Position Analysis: Inside Linebackers:

Dre Greenlaw's return a spark to Razorback defense

By: Bob Holt
Published: Friday, August 11, 2017
Arkansas linebacker Dre Greenlaw speaks to reporters during the Razorbacks' annual media day on Saturday, Aug. 5, 2017, in Fayetteville.
Photo by Ben Goff
Arkansas linebacker Dre Greenlaw speaks to reporters during the Razorbacks' annual media day on Saturday, Aug. 5, 2017, in Fayetteville.

FAYETTEVILLE -- It's been a long wait for Dre Greenlaw, but the Arkansas Razorbacks' junior linebacker is finally ready to play full speed again.

Greenlaw, who was fully healthy for only five games last season due to a right foot injury and then sat out spring practice and was limited the first two weeks of training camp, is getting his first work in team periods this week.

"How is Dre doing?" inside linebackers coach Vernon Hargreaves said. "Do you see me smiling? I like what he's doing.

"Seeing him out there, he brings a flash to the defense. Stuff happens. It gets you excited. Hopefully, he can keep his feet underneath him and stay healthy."

Greenlaw made 17 consecutive starts before breaking his right foot against Alabama last season and undergoing surgery in October. He returned for the Belk Bowl and started against Virginia Tech, but re-injured his foot and underwent a second surgery in January.

"We haven't got a lot out of Dre since the Alabama game so it's fun to have him out there," defensive coordinator Paul Rhoads said. "The first day he was out there, there were 21 guys operating at one speed and Dre operating at his speed.

"His speed was pretty fast because he is fast and plays the game quickly, and because he had fresh legs, too."

Greenlaw said Saturday that he feels completely recovered and has no issues with his foot.

"I'm pretty confident I'm back to 100 percent physically," he said. "The coaches are being a little cautious to make sure I'm healthy for the season, but I feel ready to go. My foot feels great. No problems at all."

The Razorbacks' defense struggled without Greenlaw, especially against the run. They finished 75th nationally in total defense (426.8 yards per game), 85th in scoring defense (31.1 points) and 94th in rushing defense (205.5 yards).

"It was real tough not being able to be out there with my teammates and enjoy the game and do what I love to do," said Greenlaw, who had 44 tackles last season. "Then to play for a little bit and get hurt again in the bowl game made it even tougher. So I'm very hungry to play again. I can't wait."

Hargreaves said as good as it is to see Greenlaw moving at full speed, the coaching staff will monitor his work carefully in practice to make sure he's ready for the Aug. 31 season opener against Florida A&M in Little Rock.

"I think Dre's ready to go now, and he's catching up pretty quickly for the time he's missed," Hargreaves said. "But we still have to do a good job of managing his reps to make sure we don't put too much on him too soon."

Greenlaw said he feels ready to play in the new 3-4 scheme thanks to observing so much in practice.

"I think getting all those mental reps is going to allow me to play fast," he said. "I already know what I'm doing, so I'm ready to do it when I get on the field."

Greenlaw had 95 tackles as a true freshman in 2015 when he moved to linebacker after playing safety for Fayetteville High School.

"I think Dre would be the first one to tell you when he made those tackles he didn't necessarily know what was going on," Arkansas Coach Bret Bielema said. "He just saw ball, got ball."

Rhoads said getting more work in practice will pay huge dividends for Greenlaw because he's still relatively inexperienced as a linebacker.

"Everybody knows that Dre Greenlaw is a very capable playmaker," Rhoads said. "We're anxious to get him on the practice field to make him a better linebacker. There's a difference."

Rhoads said Greenlaw, 6-0 and 229 pounds, has the athletic ability of a defensive back in a linebacker's body.

"I think he's the type of player that can be out of position and still make a play just because he's that quick and strong and agile," Rhoads said. "You need a couple of guys like that on the field to be a great defense."

Sophomore De'Jon "Scoota" Harris is set to start at middle linebacker alongside Greenlaw.

Harris played off the bench in 12 games as a true freshman, getting increased work due to Greenlaw's injury, and had 37 tackles.

"Scoota may be the player that's grown the most on our defense from the end of last season to now," Rhoads said. "He was with us all year, but he didn't play a lot of snaps.

"You wouldn't know that by how he carries himself in practices right now. You'd think this is a guy that played a lot of snaps for our defense last year. That's very encouraging."

Harris is replacing Brooks Ellis, who started 41 games and made 290 tackles the previous four seasons and is now a rookie with the New England Patriots.

"I feel like I'm ready to be a starter," Harris said. "Playing in some games last year has made me a lot calmer."

Hargreaves said he likes Greenlaw and Harris as a starting tandem.

"They're both athletic, they both run well," Hargreaves said. "They have the tools that you're looking for at that position."

Grant Morgan, a redshirt freshman walk-on, has gotten first-team reps at weakside linebacker in Greenlaw's absence and also can play middle linebacker. He had eight tackles in Saturday's scrimmage, including three for losses totaling 12 yards.

"Grant is just a tough, smart, hard-nosed player,' Rhoads said. "He'll help us win whether it will be on defense or special teams."

Redshirt freshmen Giovanni LaFrance and Dee Walker also are being counted on to provide depth.

LaFrance made 8 tackles in the scrimmage, including 3 for 6 yards in losses, when he got second-team reps after Josh Harris went down with an injury.

"Gio's having a good fall camp," Greenlaw said. "He saw his opportunity in the scrimmage and he definitely got a little boost there. I think what the coaches want out of him is a little bit more consistency, but he's getting there."

Greenlaw said he's confident the backups will be ready to play when the season starts.

"I think for the most part depth isn't going to be an issue for us anymore," Greenlaw said. "We've got a lot of guys that are catching on and coming along and getting ready to help us win games.

"It's going to be interesting to see the type of roles these younger guys step into, but we're going to need them because it's a long season."

Sports on 08/11/2017

Inside linebackers

KEY LOSSES Brooks Ellis (13 starts in 2016) , Dwayne Eugene (6 starts)

RETURING STARTER Dre Greenlaw (7 starts)

WHO’S BACK De’Jon Harris, Josh Harris, Grant Morgan, Giovanni LaFrance, Dee Walker

WHO’S NEW Kyrei Fisher

WALK-ON Terrell Collins

ANALYSIS After missing much of last season and not practicing in the spring because of a right foot injury, it’s critical for the Razorbacks that Greenlaw stay healthy and on the field. De’Jon Harris is set to start alongside Greenlaw with Eugene moving to outside linebacker in the 3-4. Morgan, LaFrance and Walker need to come on to provide depth. Josh Harris is injured.

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