Freshman linebackers step to front

By: Tom Murphy
Published: Thursday, November 8, 2012
 University of Arkansas linebacker A.J. Turner (left) and Tevin Mitchell put the stop on Tulsa receiver Keyarris Garrett during Saturdays homecoming game at Razorback Stadium.
Photo by Michael Woods
University of Arkansas linebacker A.J. Turner (left) and Tevin Mitchell put the stop on Tulsa receiver Keyarris Garrett during Saturdays homecoming game at Razorback Stadium.

— Injuries have taken their toll on the already vulnerable Arkansas defense in 2012.

Perhaps that is why the Razorbacks’ latest self-inflicted personnel loss - senior linebacker Terrell Williams’ indefinite suspension for a DWI arrest last weekend - so upset Coach John L. Smith.

Williams’ absence will thrust true freshman Otha Peters into the middle linebacker spot and pair him with A.J.Turner in an all-freshman linebacker lineup for Arkansas’ 11 a.m. game at South Carolina on Saturday.

“The thing about these two guys is they’re instinctive and they’re very smart football players,” defensive coordinator Paul Haynes said.

Linebackers coach Taver Johnson said he thinks Peters is excited about drawing his first starting assignment, even if he isn’t showing it.

“Otha’s such a quiet kid and a humble kid, you can’t even tell with his demeanor,” Johnson said. “It’s more or less business as usual.”

The Razorbacks’ linebacker depth - a recognized trouble spot in the spring with defensive end Tenarius Wright’s move to middle linebacker after one practice - is now super thin with season ending injuries to Wright and Alonzo Highsmith, followed by Williams’ arrest.

The freshman linebackers, who have not been available for media interviews since early in fall camp, have steadily picked up playing time in recent weeks.

“The thing I think that has helped both of those guys is early in camp they got a lot of reps and all year long they’ve been in the mix,” Johnson said.

“With young guys, it’s all the velocity of the plays of the offense,” Haynes said. “You have to be here and have to be there, and it’s a matter of them studying it.” Turner, a prized in-state signee from East Poinsett County, has started three consecutive games at the inside linebacker spot, taking over for Williams, who shifted to the middle after Highsmith’s foot injury against Auburn. Turner’s 22 tackles in the past three games are the most on the team.

“A. J. Turner is very athletic,” John L. Smith said. “He’s a guy that can walk onto a basketball court and dunk it with either hand.”

The 6-2, 216-pounder tends to make a memorable hit once or twice per game, such as his shot on Tulsa’s Ja’Terian Douglas for a 1-yard loss in the first quarter last week.

“He shot through the gap and it was like, ‘Wow!’ ” Arkansas end Chris Smith said.

“I actually talked to that guy after the game, and hewas like, ‘Man, where is that little guy that hit me?’ ” tackle Alfred Davis said. “I said, ‘Yeah, that’s our freshman linebacker.’ He said, ‘That kid’s a freshman?’ ”

Peters, of Covington, La., was one of the jewels of Arkansas’ 2012 signing class and will be the fourth player to start at middle linebacker this year. He’s still working at grasping all the schemes and will get assistance from senior Ross Rasner and others.

“You just have to talk andknow your responsibilities,” Rasner said. “I told him, ‘If you don’t know something, you have to ask. It might be in the middle of a play, but just let somebody know or ask me and I’ll try to help you out.’ ”

Chris Smith said the freshman linebackers have been serious about learning and maturing.

“They’re getting better and better every week, so I trust those guys to step up,” he said. “It’s going to be a big game for them, but I feel like they’re going to be fine.”

Sports, Pages 25 on 11/08/2012