Bob Holt is a reporter for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. A graduate of the University of Missouri, he is a member of the Football Writers Association of America, and voter for the Heisman Trophy, Biletnikoff Award and AP Top 25 basketball poll. Holt was awarded Arkansas Sportswriter of the Year in 2000 and 2015.
Arkansas Position Glance Linebackers:
Experience fixed, payoff needed
Arkansas linebacker Brooks Ellis pursues an offensive player during a Nov. 2, 2013 game against Auburn at Razorback Stadium in Fayetteville.
FAYETTEVILLE -- Brooks Ellis and Martrell Spaight were Arkansas newcomers last season.
Braylon Mitchell and Daunte Carr had played primarily on special teams their first three years in the program and combined for nine career tackles.
At a glance
RETURNING STARTERS Brooks Ellis, Braylon Mitchell
KEY LOSSES Jarrett Lake, Otha Peters, Austin Jones
WHO’S BACK Martrell Spaight, Daunte Carr
WHO’S NEW Josh Williams, TQ Coleman, Randy Ramsey, Khalia Hackett, Dwayne Eugene
WALK-ONS Josh Harris, Keegan Heller, Nicholas Thomas-Smith
ANALYSIS The Razorbacks should be improved at linebacker considering Brooks Ellis, Braylon Mitchell and Martrell Spaight have starting experience. Ellis started the final four games last season at middle linebacker. Spaight, known for his big hits, will be able to play more aggressively after a year of learning. Mitchell and Daunte Carr are solid. There is a good influx of talent with junior college transfer Josh Williams and freshmen Randy Ramsey, Khalia Hackett and Dwayne Eugene. TQ Coleman has moved from safety and should help against spread teams. Otha Peters, slowed by injuries last season, transferred to Louisiana-Lafayette after the first week of camp.
Now Ellis, Spaight, Mitchell and Carr give the Razorbacks experience at linebacker and hope for improvement on defense Arkansas must have to rally from last season's 3-9 record.
"I think we'll be a whole lot better having a year under out belts," said Spaight, a senior from Little Rock who transferred from Coffeyville (Kan.) Community College. "We finally know how it is to the play in the SEC, and we can share that experience with the young guys."
Ellis, a sophomore from Fayetteville, is at first-team middle linebacker, where he started the final four games last season. Spaight, who started two games last season, is the first-teamer at weakside. Mitchell and Carr, both seniors, are at strongside.
Mitchell, who played at Heber Springs, started eight games last season at strongside (4), weakside (3) and in the middle (1).
"There's not a price tag you can put on experience," said Robb Smith, who became Arkansas' defensive coordinator in February. "Just the fact that you've been in the fire before, you've done it.
"It helps the younger guys, too. If you have nobody with experience, there's nobody to help the younger guys along. Now the older guys are rubbing off on the younger guys."
Arkansas' newcomers are sophomore Josh Williams -- a transfer from Dodge City (Kan.) Community College -- and freshman Khalia Hackett in the middle, true freshman Randy Ramsey at strongside and senior TQ Coleman -- who moved from safety in the spring -- and freshman Dwayne Eugene at weakside.
Coach Bret Bielema and linebackers coach Randy Shannon said they expect the newcomers to play, whether on defense or special teams.
"One thing Coach Shannon has expressed to us is that everybody in our room is going to play," Mitchell said. "It's just all a matter of matchups."
Shannon is Arkansas' only position coach on defense who was on staff last season.
"With everything that was going on last year, we definitely prayed and hoped that we didn't lose our coach, too," Mitchell said. "Honestly, Coach Shannon turned me into a linebacker. Before he got here, I was just out there playing on the fly. He taught me the position.
"He taught us all the position, so to have him for another year is pretty awesome."
Mitchell's 77 tackles ranked him second on the team behind safety Alan Turner's 97.
"I think I'm way better than I was last year," Mitchell said. "I know what the coaches expect from me. I can be a leader out there on the field, and the most important thing is I know what's going on.
"I can read formations now and that tips me on what plays are coming."
Smith said Mitchell is solid and "knows what he's supposed to do and he knows how to do it."
Ellis had 33 tackles as a freshman, including 11 at Ole Miss and 10 at LSU.
"I think Brooks is a guy that mentally understands our defense top to bottom," Smith said. "He's the guy that can get us lined up."
Ellis was slowed early in fall camp by a knee injury, but he returned to practice last week and said he'll be full speed for Saturday's opener at Auburn.
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"I'm so much more prepared," Ellis said. "I feel so much more mature. I'm just so much more ready for it, I can't wait for Saturday.
"When you're next to guys on the field, it's very comforting to know that they've been through it, too, and they know what's about to happen."
Spaight, who had 22 tackles in 10 games, was known for big hits in fall camp last year, but was slowed by his lack of experience once the games began. Coaches and players have said Spaight is now able to play with the speed to match his aggressive nature.
"He got a chance to learn," Shannon said. "He went through spring football, summer, getting some actual teaching instead of just jumping into the fire last year and trying to learn on the run."
Smith said Spaight has speed and gives the defense a lot of energy.
"One thing about Spaight is he plays the game like his hair is on fire," 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."
Sports on 08/24/2014