One of Sam Pittman’s Rivals for ‘Best Recent Hogs OL Coach’ Returns to the SEC

Mike Markuson, Chris Klenakis, Sam Pittman, Arkansas football
photo credit: Twitter/Mike Markuson / Twitter/Chris Klenakis / Arkansas Athletics

Before things fell apart in 2023, Cody Kennedy in his first two seasons in Fayetteville was on track to join a list of the best offensive line coaches in recent Arkansas football history.

Any hopes of joining that particular Mt. Rushmore came crumbling down when his line proved to be the worst position unit on the team this past fall. That leaves the same three names on top of the list. After a few years wandering in the wilderness, one of them just landed back in the SEC.

Chris Klenakis, who served as Arkansas’ offensive line coach under Bobby Petrino from 2010-12, this week took the same position on head coach Clark Lea’s staff at Vanderbilt. At Arkansas, Klenakis helped oversee some of the most prolific offenses in school history. 

In both 2010 and 2011, the Hogs finished the season ranked in the top 20 nationally in scoring offense. Klenakis’ unit did an excellent job keeping clean pockets for star quarterbacks Ryan Mallett and Tyler Wilson, as Arkansas finished 4th and 13th nationally in passing offense in 2010 and 2011, respectively – averaging over 300 yards per game through the air in both seasons. Under Klenakis’ tutelage, standout offensive linemen DeMarcus Love, Travis Swanson and Alvin Bailey each earned All-SEC honors.

After the circus of Petrino’s April Fools’ Day press conference and subsequent firing, Klenakis was retained by interim head coach John L. Smith for the upcoming season. The offense regressed in 2012 as the team sputtered to a 4-8 record, but much of the blame for that lies with the overall state of the program, not with Klenakis. Looking back on that chaotic eight-month stretch, all Razorback fans can do is…

After leaving Arkansas for a one-year stint at Iowa State, Klenakis followed Petrino to Louisville and spent five years there as the offensive line coach. The Cardinals produced some high-octane offenses during that stretch, including dual-threat superstar Lamar Jackson’s Heisman-Trophy-winning campaign in 2016. Given his extensive history with Petrino, it’s likely that Arkansas’ new offensive coordinator was one of Klenakis’ references for his most recent stop in Nashville.

The Reno, Nev., native’s recent years in coaching have been a winding path through unemployment and the Group of Five ranks following a 2018 arrest for DUI, reckless driving, and wanton endangerment. From 2021-23, he spent one-year assistant stints at South Alabama, Liberty under Hugh Freeze and Kennesaw State before landing back in the SEC.

Klenakis’ college coaching journey began at his alma mater and hometown school of Nevada as an assistant coach from 1990-1999 and again from 2004-2009. His revolutionary pistol offense, led by star quarterback Colin Kaepernick, set numerous school records. He became the first Division I coordinator with offenses that led the nation in passing (1997) and rushing (2009).

Comparing Arkansas’ Most Successful OL Coaches

The Razorbacks’ success under Klenakis puts him in elite company as one of Arkansas’ best offensive line coaches in its SEC era. His main competition comes from Sam Pittman’s stint in Fayetteville as an assistant and Mike Markuson’s time serving under Houston Nutt. Here’s how the three assistants stack up against each other, using a comparison of their respective players’ accolades during their time in Fayetteville.

Markuson spent 18 consecutive seasons working under Houston Nutt at Murray State, Boise State, Arkansas and Ole Miss. His 10-year stint with the Hogs saw him produce All-Americans such as the legendary walk-on Brandon Burlsworth and future Pro Bowl tackle Shawn Andrews.

The most impressive coaching performances of Markuson’s tenure came in 2006 and 2007, when his unit paved the way for iconic running back Darren McFadden to rush for 3,477 yards across two seasons. McFadden was a Heisman finalist in both seasons, infamously finishing as a two-time runner-up for the coveted award.

In both 2006 and 2007, four out of five Razorback starters on the offensive line made the All-SEC teams. Spearheaded by the talented trio of McFadden, Felix Jones and Peyton Hillis – and with veteran center Jonathan Luigs opening up holes for them – Arkansas finished fourth in the nation in rushing offense in both seasons.

Interestingly, after Markuson left Ole Miss for Wisconsin following the 2011 season, he ended up working for eventual Arkansas head coach Bret Bielema during his final season in Madison. His tenure with the Badgers was shockingly short, lasting just two games before Bielema fired him.

When Bielema came down to Fayetteville, he brought in one of the most experienced offensive line coaches in the business in Sam Pittman. The goal was to bring smash mouth, Big Ten football to the SEC, and the result was the largest offensive line in the country – bigger than any college or NFL team with an average weight of 328 pounds. These hog mollies allowed the 2015 Razorbacks to produce one of the most efficient offenses in school history under – brace yourself – offensive coordinator Dan Enos. 

During this time, the Hogs went all-in on making the trenches their identity – even going as far as to put Pittman’s five starters on the cover of that season’s media guide. This era of Razorback football featured future Pro Hogs such as eventual All-Pro center Travis Swanson, 6-foot-10 tackle Dan Skipper and noted trick play specialist Sebastian Tretola.

Below is a chart comparing the number of All-SEC, All-American, and NFL linemen that each assistant coach produced during their time in Fayetteville.

CoachAll-SEC SelectionsAll-SEC (per season)All-American SelectionAll-Americans (per season)Pro Hogs ProducedPro Hogs (per season)
Markuson171.780.880.8
Klenakis310020.5
Pittman3120.6631.0

Notes and Takeaways

  • For the sake of this chart, Pro Hogs that went undrafted but have had lengthy NFL careers – such as Alvin Bailey and Dan Skipper – were included.
  • Swanson, who was developed under Klenakis, went on to garner accolades and be drafted under Pittman’s watch.
  • On the other side of the coin, Pittman deserves some credit for the development of future All-Pro center Frank Ragnow, who was not included on this list as he was drafted while Pittman was at Georgia.

While Markuson clearly takes the cake for college accolades, the current Head Hog is still king when it comes to putting his big boys in the NFL. Klenakis’ lines were elite and paved the way for some elite offenses, but most of the honors for the team’s success during the Petrino era went to Mallett, Wilson and star receivers like Jarius Wright, Joe Adams and Cobi Hamilton.

It Can’t Get Any Worse, Can It?

In the latest edition of the “this town ain’t big enough for the two of us” trope, Chris Klenakis’ return to the SEC could spell trouble for Sam Pittman and the Razorbacks with an interesting recruiting twist.

Following the recent release of four-star wide receiver Ashton Bethel-Roman from his letter of intent, Arkansas is currently 39th in Rivals’ 2024 national recruiting rankings and 15th in the SEC. Vanderbilt is just one spot behind at 40th nationally and last in the conference.

With National Signing Day in the rearview mirror, most of the 2024 class is signed, sealed and delivered. However, if the Commodores nabbed a late signee, they’d have a chance to jump Arkansas in the rankings and leave it dead last in the first year of the 16-team SEC. If that commitment happens to be a lineman brought in by Klenakis, then it would be a former Razorback assistant at the hands of Pittman’s most embarrassing metric since taking over as head coach in Fayetteville. 

The irony of that would only add to fans’ frustrations at a string of disappointing recruiting results in the months following athletic director Hunter Yurachek’s proclamation that the team was “extremely excited” to have Pittman back for the 2024 season. With the addition of Texas and Oklahoma to the SEC, Arkansas occupying the rock-bottom spot in recruiting would be a damning indictment on the current state of the program.

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Markuson, it turns out, would later coach under Deion Sanders:

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