  “I’m gonna try to help the younger guys understand because when I was younger I didn’t really have that.”

Swanson got thrown to the wolves early. He made his first SEC start on the road against a strong Georgia team and as a freshman eventually secured the starting job of a team that made the Sugar Bowl.

The interior defensive linemen Swanson deals with are some of the best in the nation. I asked him who have been the toughest to block  in his career and most of them come from early in his career: Auburn’s Nick Fairley, Ohio State’s Cameron Heyward, Mississippi State’s Pernell McPhee, LSU’s Marcell Dareus and Drake Nevis.

Family Style

Since moving to Fayetteville from his Houston-area  home, Swanson has gone full circle with his housemates.

In 2009, he room with Bryan Boehner.

Last year, Swanson lived  with teammates Brey Cook and Luke Charpentier in a big house. This year, just like in Texas, he’s living with his younger brother – a UA freshman.

swanson and holder

For more about Swanson’s life, including his biggest off-field news of the year, check out this SYNC article. 

Update on Tyson Gay Suspension From Sports Illustrated Writer David Epstein

David Epstein is the author of the recent released “The Sports Gene,” the best book on the market dealing with exercise genetics and the question of why some races seem to be more successful at certain sports than others. It delves into why, for instance, people with West African heritage dominate at the world’s highest sprinting events.

On the surface, yes, this sounds like potentially inflammatory stuff. But, if you’re given to that sort of reaction, then you’re probably the type of person willing to look past surface appearances anyway.

Please look – literally – past the cover of “The Sports Gene.” You’ll be rewarded. I promise: your mind will be opened.

I discussed the book on Sporting Life Arkansas, and had the chance to interview Epstein by phone. He was gracious enough to give me some updates on former Razorback Tyson Gay, who withdrew from last week’s world championships after testing positive for a banned substance. As Epstein wrote on July 16 for si.com, “Gay has been treated by Atlanta chiropractor and anti-aging specialist Clayton Gibson. In the sports world, the term “anti-aging” has often come to signify therapy that uses hormones — usually testosterone and HGH — and testosterone precursors, like DHEA. DHEA can be obtained over the counter and is permitted in certain sports, including baseball, but not those contested in the Olympics.”

Gibson told Epstein he’d been referred to Gay by  former U.S. sprinter Jon Drummond, who  coached Gay on the 4X100 Olympic relay team in London 2012.  Drummond has also trained various NFL players and it was through these contacts that Drummond first heard about Dr. Gibson, Epstein told me. A few Baltimore Ravens had used Gibson for anti-aging treatments – including former Raven Ed Reed, who enjoyed acupuncture, chiropractic work and foot detoxes with Gibson.

One Raven was friends with a track athlete coached by Drummond. Word of Gibson’s work spread and eventually reached Gay this way, Epstein said.

Here’s more from our Aug. 11 conversation:

Q: When did Gay start using Gibson?

A: He started using the doctor prior to the Olympic trials last year.

Q: What’s the latest you have heard regarding Gay and how he’s handling the suspension he will soon receive?

A: He’s cooperating, from what I’m told. He’s going to accept the suspension and is cooperating.

Q: A suspension in this situation is normally two years. How long do you think Gay’s is going to be?

A: Anti doping now works like criminal law enforcement. I think it’s gonna be a year minimum. But it could be less than that if he gives amazing information that leads to sanctions for other athletes….

I think his only recourse for getting his suspension reduced is information that will lead to sanctions against other doctors, trainer or athletes.”

Q: How fast do you think Gay will be when he returns to competition?

A: I think it will be very difficult to be as fast as he was this year. So we expect him to be past his prime. But you look at Justin Gatlin – he came back from a suspension and ran better than anybody expected.

Who’s the Best Fullback in Arkansas Razorback History?

Courtesy: Arkansas Democrat-Gazette
Mark Pierce in better days. Courtesy: Arkansas Democrat-Gazette
muscles campbell
Watch out, railroad spikes. This guy comin’ through.

Traditionally, one of the strongest  positions for the Arkansas Razorbacks has been at fullback.  That changed with the advent of Bobby Petrino’s spread passing offense, which de-emphasized the  fullback’s role, but we see its reemergence in the Bret Bielema era.

Today’s torchbearer is  senior Kiero Small, a 5’10”, 238-pound bowling ball of a bruiser whose health this season will play a crucial role in whether Arkansas can effectively move the ball against the likes of Alabama and LSU.

Who, though, is the best fullback in program history?

I deal with one such candidate in a recent  Sporting Life Arkansas article about Mark Pierce. Pierce had all the tangibles you’d want in a fullback and at 6 feet tall and 248 pounds (with a 4.5 40 yard dash), he certainly knew how to use them.  Heading into his junior season, he was considered the nation’s best fullback by the Sporting News. Unfortunately, Pierce didn’t develop the intangibles, though, and the results were absolutely tragic.

