FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas’ offensive line has been forced to make some adjustments for the AutoZone Liberty Bowl with center Ricky Stromberg opting out after declaring for the 2023 NFL Draft.
Dalton Wagner still maintains confidence in the unit. Beaux Limmer has shifted from guard to center. Ty’kieast Crawford has moved from backup tackle to starting right guard replacing Limmer. That leaves Brady Latham at left guard and then Wagner along with Luke Jones at the tackles.
Prior to the season, Wagner made a choice to return for his extra year granted by the NCAA due to COVID in 2020. Then, following the season, Wagner opted to play in the bowl game when many in his position around the nation have chosen to not participate.
“Yeah that was kind of a difficult decision,” Wagner said. “Because there’s a really good part of me that was like, ‘Playing in a pretty good East-West game, need to get ready for the draft, combine, all that stuff.’ Then there’s that other part of me which spoke a lot louder of, ‘Man, I’d really like to play one more. I’d really like to go out the right way. Finish my season up as a captain the right way, finish my season up as a teammate, as a friend and as just as a player to be able to go out there one last time wear the Hog uniform.’
“Because I felt like I would have regretted a lot more if I had opted out versus if I did not opt out. And that’s nothing against guys that did opt out. I wish them all the best and everything, but I just felt personally and I wouldn’t sleep better at night if I had opted out.”
Wagner came to Arkansas in the Class of 2017. He is now set to play his final game in a Razorback uniform. He talked about how fast this season has gone by.
“I don’t think I’ve ever felt as fast of a season as this one went by,” Wagner said. “This one was gone in a blink of an eye. You know, everyone preseason’s always telling you ‘Oh hey, this one’s gonna go by fast,’ and everything, and you’re like ‘Ah, whatever,’ and then it actually does go by fast. And all of a sudden, we’re sitting here — what is it? — 11 days from the bowl game and 11 days left as a Razorback. It definitely went by real fast.”
As far as facing Kansas, in many ways, things are reversed from last year’s Outback Bowl. Penn State had more opt outs than Arkansas and the Hogs were probably much more excited to play in that game than were the Nittany Lions. This year, Kansas has had fewer opt outs and are excited to be going to a bowl game for the first time in several years. Wagner talked about having to match the energy of the Jayhawks.
“Yeah, absolutely,” Wagner said. “You know, it’s kind of like you said. It’s a reverse of last year, but although I think that we’re not going to have an issue with the juice. With [Ben] Sowders coming in here, he’s brought a lot of energy. Along with the way we’ve been practicing, it’s been very energetic practices. It’s been very flying around, getting after each other.
“And it’s a unique opportunity with these opt outs for young and hungry guys to step up, step in, fill role and become an impact player to set their standard for the spring and set their standard for the fall to come. So, it’s going to be a lot of preview, a lot of young guys trying to gain confidence and do what they’re doing out there. But I don’t think energy is going to be an issue. I think it’s just going to be about our execution.”
Sam Pittman announced on Friday that Luke Jones wouldn’t return for an extra season. So this game will mark the end for both starting offensive tackles. Wagner talked about who has impressed him among the younger tackles on the team.
“I think the biggest one right now that’s standing out to me is Devon Manuel,” Wagner said. “He’s going out there. He ran with the ones today. Luke had to leave early to go to graduation. Devon stepped up with the ones and did an excellent job out there. I haven’t seen him move this well since he’s been here really. He’s confident, he’s placing his hands the right way. Some mistakes here and there, but that comes with the territory of playing on the O-Line.
“Second after that, I’d say (Andrew) Chamblee is really stepping up, too. Chamblee, I think, feels a lot more natural at left tackle than he does at right tackle. He’s doing such a good job for a young kid. He’s doing a really tremendous job of learning quickly, adapting quickly. As the spring goes on, he’s going to gain more and more confidence. I think that’s his biggest issue right now is that he’s got to be confident in what he’s doing. He does it so well, he’s just got to believe in himself, too. Obviously, Ty’Kieast, too. I think Ty’Kieast is going to fill that right tackle spot next year really, really well.”
Arkansas and Kansas will meet in the AutoZone Liberty Bowl on Wednesday, Dec. 28, with kickoff set for 4:30 p.m. on ESPN.