Tuesday, July 11, 2006

OPINION >> Razorback lineman preparing for finale

Special to the Leader

IN SHORT: After injuries delayed his time in the spotlight, Arkansas tackle Zach Tubbs is ready to lead the Hogs’ O-line.

FAYETTEVILLE — Football isn’t a marathon. Football isn’t a sprint.

It’s both. And when you are 6-6, over 330 pounds and coming off two years of a broken ankle and blood clots, you might not feel too good about your chances for either. Especially with the sprint-endurance part getting all the faster and more fatiguing with some no-huddle added to the Arkansas offense by new offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn.

A beleaguered giant can despair or smile. Zac Tubbs smiles. He smiles, that is, when the Arkansas fifth-year senior offensive tackle isn’t huffing and puffing up the Razorback Stadium steps after lifting weights and more running. The Cullman, Ala., native does this all the while dieting like a model told to fit a swimsuit now two sizes too small or else.

And that’s already after dieting from once being above 370.

“He’s 330 trying to get down to 320,” coach Houston Nutt said. “And he keeps at it after the injuries he’s had. I like his attitude!”

It’s the only attitude to have if you want to play, Tubbs believes. And you can believe after two years of injury-enforced idleness, Zac Tubbs wants to play. Even if it means going through the marathon 12-game season, 14 games he hopes if the Hogs can add the SEC Championship game and a bowl game, without even much break between plays when Nutt and Malzahn order no huddle.

“It’s hard,” Tubbs said, bathed in sweat after a Friday workout, “but all I have to do is get back in the groove and get in shape. I’ll get in shape. We all will be ready to go for the no-huddle.”

Just having Tubbs available to go at all would seem worth huddling to accommodate him.

Arkansas’ biggest offensive lineman was supposed to be Arkansas’ best once the big man he understudied, two-time All-American and Camden native Shawn Andrews, moved on early to the pros.

As a true freshman in 2002, Tubbs played the entire second half against South Carolina when Andrews was injured and started the following game against Louisiana-Monroe.

When Andrews turned professional in 2003 before the Independence Bowl, Tubbs started that 27-14 victory over Missouri. He started the first five games of 2004.

Then disaster struck during an Oct. 5 open date practice. He fractured his left ankle in two places, underwent surgery, and during the portion of recovery when he couldn’t move around much, suffered a blood clot in his leg that went to his lung.
Needless to say, Tubbs did not practice the spring of 2005.

But by August he thought he was well and could practice, then hurt the ankle again. Knowing he couldn’t play after a few plays of a season-ending debut three games into the year against Southern California, Tubbs preserved a hardship season for 2006.

He practiced last spring but certainly wasn’t ready for no-huddle; not that many linemen were. But he practiced every practice while his weight kept dropping.

“That’s what I’m proudest about,” strength coach Don Decker said, “he’s always had trouble with his body weight. But he’s held a high 340 now for eight or nine months without gaining weight when he goes home for Christmas break or spring break. His conditioning level is getting better. He’s moving better, bending better. Zac doesn’t have to wear the brace any more on his ankle.”

He’s good to go, trainer Dean Weber said.

“He had a lot of issues,” Weber said, “but he’s overcome all that and is doing well. As far as we are concerned, there don’t appear any limitations on him at all.”

That will include no-huddle, Tubbs vows.

“We weren’t used to it in the spring,” Tubbs said last Friday, “but we know it now.”

He’s fixing to know it a lot better, Decker says smiling.

Tubbs knows all about that, the simulated no-huddle crash course in summer conditioning before the Razorbacks report Aug. 4 for official practice commencing Aug. 5.

“We are going to start drills on it next week,” Tubbs said last Friday. “It’s all part of it to get our legs in shape. I feel real good and ready to go.”

Aside from the no-huddle, Tubbs has had to familiarize himself with the new pass-blocking scheme of Malzahn’s offense.

Something is comfortably familiar, though, for Tubbs and the rest of veteran offensive line coach Mike Markuson’s linemen.

They still get to block for sensational sophomore tailbacks Darren McFadden and Felix Jones.

“Any time you have those two guys back there and little Mike Smith (the redshirt freshman tailback injured in preseason last year), too,” Tubbs said ... “just give them a crease, and they make big things happen. I’m really excited about that. There’s a lot to be excited for.”