This is the eighth story in a 10-part series previewing the 2013 Razorbacks. Up next: Quarterbacks
FAYETTEVILLE — A new phrase has been prominent in Arkansas’ preseason camp.
You’ve been “spaighted.”
It was created in response to the havoc Arkansas linebacker Martrell Spaight has caused behind the Razorbacks’ closed practice doors. Ask players and they’ll tell you plenty of stories. They seem to be growing larger in number every day.
“In the first little scrimmage we had, I caught an out route, turned up that corner and, ‘Wham,’” said Arkansas freshman receiver Drew Morgan, who shared his own personal encounter with Spaight. “I got smoked about three yards out of bounds.
“He was like, ‘Welcome to the SEC.’ I was like, ‘Okey-dokey.’”
Arkansas has been busy building a new-look linebacking corps throughout preseason camp and Spaight — who hasn’t even played in an SEC game himself — has become a player who is leaving a mark, literally.
The Coffeyville (Kan.) Community College transfer may not be in the starting lineup when Arkansas opens the season against Louisiana-Lafayette. In fact, he had been with the second-team defense through much of camp according to coaches. But Spaight has wasted no time making it clear he’ll be one of the team’s most aggressive hitters when he does step on the field next Saturday.
“I’ve seen him, on an inside run, one play take out an offensive lineman,” Arkansas safety Rohan Gaines said. “Then the next play, take out a fullback. Back to back.”
Said linebacker Price Holmes: “It’s funny. Like lunch conversation, (offensive players) will be like, ‘Yeah, Spaight got me today.’”
Arkansas coach Bret Bielema — who first revealed that the team had come up with the phrase “spaighted” after last Saturday’s scrimmage — said the hard-hitting linebacker has been responsible for three concussions in camp. Bielema also said Spaight’s the player who collided with Arkansas tight end Austin Tate, sending the senior to the sideline with a shoulder injury that will keep him out four to six weeks.
It left Bielema proclaiming Arkansas is tempted to put Spaight in a green jersey, which is typically reserved for quarterbacks and signals no contact allowed.
“He has got a got a gift,” Bielema said. “His core strength from knees to abdomen is incredible. He just is an incredibly explosive player.”
No one wants to see Spaight’s talents result in preseason injuries of any kind. But at the very least, the Razorbacks are optimistic about finding a linebacker who won’t be shy about thumping opponents when the season begins.
“That’s one thing we needed at the linebacker position,” Arkansas defensive end Chris Smith said. “Physicality and things of that nature. He’s going to bring it. That’s what you’re going to need in the SEC because they’re going to bring it back.”
So Spaight is more than happy to oblige. The Little Rock native, who is living out his dream by playing for his home state school, said his growing reputation as a big hitter is hard to believe. He said hitting other players just comes natural.
“It’s kind of crazy,” Spaight said. “It came out of nowhere. Now I’ve got people coming up to me saying ‘Who are you going to Spaight today?’ It’s a crazy feeling.”
But Spaight also insisted none of it is done on purpose or with malice.
He added the first three weeks of camp have taught him to rein in the intensity a bit.
“I don’t want to see my teammates get hurt like that,” Spaight said. “But you still have got to go out there and practice hard and push yourself.”
Spaight wants to prove he’s worthy of playing time this season, working in a linebacking corps filled with uncertainty.
Austin Jones, Braylon Mitchell and Jarrett Lake appear to be the three who will start the season opener. But Spaight — who has worked at all three linebacker spots under position coach Randy Shannon — is catching up after missing spring practice.
“I have been impressed with what he’s been able to do in a short amount of time,” Arkansas defensive coordinator Chris Ash said. “It speaks volumes for his football IQ to be able to pick things up so quickly. And pound for pound, he’s the biggest hitter we’ve got on the football team without a doubt.
“I’m hoping he can continue that progress and get in the mix pretty quick.”
His teammates, meanwhile, are eager to see what Spaight will do against someone else after doling out plenty of big hits during preseason camp.
“He’s a guy that knows how to use his body and knows how to hit people,” linebacker Price Holmes said. “It’s fun to watch him fly around. … When you see him out there, keep your eyes on him because he’s going to bring the hammer down.”
Spaight said he’s getting eager for that opportunity after originally making a verbal commitment to Kansas State after two years at Coffeyville (Kan.) Community College. He changed his mind after Bielema arrived at Arkansas last December and offered the in-state kid a scholarship.
The decision has proven painful for a few Razorbacks who have been “spaighted” this preseason. But Spaight said he’s simply living out his dream at Arkansas.
“I never knew if the opportunity was going to present itself,” Spaight said. “I’m thankful that it has presented itself and I’m going to try to make the most of it.”
A Closer Look At … LINEBACKERS
Best of the Bunch: Jarrett Lake — Arkansas coach Bret Bielema paid the linebacker a big complement last week, saying his attitude has been infectious this preseason. Lake finally gets a chance to impact the defense on the field, too, locking up a starting spot. There are no guarantees for a linebacking corps loaded with new faces, but Lake has emerged as the leader of the group entering the year.
Watch Out For: Brooks Ellis — Martrell Spaight is making headlines with his exploits behind closed doors. But he’s not the only newcomer impressing this preseason. The Razorbacks like what they’ve seen from Ellis, too. The freshman is working with the second-team at middle linebacker and will get on the field immediately. How quickly he adapts could determine how much he’ll play.
Biggest Strength: At this point, Arkansas seems to have options. Plenty of them. It’s good news considering depth at linebacker had been a big concern for the Razorbacks the past few years. Arkansas will start the year without sophomore Otha Peters (out 6 to 8 weeks with a broken arm), but position coach Randy Shannon still has plenty of linebackers to work with this fall.
Biggest Question: Will AJ Turner help the Hogs? The sophomore finished fifth on the team in tackles as a true freshman (53), but was slowed by a wrist injury in the spring. Bielema said early in camp it was still bothering him and indicated the sophomore could redshirt. Very little has been said about Turner’s progress.
Projected Starters: WLB Jarrett Lake, Sr., (11 tackles in 2012); MLB Austin Jones, Sr., (1 tackle in 2012); SLB Braylon Mitchell, Jr., (1 tackle in 2012)
Other Contributors: Martrell Spaight, Jr., (N/A), Brooks Ellis, Fr., (N/A), Daunte Carr, Jr., (N/A), Price Holmes, Sr., (1 tackle in 2012), Robert Atiga, Sr., (N/A), AJ Turner, So., (53 tackles, 1 sack in 2012), Otha Peters, So., (32 tackles in 2012)
That Figures: 37 — Number of career tackles for Arkansas’ projected two-deep depth chart for the opener (Lake, Jones, Mitchell, Spaight, Ellis and Carr). The Razorbacks feel good about their potential depth at the position this season, but the tackle total is a sign the inexperienced group will learn as it goes in 2013.
Quotable: “He’s one of the guys that’s showing up every day, that’s really having fun. It’s never a dull moment with him. He’s joking around. He’s playing with a lot of excitement, playing with a lot of emotion, chasing the ball hard. He’s doing everything you want him to do as a senior and is the leader of the group.” — Arkansas linebackers coach Randy Shannon on Jarrett Lake
— Robbie Neiswanger • Arkansas News Bureau