FAYETTEVILLE — On almost every pass play, the right tackle takes a big step back with his right leg, slides with the left and then quickly repeats the maneuver maybe a half-dozen times to stay in front of a defensive end.
For a 360-pounder with screws and a steel plate in his left ankle, the stress is enormous, and that’s why a man who is supposed to be one of the best tackles in the Southeastern Conference is playing right guard.
At Arkansas’s first practice on Monday, Aug. 8, Zac Tubbs lined up next to center Kyle Roper. When regulars at practice asked coach Houston Nutt about the move, he was matter-of-fact — mostly because of a 313-pound security blanket named Robert Felton.
As a redshirt freshman last year, Felton started the final five games and recorded 32 knockdown blocks in those games. It is impressive that he recorded 10 of those vs. LSU and nine against Georgia, both nationally ranked.
He was the left tackle for the Georgia game and the right tackle for the next four games. Before that, he was a guard.
Felton doesn’t much care. He says he’s probably more comfortable at tackle, a position he played at Cypress Creek High School in Houston. “If they ask me to play guard, I will play guard and not ask a question,” he said.
“You’d like to settle him down into a spot, which we’re attempting to do,” said offensive line coach Mike Markuson. “But if something happened and you just had to, the guy is pretty versatile.”
Such flexibility involves football sense and awareness. “You do have to think, but by the time the game rolls around, if you think, you’re already too slow,” Felton said.
The good thing about playing different positions, Felton said, “I might not know what I’m doing, but if I know what the other guy is doing, I can kinda figure out what I’m doing.”
The blocking rules are pretty much the same no matter the position, he said. “At tackle, you’re on that island all by yourself,” Felton said. “Basically, you have one guy or you may be helping on this guy or you may be going to the linebacker. At guard, you have those bigger guys on the inside and you’re in the mix of everything.”
A year ago, the offensive line could miss a block or two and a play might succeed anyway because of the improvisations of quarterback Matt Jones. This season, up-front folks are on the spot to be effective and make things easier for Jones’ successor, who appears to be third-year sophomore Robert Johnson.
“That’s very accurate,” Markuson said of the assessment of the line.
Felton said, “The offensive line kinda had to react to what he [Jones] was going to do. This will be more of a true quarterback situation.”
Felton says the offensive line is a work in progress and that the wordless communication between blockers takes a couple of years to develop.
At the Houston high school that produced NFL linemen Sam Adams, Dan Neil and Josh Williams, Felton was center for a season. That was enough for him to develop great respect for those guys who must snap the ball and block a defensive man only inches away. He would play that spot if asked, “but I’m not going to volunteer and raise my hand.”
Recruited by Arizona, Wisconsin and Kansas, Felton did his homework, looking for a school where he would have a chance to play early. Bo Lacy, Mark Bokermann, and Jerry Reith were going to be seniors in 2003 so he could spend that year as a redshirt, learning the offense and working in the weight room. When Shawn Andrews left after the ‘03 season, another spot opened up.
Fayetteville is an eight-hour drive from Houston, just far enough away, but not too far, he said. And, there was a special feeling about the Razorbacks.
“I’m from Texas. You’ve got the Cowboys, you’ve got the Texans, you’ve got the Spurs, you’ve got the Rockets, there’s so many different things going on,” he said. “Here, everybody is for one team and that’s just great. That kind of won me over right there.”