FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas’ linebacking corps is composed of “veterans” who have spent most of their careers on special teams, youngsters rushed into tough roles as true freshmen, and newcomers who are being expected to contribute immediately.
It’s a combination that doesn’t bode well for a position that hasn’t produced much success for the Razorbacks the past few years. In fact, it’s the reason Arkansas’ linebackers are considered one of the team’s biggest weaknesses this summer.
But Arkansas linebacker Jarrett Lake doesn’t agree. In fact, the senior said the first week of preseason camp has shown something else about the group: Arkansas has a lot of talented players competing for jobs in the middle of the defense.
“I don’t feel like we’re going to be the weakest group,” Lake said. “I feel like we’re going to be strong. … Especially after the last couple of days. After the last couple of days you can clearly see that everybody is hungry and everybody wants to play.”
Arkansas provided its first glimpse at just how deep the group of linebackers can be when the Hogs scrimmaged in Razorback Stadium on Saturday. It was the first scrimmage of the preseason and the first practice open to the public.
Depth at linebacker would be a new concept for Arkansas, where sound options typically were limited for defenses that struggled under former coach Bobby Petrino. The Razorbacks have had talented players like Jerry Franklin, Jerico Nelson an Alonzo Highsmith, but there was never much behind them.
It remains to be seen if the Razorbacks have quality depth this season.
But for now, Arkansas believes there is potential in its numbers.
“We’re building depth,” Arkansas linebackers coach Randy Shannon said. “That’s the one thing I said this spring we needed to do as a linebacker group.
“So you shuffle some guys here and there, move positions to build the depth we need to have and everybody gets an opportunity. I put in the 1s with the 1s, 2s go with the 1s, 3s go with the 2s, 1s go with the 2s. Just building the depth and camaraderie, get used to playing with different guys all the time.”
Of course, getting Shannon or defensive coordinator Chris Ash to unveil the current depth chart has been futile. Neither has volunteered much this week.
This much is known: Lake, Braylon Mitchell and Daunte Carr earned first-teams spots out of the spring. Austin Jones has earned some first-team work at middle linebacker this week. Otha Peters and A.J. Turner are healthy after being slowed by injuries in the spring. And first-year players Brooks Ellis and Martrell Spaight are getting opportunities to make early impressions in their first week on the field.
It’s a crowded group. But the crowd is welcomed.
“That’s a very good thing to have depth,” Peters said. “You never know when somebody goes down, when somebody needs a break.
“It’s good that we have eight players that can go in and step in at any time.”
Shannon said the versatility is the key to building a sound unit.
So he won’t consume himself with the depth chart through camp as Arkansas tries to mix, match and find its best combinations.
“Everybody wants to know who is first and second team, but we have a point where you have to play your best guys,” Shannon said. “We may have a weak side linebacker and the guy on the strong side is not doing well so we move that guy. We don’t develop a depth chart. We develop bodies and people that can help us win.”
It left Ash calling the unit a “work in progress” earlier this week.
Saturday’s scrimmage — which will feature Arkansas’ first live tackling work of the preseason — will give Ash and Shannon a better feel for which players can help at the three linebacker positions. Ash said Arkansas eventually will find “that right trio” to start the season opener. But the Razorbacks want a complete unit, too.
Peters said he and his teammates are confident they’ll produce, proving to be a deep and talented linebacking corps this season.
“We know we’re young and a lot of people don’t know nothing about us, but that’s a good thing that nobody knows about us,” Peters said. “So when we step on that field and they see what’s happening, they don’t see it coming at all.”