Here are other top candidates:

1. Leon “Muscles” Campbell (6’0″, 199 pounds)

Campbell was a four-year letterman at Arkansas, rushing for 1,335 yards on 295 carries from 1946-49. The fullback-linebacker held the one-game rushing record of 236 yards until 1973.

He may have the coolest nickname origin story in Arkansas history.  It’s found in his obituary: Campbell’s teammate Clyde Scott said when Campbell arrived at Arkansas, he walked into Scott’s room with a railroad spike and a towel. He wrapped the towel around the spike and pulled, bending the iron rod.  (Man did kids sure figure out ways to entertain themselves before Playstation 3!)

Soon thereafter, Campbell became known as “Muscles.”

Campbell played for Baltimore, Chicago and Pittsburgh in a six-year NFL career. He scored his only professional touchdown on a 1952 kickoff return.  His best year as a pro was in 1953, when he had 659 yards rushing, receiving and on kick returns.  He worked for Reynolds Metals Co. in Bauxite for 30 years.

Campbell died at age 75 of malignant mesothelioma on September 2, 2002.

2. Henry Moore

Moore was consensus all-SWC in 1954 and 1955 and led the Hogs in rushing during their 1954 SWC championship season.  He was selected as the 19th overall pick in the 1956 NFL Draft and played two seasons  as a pro. He won an NFL title his rookie season with the New York Giants.

3. Preston Carpenter (6-2, 190 pounds)

A highly versatile player, who wore “blocking back” as only one of his varied hats. Also a devastating linebacker for Hogs in 1953 and 1954 who was all-SWC as halfback in 1955. Led Cleveland Browns in rushing in 1956 and receiving in 1958, and was a Pro Bowl selection as tight end for Pittsburgh in 1962.

Funny story, as told to me by amateur Razorbacks historian Jim Rasco: Carpenter and his brother, Lew, both played for the Browns in the mid 1950s. Cleveland acquired some rookie running back named Jim Brown before the 1957 season, and at the start of that season, Brown sat down with the Carpenter brothers and made sure to let them know that he deserved the ball and that he expected them to block well for him.

They obliged; the rest is history.

Continue reading Who’s the Best Fullback in Arkansas Razorback History?

Countdown to Hogwhackery: Episode 1

I wish Arkansas had its own Clay Travis.

Seriously, this state needs its own version of the fevered Nashville-based sports blogger who has made “Outkick the Coverage” one of the two best humor SEC football blogs (along with “Everyday Should Be Saturday”) around.

Nobody in this state’s sports media really, truly says it like it is.  Or, rather, says it like it is with the same kind of punch Clay packs. Consider the following passage:

By the way, I’m a Tennessee fan and I consider myself to be reasonably intelligent. But if you’re a fan of an SEC school and at some point you haven’t looked around your stadium and thought, “Holy s–, there are a lot of really dumb mother—— here,” you are completely lying to yourself.

Sing it, brother.

Sing it to the high heavens.

Clay is massively entertaining in this way – the way where things  get more funny the more uncomfortably true they are. Which is why I am in a whole mess of discomfort as I watch him unveil a new Top 10 list on his blog. It’s called “The Ten Dumbest Fan Bases in America.”

Clay gets things rolling by pointing the cannon at his own state’s most popular program – the University of Tennessee. He finger paints a Chik-Fil-A BBQ sauce-stained picture of tennessee fansthe prototypical idiot UT fan – “He’s now 47 years old, still rocking his goatee and 1998 back-to-back SEC championship t-shirt.  He has been wearing “husky” jeans since 1974 and he lives in a holler in a doublewide that he inherited from his mom when she died of a rattlesnake bite in 1996.”

C-Trav keeps on keeping on with his No. 9 most dumb fan base in America – the Dallas Cowboys. Here, he describes the typical Cowboys fan as bipolar, childless and likely eking out a living in a garage somewhere in Virginia: “He has one nephew, a Redskins fan, and every Thanksgiving he says, ‘When I die you get all my Cowboy gear.’ He will laugh as if this is a joke, but he’s actually written this into his will. His entire estate is presently valued at $9,500 and that includes an optimistically valued Tom Landry autographed football which he believes is worth $11,000. ”

This is hilarious, but Arkansans will notice these fanbases he’s ticking off are hitting awfully close to home. And Clay and the Arkansas fanbase have been known to throw a barb or two (hundred) in each other’s directions.

I get the sinking feeling that if he’s willing to unload on Tennessee as bad as he has, he may have something extra special up his sleeve for Arkansas. My unease is not allayed by his criteria for what, exactly, makes a fanbase crazy.

