Tom Murphy is a reporter for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. A graduate of Louisiana Tech University, he is a member of the Football Writers Association of America, and voter for the Heisman Trophy and AP Top 25 football poll.
ARKANSAS SPRING FOOTBALL:
Experience shows among linebackers
Arkansas senior associate head coach Randy Shannon directs linebacker Otha Peters during practice Thursday, March 20, 2014, at the UA practice field in Fayetteville.
FAYETTEVILLE - Experience and improved health are the two biggest reasons why Arkansas linebackers coach Randy Shannon expects better production from his group next fall.
The Razorbacks went into 2013 with little starting experience in their linebacking corps and the unit had its struggles and growing pains in its first season under Bret Bielema, defensive coordinator Chris Ash and Shannon.
This spring the Razorbacks’ linebackers return with 17 games of starting experience as they learn a new system under coordinator Robb Smith and Shannon.
“They’re doing a lot better,” Shannon said of the linebacking corps’ older members, like seniors Braylon Mitchell, Martrell Spaight and Daunte Carr, junior Otha Peters and sophomore Brooks Ellis. “They’re a year older now.
PLAYER, CLASS HT. WT. STS. NOTEWORTHY
Braylon Mitchell, Sr. 6-3 231 8 77 tackles, 2 TFL, 3 PBU, 2 hurries
Brooks Ellis, So. 6-2 237 4 33 tackles, 2 TFL, 1 PBU
Martrell Spaight, Sr. 6-0 228 2 22 tackles, 1 sack, 1 hurry
Otha Peters, Jr. 6-2 226 3 9 tackles, 2 PBU
Daunte Carr, Sr. 6-3 216 0 4 tackles, 3 unassisted 1 assisted
Alex Brignoni, RFr. 6-1 206 0 Redshirted (back surgery)
Dwayne Eugene, Fr. 6-1 200 0 Signee from Marrero, La.
Khalia Hackett, Fr. 6-3 210 0 Signee from Douglasville, Ga.
Randy Ramsey, Fr. 6-4 215 0 Signee from Fort Lauderdale, Fla.
PBU - Passes broken up. TFL - Tackles for loss.
“We’ve been together for a year now and that’s a big deal. It’s like last year we were all free agents trying to figure out each other.”
The position was impacted by injury in 2013 after struggling the previous season, when true freshmen Peters and A.J. Turner both wound up in starting roles during the last half of the year.
Turner, a returning starter, suffered a broken wrist, redshirted in 2013 and left the program at the end of the Razorbacks’ 3-9 season.
Peters, whose three starts in 2012 represented the sum of the unit’s starting experience, suffered a broken right arm during fall camp and never got completely healthy while participating in seven games.
“I had a broken arm and I had a groin issue,” Peters said.
“Everything is fixed up now. This is my first season with the Razorbacks actually being 100 percent healthy, so I feel like this should be a really good season for me.”
Freshman Brooks Ellis of Fayetteville and junior college transfer Martrell Spaight of North Little Rock wound up making moderate impacts in the rotation last year.
Spaight, who was also affected by injury, started two games and Ellis came on late to start the final four games.
“I’m so much more comfortable,” Ellis said. “It’s nice to have a little bit of experience out there for once.”
Mitchell, a senior from Heber Springs, is the group’s elder statesman.
“Everybody came into spring ball with the mind-set to work hard and come out and have a way better year than we had last year,” Mitchell said.
A year of playing time will pay off in the fall, Mitchell said.
“Now we know what to go out there and look for,” Mitchell said. “Now I can show the younger guys how they should go out and practice every day, how to study film and keep up with the schemes.”
Ellis, who is up to 237 pounds, and the 226-pound Peters spent the first week of spring splitting reps at middle linebacker.
Shannon said Ellis has to be more assertive.
“We’re throwing a lot at him,” he said.
“He’s a guy that we’ve got to depend on, and he’s been doing a good job. It’s great to see Otha’s really come back and shown some things these first few days, because he’s healthy now. He’s been flying around and making plays, so we’re really excited with what we have.”
Mitchell is taking first team snaps at strong-side linebacker ahead of his classmate Carr.
Spaight is leading the way at weak-side linebacker ahead of redshirt freshman Alex Brignoni, a Fayetteville High product who moved down from safety.
Shannon said the linebackers are primed to be better play makers this season.
“I think those guys are further along than they were at this time last year, because last year none of them had even played a snap and Otha was hurt,” Shannon said. “We were just trying to piece together somebody that could play.
“Now you see guys that have played some SEC football, so it’s been really good and fun.”
Arkansas played an inexperienced group of linebackers in 2013. A look at the personnel at linebacker expected to play in 2014
Sports, Pages 21 on 04/02/2014