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.


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. 

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