He says one reason he didn’t rank Tennessee higher than No. 10 was because the state had recent pro teams diverting the monomania of his sports fans.

On the other hand …

Craziness thrives in provincial states that see little migration. The less cross-pollination, the dumber fan bases can become. If people are constantly moving into your state from other places then you end up with hundreds of different fan bases and that kills your potency. Migration stops the crazy from percolating, the particular witches brew of insanity doesn’t fester and explode into the popular consciousness. So Tennessee fans are dumb, but they’re becomingly increasingly less so. Primarily because they’re so easily distracted by other teams.

 

I swear I can see it.

Off in the distance, a giant red pinata being raised to the rafters. In the shape of a pig no less…

Cammack Villlage: The Accompong Town of Arkansas

Usain Bolt grew up near Accompong Town and Cockpit Country.
Usain Bolt grew up near Cockpit Country.

I grew up outside of Cammack Village, an anomalous little enclave of a community that is both part of Little Rock and separate from it. My first memories of playing sports come from the fields and courts of its Jefferson Elementary, which I attended for seven years. I dearly recall playing games of “soccer” during my fifth-grade recess that more resembled two teams of 20 kids each swarming around a red kickball at unsafe velocities than actual sport. I spent whole summers playing water baseball at Cammack Village’s pool and basketball at its park.

The place is unique. It has its own elected mayor and aldermen, along with a city attorney, recorder, and treasurer. Yet it relies on Little Rock for its water, waste collection, and power services. Still, it maintains a police force of eight officers, as well as a fire department with one fire engine.

Decades ago, it was known as a “sundown town” – a community where African-Americans were forbidden to live. The town has roots in the 1940s  as a federal housing project and at that time all federal housing was segregated. For much of the following decades, no blacks moved into its city limits.

I didn’t think know this growing up. Cammack was all-white, yes, but that was no different from most of the surrounding Heights or Pine Valley neighborhoods. I attended Jefferson with plenty of black classmates, and played basketball with a few blacks at Cammack Park. Residents of the community might have been all white but integration had long become part of their world.

Still, the “sundown town” aspect of the community’s history surprises me.  A totally new side to a place I thought I knew well.

I got a similar feeling today when reading about Jamaica. I don’t know much about Jamaica, but after Bob Marley, jerk chicken and weed, I start thinking about sports when playing word association with the island: sprinting, Patrick Ewing, bobsledding.  I found out, though, the island nation also has an independent entity – a sovereign nation of about 500 people (only a couple hundred less people than Cammack Village) in its northwest.

The nation, Accompong Town, is near the same region as the homes of track superstars Usain Bolt and Veronica Campbell-Brown. In the early 1700s, this remote, mountainous area 3189763599_52a9e6846a_owas home to a small band of ferocious fugitive warriors who became a major thorn in Great Britain’s side. Many in the track world believe the fact Bolt grew up near the descendants of these famed warriors is no coincidence.

Their story in Jamaica starts in the 16th century, when slaves from some of the most physically powerful tribes in West Africa escaped their Spanish masters and fled into the extremely rugged mountains of west Jamaica’s Cockpit Country – an area known for star-shaped valleys called cockpits walled in by sheer cliffs.

The rulers changed – Great Britain took over from Spain – but not the resolute determination of these fugitives who hailed from tribes like the Coromantee of Ghana which were expert in warfare. They knew the foreboding terrain well, and develop  intricate spying networks and ambush techniques to take advantage of that familiarity. The ex slaves consistently defeated British troops who often dove into the jungle in search of runaways.

The British soldiers were beaten so badly that this area became a kind of sundown town for whites. Even today, “British dread is still embedded in the local names of Cockpit Country districts: Don’t Come Back and Land of Look Behind,” David Epstein wrote in his book “The Sports Gene.”

A particularly gruesome massacre took place in 1738 outside of a limestone cave now called Peace Cave. It resulted in a single British survivor, sent back to his superiors with an ear cut off. Soon afterward, the British signed a treaty with the runaway fighters. Today, their descendants do not hesitate to claim Olympic gold medalists Usain Bolt and Veronica Campbell-Brown as members of their lineage.

Whether there is a direct genetic link between the best of today’s Jamaican sprinters and the isolated, warrior genetic stock of these powerful mountain people is a matter of much debate. Really smart people are on both sides of it.

I won’t bludgeon a complicated topic like this when Epstein has done a magisterial job of breaking it down in the “The Sports Gene,” which comes out this month. Do yourself a favor and buy it.

You’ll no doubt be surprised by the many links he draws between the world of genetics research, academics, sports and political history.

Some will even hit home.