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.
OLB spots provide 2 distinctive looks for Razorbacks
Arkansas linebacker Michael Taylor goes through practice Saturday, April 8, 2017, in Fayetteville.
FAYETTEVILLE -- The Arkansas Razorbacks' switch to a base 3-4 defense affects outside linebackers more than any other set of players.
In many ways, having players with the body types and skill sets of 6-4, 228-pound Randy Ramsey and 6-3, 245-pound Michael Taylor prompted Coach Bret Bielema and defensive coordinator Paul Rhoads to make the switch from the 4-3, which was susceptible to the outside run game in 2016.
Outside Linebackers position glance
Returning starters SLB Randy Ramsey (3 starts in 2016)
Key losses Dee Walker (moved to ILB)
Who’s back Dwayne Eugene (6 starts at WLB)
Who’s new Karl Roesler (changed from DE), Michael Taylor (redshirted), Alexy Jean-Baptiste (redshirted)
Walk-ons Ben Brasuell, Brandon DePrato, Brenden Young
Analysis Bret Bielema and Paul Rhoads were convinced that Arkansas’ lack of depth on the defensive front and lack of versatility in the 4-3 scheme made it imperative to change the philosophy. While the outside linebackers will be in 2-point stances, the front can be shifted easily to a 4-3, and the “Hog” position in particular could drop to a 3-point stance. Ramsey and Eugene have the most experience at playing outside spots in the previous defense, but Roesler and Taylor also have played on their feet in the past.
Bielema hired Chad Walker from the NFC champion Atlanta Falcons to coach the outside linebackers, and the Razorbacks got to work creating blueprints for the players at the newly created "Razor" and "Hog" positions.
Ramsey is cross-training at both spots, but he's the prototype Razor in the new schemes.
"It's kind of catering to the way I play," said Ramsey, a junior whose 5.5 tackles for 32 lost yards last season tied for third on the team. "The thing I like about 'Razor,' I'm more in space. I'm long, so that kind of helps me because I'm playing in space a lot. The thing I like about 'Hog' is I get to rush. I don't have to drop back as much."
Defensive coordinator Paul Rhoads said there are distinct differences in the two spots, with the Razor generally being lighter, faster and stronger in pass coverage, and the Hog being heavier, more comparable to a defensive end and strong in pass rushing. But Rhoads noted that pre-snap movement and motions by the offense can affect calls and assignments.
Both positions are involved in blitzing and are essential in containing the edges of the defense.
"We got attacked on the outside, as everyone knows, last year and I think the 3-4 has really helped us set an edge to the defense and stop it from the outside-in," said senior Karl Roesler, a hybrid end-linebacker who moved to team with Taylor at the Hog spot after Arkansas' first spring scrimmage. "I love it. I get to move around. I get to stand up and see everything from a distance, and it's really nice to do that."
Roesler and Taylor are splitting reps with the first and second teams, while Ramsey and Dwayne Eugene -- who is training at the inside and outside spots -- are the top two players at Razor. Redshirt freshman Alexy Jean-Baptiste, who suffered a broken foot in the first scrimmage, had been in the mix at both outside spots prior to his injury. Dee Walker, also a redshirt freshman, had been an outside linebacker early in the spring before switching to the inside after the first scrimmage.
Ramsey said the biggest difference between the 4-3 front under former defensive coordinator Robb Smith and the current setup is a degree of freedom.
"It was a lot of reading the tackles' stance," Ramsey said. "I couldn't just go and get the quarterback. It was more of a scheme defense."
Ramsey is sold on the new front.
"I look at guys like Von Miller. He plays in the 3-4 defense, and I model my game after him, so I feel like this defense is good for me," he said.
Roesler, a 6-1, 256-pounder who had seven tackles last season, previously had played outside linebacker.
"I played standup linebacker in the LSU game and the Kansas State bowl game [in the 2015 season], and I also played a little bit in high school," Roesler said. "My senior year, I played standup the whole year."
Eugene, whose 6-1, 235-pound frame lends to training inside and outside, brings experience into the mix. The senior was seventh on the team with 44 tackles last season.
"I think having been here and having played is working well for him," inside linebackers coach Vernon Hargreaves said.
Chad Walker said he and the players at his positions are enjoying the crash course this spring.
"They're taking the coaching from the classroom and they're taking it to the field, so it's great," Walker said earlier in the spring. "We're seeing steady improvement right now. We got past the lined up stage to the let's play fast, let's strain, let's play with the right leverage stage."
Walker said Ramsey has been impressive.
"Randy Ramsey stands out with some of the things he can do," he said. "Whether it's in space, whether it's to play on the line of scrimmage, whether it's to rush the passer. Michael Taylor with pass-rush ability. ... Those guys have a lot of skills."
Sports on 04/20/2017
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