FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. (AP) — Travis Swanson’s ascent to captain at Arkansas began well before last year’s scandal-ridden spring and subsequent fall collapse.
How the center handled the turmoil off the field, however, may just prove to be the defining moment of a playing career that is among the school’s best.
A core group of senior leaders, led by Swanson, gives new coach Bret Bielema a foundation to work with as Arkansas heads into fall practice next week. Swanson and Co. have been through a lot, too.
There was the Sugar Bowl three seasons ago. Then there was last year’s epic collapse in the wake of former coach Bobby Petrino’s firing; a 4-8 record under interim coach John L. Smith.
Through it all, Swanson’s class has endured, thanks in large part to the four-year starter’s endearing personality. The Texas native has earned his fair share of awards throughout his career, and he enters this season as a preseason first-team All-Southeastern Conference selection.
He’s also earned plenty of praise from his new coach after just one set of spring practices.
“Travis Swanson is the best center, in my opinion, in college football,” Bielema said.
For all of Swanson’s accolades, it’s worth noting the 6-foot-5, 318-pound former lacrosse standout had never played center prior to his arrival at Arkansas. It was only after a camp during his senior year of high school that Petrino recommended the former guard learn the new position.
Swanson took the advice to heart — taking part in 4:30 a.m. workouts during his final semester of high school and learning everything he could about snapping the ball. It was the same kind of selfless display he had shown since first starting football at 6 years old, continuing into his sophomore year of high school when he was asked by coaches to also play on the defensive line.
Swanson accepted the defensive assignment, even though his career path was already winding its way toward the offensive line. The two-way experiment was a success before ending after three games, but it was Swanson’s willingness to do whatever he was told that was remembered by his parents, Todd and Gina.
You see, Travis Swanson’s theory on earning playing time was, and still is, a simple one: “Just don’t give people a reason not to like you,” he said. “And do everything right.”
Swanson put that theory into practice while redshirting his first season at Arkansas, heeding the advice of coaches and older teammates, alike. By the time his second year came along, Swanson took over at center.
Even now, after spending the past eight months trying to impress a new set of coaches, Swanson’s thoughts on his ability are less about his own considerable talent — born out of a potent mix of intelligence, athleticism and size — and more about the humble nature he’s always known.
“The only reason a player doesn’t play is if you give the coaches a reason, like if you do something that they don’t like off or on the field,” Swanson said. “There’s no reason for me not to start if I don’t give them a reason.”
Arkansas quarterback Brandon Allen served as Tyler Wilson’s backup last season, and he exited the spring as the starter. Allen credited Swanson for much of his success in transitioning to his new role, saying the center helped him quickly deliver defensive adjustments to offensive coordinator Jim Chaney.
“It’s almost like having another quarterback out there,” Allen said.
New Razorbacks offensive line coach Sam Pittman echoed the praise for Swanson, both for his on-the-field ability as well as how the center has used his platform as captain to sell the upperclassmen on the merits of the new coaching staff.
“I’ve relied on him as much or more than anybody I’ve ever coached,” Pittman said.
Swanson’s most difficult task after being voted a captain last year came after Arkansas lost an early season game to Louisiana-Monroe — beginning a losing stretch that sent the Razorbacks from preseason top five to missing a bowl game for the first time since the 2008 season.
He agonized about the best ways to approach teammates during the losing season, working with Wilson to use different methods of motivation on teammates. Sometimes, it was promoting what laid ahead in the professional ranks. Others, it was about simply playing for pride.
What struck Gina Swanson throughout the difficulties of last season was that her son never once complained about the predicament following Petrino’s firing. Even during their private conversations, when she and her husband expressed doubts of their own, Travis Swanson would have none of it.
“I truly realized he had become a man,” Gina Swanson said. “For Travis to just stand up and tell us this was their team and the boys supported everything and were absolutely 100 percent dedicated to this team and get through all of this ... I knew that at that point, ‘We’ve done our job.’”