Playing in the toughest football conference in the country has its challenges for University of Arkansas offensive tackle Dalton Wagner.
This week, five Southeastern Conference programs are ranked in the top 12 of The Associated Press Top 25 poll.
When it comes to challenging his play, however, Wagner is tougher on himself than any defensive end who lines up across from him.
“I’m my harshest critic,” said Wagner, a Richmond-Burton graduate from Spring Grove. “I can tell when I mess something up. It’s just about being the hardest critic I can be on myself. It helps me continue to grow my ability as a player.”
Ability has gotten Wagner, a sophomore, a long way with the Razorbacks. Last weekend, he opened the season as the starter at right tackle after winning the job in training camp.
Last season, as a redshirt freshman, an appendectomy in fall camp limited his chances of competing for a starting job. This fall, a season-ending knee injury on the first day of camp to redshirt freshman Noah Gatlin, who was competing for the job, vaulted Wagner into the new role.
“[Noah] and I were back and forth on everything,” Wagner said. “In the weight room, in the runs, everything. We were always competing, and we grew close together. It’s been a tough battle.”
Last week, while making his second career start, Wagner and his linemates helped Arkansas rush for 204 yards in a 20-13 victory against Portland State, led by running back Rakeem Boyd’s 114 yards.
“It’s only going to go up from here,” Wagner said of the offense, which has been challenged by defenses putting more defenders at the line of scrimmage to stop the Razorbacks’ running game. “We’re running into an eight- or nine-man box. At any level, that’s a tough thing to do.”
Still, Arkansas averaged 4.9 yards a carry in the opener. The running game is expected to play a big role in the SEC opener Saturday at Mississippi.
The 6-foot-8, 315-pound Wagner credits his leaner, stronger body and improved pass blocking with his advancement into a starting job.
What also helped was starting one game last season and working as a key reserve who was called upon regularly by offensive line coach Dustin Fry.
“I really embraced that role,” he said. “Coach Fry was able to rely on me every day. I tried to be as ready as possible. He didn’t have to look around and think, ‘OK, I can put him in or I can't put him in.’ I tried to make it so he could say, ‘I’m putting Dalton in.’”
Wagner’s biggest test came when a starting tackle went down against powerhouse Alabama last season.
“I got a big welcome to the SEC,” Wagner said with a laugh.
He played in 11 games as a reserve and on special teams, allowing the starters to get a rest on numerous occasions.
“That was huge, because I was able to see it without the pressure of starting,” he said. “It’s a whole different speed. There are no reps like game reps. You have to have that experience.”
He’s far from satisfied after the Razorbacks’ 2-10 season a year ago. And Wagner isn’t about to be proud of what he’s accomplished just yet.
“There are other people that do that,” he said. “My dad will say, ‘I’m really proud of you,’ and all I can think about was halfway through the second quarter when I took a bad step and how that’s not going to cut it against Ole Miss.
“I can’t really ever sit back. There’s too much to prove.”
Hanlon’s debut a dandy: Playing in her first career volleyball matches for Division I Xavier University, Marian Central grad Lauren Hanlon opened the season by earning Big East Conference Freshman of the Week, being named all-tournament at Utah State and posting double-digit kills in three matches to open the season.
Hanlon, a redshirt freshman, was honored by the conference Tuesday after posting 40 kills for Xavier (2-1), including a season-high 16 in a 3-1 victory against Eastern Michigan.
Miranda collects title, award: Woodstock North grad Daniela Miranda was named the American Rivers Conference Women’s Golfer of the Week on Tuesday after winning the individual title at the Luther Norse Sail Classic with a two-round total of 6-over-par 150 (74-76).
Miranda, a junior at D-III University of Dubuque (Iowa), won medalist honors by four strokes and helped Dubuque win the team title at the nine-team event. Dubuque’s second-round team score of 310 was a school record for the lowest team round.
A first for Illini: Illinois sophomore defensive lineman Lere Oladipo collected his first career sack last weekend in the Illini’s season-opening 42-3 victory against Akron.
Oladipo, who played in four games with one start at defensive tackle last season, had one of six sacks for the Illinois defense in the opener. The victory was the 22nd consecutive home season-opening triumph for the Illini.
Super soccer standout at Loras: Sophomore Braylin Mensik, a Dundee-Crown grad, was honored as the American Rivers Conference Defensive Player of the Week in women’s soccer this week for D-III Loras College of Dubuque.
Mensik scored a goal last week in a 4-0 win against Macalaster and had an assist in a 3-1 triumph against Gustavus Adolphus. Prairie Ridge grad Abby Eriksen, a freshman forward for Loras, scored a goal in the victory against Gustavus Adolphus.
Loras, which finished 17-4 a year ago, was ranked No. 21 in the D3Soccer.com preseason national poll. Mensik played in 19 matches last fall for Loras (2-0).
Augie aces golf competition: In its season-opening Highland Classic last weekend in Rock Island, D-III Augustana won the 12-team women’s golf event with a school-record, two-day total of 608.
Crystal Lake Central grad Riley Schurter, a sophomore, finished third as an individual with an 8-over-par 152 total (75-77). Her first-round score of 75 tied for the fifth-lowest round in Augie school history.
The team’s record first-round 302 score included four players shooting in the 70s, which was another first for the Vikings’ program.
• Barry Bottino writes a weekly column about local college athletes for the Northwest Herald. Write to him at email@example.com and follow @BarryOnCampus on Twitter.