This is the sixth story in a 10-part series previewing the 2014 Razorbacks. Up next: Safeties
FAYETTEVILLE — There’s a little-known fact about Martrell Spaight that the hard-hitting linebacker doesn’t share with many people.
It’s not a deep, dark secret. It’s not all that embarrassing, either. But for some reason, the player who developed a reputation for knocking out teammates with ferocious hits during his first preseason camp last summer doesn’t broadcast the fact he practices yoga in his spare time. Or that he really likes it.
“Honestly, I think yoga is a bigger challenge than just regular working out,” Spaight said. “I tried it my first time and I walked out sweating. … It’s pretty tough. It’s challenging. It teaches you to kind of keep your composure. There’s a lot of breathing that helps you keep your composure and gives you a peace of mind.”
Spaight believes it has helped him become a better linebacker, too, as he and the Razorbacks continue to grind their way through preseason camp. The 6-foot, 232-pound senior said earlier this month he feels stronger, more agile, flexible and prepared to handle a starting role with Arkansas’ defense in 2014.
It’s not all because of yoga, of course. But Spaight said it has helped.
“It’s pretty tough, but I feel like it’s helping me on the football field,” Spaight said.
Spaight certainly isn’t the first athlete to try it.
Former Arkansas basketball coach Nolan Richardson had his players on yoga mats long ago. Former Baltimore linebacker Ray Lewis, San Francisco tight end Vernon Davis and Cleveland Cavaliers stars LeBron James are among the list of professional athletes who have included yoga in their training regiments. The New York Giants and Philadelphia Eagles have even had yoga instructors on staff for players.
Spaight’s father introduced him to yoga last summer. Mark Spaight bought his son a DVD before he left for Arkansas and told his son to give it a try. Spaight listened.
“He actually had been trying to get me to do it since junior college,” Spaight said, looking back to his two seasons at Coffeyville (Kan.) Community College. “And my junior college coach actually wanted me to do it, but I never actually found a place to do it. He just surprised me one day and gave me the DVD and I gave it a shot.”
Spaight jokes that he found a place, too. In his room — with the door locked.
He’s done a good job of keeping it quiet. Arkansas linebackers coach Randy Shannon said he didn’t know Spaight did yoga. Defensive coordinator Robb Smith didn’t know until recently, either, but said there’s nothing to be embarrassed about.
“I think that’s phenomenal,” Smith said. “Listen, this guy … You’ve got to love Martrell. He’s going to do everything he can to get better.”
That’s what Spaight is aiming for. There’s not much time for yoga right now as Arkansas grinds its way through the third week of preseason practice. Instead, he’s trying to his role with the first-team defense as the opener approaches.
It’s a role Spaight wanted when he arrived last summer. The junior college transfer had his moments in practices, making an instant impression with his ability to thump ball carriers. It got to the point where the Razorbacks even created a term for it — being “Spaighted” — as they watched the collisions.
But it never really translated to game day. Spaight admitted he waded through the season leaning on natural talents than his understanding of Arkansas’ defensive plans and it showed. He played in nine games, but only finished with 22 tackles.
“I really didn’t understand the scheme,” Spaight said.
So Spaight made it his mission in the offseason to becoming a smarter player.
On top of getting bigger and stronger, Spaight also devoted more time to his playbook and the film room. He didn’t have the opportunity because of his late arrival last year, but took advantage of his final spring and summer with the Hogs.
“He got a chance to learn,” Arkansas linebackers coach Randy Shannon said. “He went through spring football, summer, getting some actually teaching and learning instead of just jumping the fire last year. … I think he’s understanding the game, he’s understanding the mistakes he’s making, But also when he makes a mistakes, he comes back and corrects it on the field, which is really positive.”
His teammates have noticed the difference in his performance.
“One thing about is Spaight is he plays the game like his hair is one fire,” Arkansas linebacker Braylon Mitchell said. “Now that he knows what he’s doing, he can still play with his hair on fire and actually be in the right positions to make plays.”
Spaight knows nothing is guaranteed, though.
So nothing will change about his preparation as he works through the final two weeks before the season opener. It might even include some more yoga — behind his locked bedroom door — if time permits.
“I’ve just been continuing to keep gradually getting better on my yoga,” Spaight said. “I don’t tell a lot of people, but sooner or later it’s going to get out.”
A Closer Look At … LINEBACKERS
Best of the Bunch: Martrell Spaight — Arkansas had high hopes for Spaight last season, but it took the junior college transfer time to adjust. The senior finished with just 22 tackles in nine games. But Spaight feels much more comfortable with the defense during his second preseason camp. That’s good news for the Razorbacks, who are counting on Spaight to become a steady performer this season.
Watch Out For: Randy Ramsey — The freshman made a big impression during his first scrimmage earlier this month, recording three tackles for losses and two sacks. He was banged up last week, but the Razorbacks still believe he’ll play a role with the defense in 2014. Ramsey has the size (6-foot-4, 222 pounds) and speed to make an impact. How much he plays will depend on his understanding of the defense.
Biggest Question: Will Arkansas be OK at middle linebacker? A position that once looked solidified appears a little shaky after the second week of camp. Otha Peters was No. 2 on the depth chart, but transferred. Starter Brooks Ellis missed last Saturday’s scrimmage with a knee injury. Bielema said Ellis’ injury isn’t severe, but his absence left the Razorbacks testing junior college transfer Josh Williams in the first-team role and freshman Khalia Hackett as his backup.
Projected Starters: SLB Braylon Mitchell, Sr., (77 tackles in 2013); MLB Brooks Ellis, So., (33 tackles in 2013); WLB Martrell Spaight, Sr., (22 tackles in 2013).
Other Contributors: TQ Coleman, Sr.; Daunte Carr, Sr.; Josh Williams, So.; Randy Ramsey, Fr.; Khalia Hackett, Fr.; Dwayne Eugene, Fr.
That Figures: 0 — Number of Arkansas linebackers selected in the past 10 NFL Drafts. Caleb Miller and Tony Bua were the last linebackers selected when they were taken the third and fifth rounds, respectively, in 2004. Only two Arkansas linebackers (Jerry Franklin and Sam Olajubutu) have earned All-SEC honors during the 10-year period as well. It’s a sign of Arkansas’ struggles to produce elite talent at the position, which the Razorbacks are hoping to change under Bret Bielema.
Quotable: “I feel like this year is going to be a great year for the linebackers. We’re going out there and we’re really emphasizing the physicality. You go back on film and we question ourselves sometimes mentally and physically from previous years. So this year we’re just really challenging ourselves out there on the practice field. Once it comes toward game time we’ll be ready to go.” — Spaight on the group.
— Robbie Neiswanger • Arkansas News Bureau