FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas had nothing but inexperience at linebacker last summer as it prepared for the 2013 season.
The veterans of the unit had been special teams players throughout the majority of their careers. The newcomers had talent, but had plenty to learn as they adjusted to college football. So first-year coach Randy Shannon had a difficult task: molding together a depth chart that would successfully stand up to SEC offenses.
Arkansas’ struggles were no secret. Issues at linebacker were a big reason the defense was one of the SEC’s worst. But linebacker Martrell Spaight said a group with more depth and experience is determined to make sure that changes in 2014.
“We’re going out there and we’re really emphasizing the physicality,” Spaight said. “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.”
Arkansas’ linebackers will get a chance to show some improvement this morning, when the Razorbacks hold their first scrimmage of the preseason.
The workout is closed to the public, but the game-like opportunity will give Shannon and the Arkansas staff an idea of who they can count on. The good news: there’s some experience to start with this time after Spaight, senior Braylon Mitchell, sophomore Brooks Ellis and junior Otha Peters learned on the job last fall.
Shannon has noticed the benefits through the first week of camp.
“The younger guys are learning from the older guys,” Shannon said. “When I sit up there and I watch and I’m coaching in practice and going through drills, I may peek to the sideline and I may see Otha and Braylon and Brooks talking to a young guy about, ‘Watch this.’ Do those type of things. That makes you feel and understand that this is what we need to be as a defense and as a unit and we’re excited about that.”
Spaight (weak side), Ellis (middle) and Mitchell (strong side) have manned the first-team spots the first week of camp, according to Arkansas’ coaches. They combined to log 14 starts and 132 tackles. Most of them were by Mitchell (77).
Peters, who was plagued by injuries last year, and senior TQ Coleman, who moved down to linebacker late last spring after spending his first year at safety, have given the Razorbacks some solid blocks to build with on the second-team defense.
There’s also an intriguing group of newcomers with junior college transfer Josh Williams and freshmen Randy Ramsey, Dwayne Eugene and Khalia Hackett.
“They’re very explosive guys,” Shannon said. “You’re seeing guys that can run very fast, guys that have some chances to grow. That’s the thing we’re looking for: explosive guys that can run, that can come in and help us and be competitive at this early age. The more competition you have, the better your group is going to be.”
Mitchell, who is on the preseason watch list for the Butkus Award, said the veterans notice the potential and want to make sure the newcomers get up to speed quickly this month. He said it’s vital to make sure Arkansas is a stronger unit this fall.
“When I was a young guy, I came in and I was lost and I didn’t really have a lot of the older guys come and show me the way,” Mitchell said. “So I kind of adopted the rule that when I have a younger guy, I’m going to adopt him, put him under my wing and show him how we do things here.”
Of course, it helps that Mitchell and the returning linebackers are working with the same coach for the second straight season. Shannon is the only defensive coach on Arkansas’ staff back for his second season and Spaight thinks the continuity is key.
The returning linebackers have a much better grasp of what is expected.
“We all know Coach Shannon’s coaching style and we’ve all got that experience with each other,” Spaight said. “So we all know our tendencies and we can coach each other out there on the football field. So it plays a real major role out here.”
Arkansas needs it to translate to gameday. The linebackers struggled to — in defensive terms — set the edge last season. Ball carriers were able to get outside on a regular basis and Spaight said the linebacker shouldered most of the blame.
“A lot of times we have to set the edge and a lot of times we didn’t get the job done,” Spaight said. “But this year, I feel as if (defensive coordinator Robb) Smith is really emphasizing it even as we’re doing walk throughs.”
Shannon said it helps that a player like Spaight — who admitted he played on raw talent more than anything last season — has a better grasp of the scheme.
“He’s more confident in what he’s doing and understanding the whole game,” Shannon said. “Like anything Martrell came in thinking, ‘I’m going to just play.’ But he’s learning the game now and he’s understanding the game.”
The same can be said for Ellis, who started the final four games as a true freshman after being brought along slowly early in the fall.
It’s good to have experience. And some talented youngsters. But Mitchell and the rest of Arkansas’ linebackers know they’ll only be judged by results this fall so there’s plenty to accomplish the rest of preseason camp.
“We’re definitely not where we want to be,” Mitchell said. “To compete in the SEC and get to where we want to be, we have to make huge strides.”