Clay Henry is the publisher and executive editor of Hawgs Illustrated. He is a member of the Football Writers Association of America and its All-America Committee, voter for the Heisman Trophy and has been inducted into the Arkansas Sportswriters and Sportscasters Hall of Fame.
Change coming: Harris confident Hogs will be improved
Arkansas linebacker De'Jon Harris calls out a play at the line of scrimmage during a game against Texas A&M on Saturday, Sept. 29, 2018, in Arlington, Texas.
After winning just one SEC game in the last two seasons, it’s not out of line for Arkansas fans to ask when the ship will begin to sail true.
Linebacker De’Jon “Scoota” Harris has heard those questions. In fact, he tuned into the TV replays of Arkansas fans to see what announcers were saying about the Razorbacks as they struggled through a 2-10 season.
“I watch the tape that we have from our coaches, the cut ups and end-zone versions,” Harris said. “But I’d go back home after the games and have the tape from the TV version, too, the full game.
“I watched stuff that I found on YouTube, too. I wanted to see what people were saying about us. You gotta accept the truth.”
It was motivation to keep working hard. Harris said it’s because something good is coming at Arkansas.
That’s back to the lead question: when?
“I’m not sure,” Harris said. “Soon, though. We are getting better. That’s why I wanted to come back this year. I know it’s coming.
“Will it be this next season? I’m not sure, but I know it’s coming. I do know that it’s going to be real good at some point and I’ll be sad that when that happens in a couple of years, I won’t be here.”
The good news is that Harris is with the Hogs this season. He probably could have exited after last season and been drafted, but perhaps not in one of the first two rounds. He is the SEC’s leading returning tackler.
Arkansas defensive coordinator John Chavis took Harris to dinner over the Christmas break to discuss those options. Despite what some may think, the UA linebackers coach wasn’t begging.
“He’s a smart young man,” Chavis said. “I didn’t tell him one way or another. He told me that in his mind, it was a benefit to come back.
“You shouldn’t try to convince someone. I just was there to help him understand the information that was given to him.”
“I’ll tell you one thing, most of the time in these situations, they know what they are going to do.
“I will say that I’ve told a bunch of them to go. If they are going in the first or second round, they must go.”
Harris admitted that he spent a day or two thinking hard about the decision, but there was a clear thought throughout the process. He wanted to finish with his degree ahead of an NFL career. He needed a spring and fall to accomplish that goal.
Bryan Crayton understood and applauded. Crayton is married to Scoota’s older sister Vontrice. Crayton also was his position coach in high school.
Well, that should carry an asterisk. Crayton was one of Scoota’s position coaches.
“I played nine positions in one game,” Harris said, noting Crayton was his linebackers coach and defensive coordinator at John Ehret High School in Harvey, La.
Harris also was a star in basketball and baseball at John Ehret.
“He drove the bus for us, too,” Crayton said, pleased to be able to use the old joke about true versatility.
Crayton has known Scoota since he was just a little Scoota, the reason his mom gave him the nickname.
“I’ve really known him for about his whole life because I’ve been married to his sister for the last 18 years,” Crayton said.
They never thought it would be anything more than a brother-in-law relationship until Crayton volunteered to be an assistant coach at John Ehret just ahead of Scoota’s freshman season.
“Our relationship changed then,” Crayton said.
It got tighter. Crayton begged head coach Corey Lambert to get Scoota moved from defensive end to inside linebacker after his first two seasons at John Ehret.
“That’s when I became his coach,” Crayton said. “That meant we spent a lot of time together. He rode with me to school and he rode home with me. Then, he’d come over and watch tape at night with me.
“You think he’s prepared now, that young man has always been prepared. I got to see how he handled every aspect of his life.”
It’s no different now than it was then. Harris, who sports a chain with the inscription “Savage,” is a quiet assassin. He has 233 tackles over the last two seasons, 115 last year when he led the SEC. He was second-team All-SEC by the Associated Press.
“Yes, he’s soft spoken off the field,” Chavis said. “And, he really doesn’t say much on the field unless it needs to be said. But he’s as good at tracking the football as any linebacker I’ve ever coached.”
It’s just fine that he doesn’t talk much, Chavis said.
“That makes it a bigger impact when he does,” he said. “His teammates are going to listen. I think he’d probably be fine if he didn’t say a word.
“But he’s not going to do that because football is too important to him. Winning is too important. His natural instinct is just to play or just to work, but he’ll step up and be vocal for this team. He is our leader.”
That’s not just for the defense. Head coach Chad Morris knows who is going to lead the Razorbacks this season.
“This is his team,” Morris said of Harris. “We’ve got others who can help lead, too. (McTelvin) Sosa Agim and Rakeem Boyd are two of our leaders, and Ben Hicks is probably developing in that role, too, as the quarterback. But Scoota is the guy our players follow.”
Crayton said it was like that at John Ehret.
“He didn’t say much then, either,” Crayton said. “But when he did, it had a huge effect.”
Harris shrugs his shoulders about accepting that role again.
“I felt like I should be more vocal as a senior in high school and I’m a senior again so it’s time to do that again,” Harris said. “We had Hjalte (Froholdt), Dre (Greenlaw) and Santos (Ramirez) last year, but it’s probably my time now. I’m the older guy left.
“I’ll take that bigger role now. Mostly, I just want to lead by being the right example. I’m quiet, but I can talk if there is something that needs to be said.”
Harris recalls those high school days with fondness. John Ehret played in the state title game in his senior season when he played quarterback, middle linebacker, running back and wide receiver. He punted and kicked, too.
“The amazing part was that he was so prepared in all of it, he made it look easy,” Crayton said. “There were times that he never left the field for long stretches.
“He’d punt, then, trot down the field to play defense and run by me on the sideline. I’d have 20 seconds with me and there was always something from him about the previous possession on how we could adjust. I knew he was right, too, because of his preparation in tape study.”
That was all fun, Harris said, so much that he’s hinted that he could take on an expanded role with the Razorbacks. There’s been no mention of punting or kicking, but he did think a play or two from the Wildcat would work.
“I think so,” he said. “I have casually dropped it to Coach Morris that I could play in the Wildcat.”
Crayton said it ought to be considered.
“He’s athletic and 240 (pounds) or so,” Crayton said. “He can do a lot of things. He’s got great hands. I am not sure Coach Morris knows what he’s got as a possible Wildcat man.
“I do remember the first time I talked to Bret Bielema when Arkansas decided to recruit him. He called him an old school player, someone who just made plays no matter where he played. He can do whatever you need. He even returned kicks for us.
“If it helped us win, Scoota was for it. He really has never changed. He’s about doing what it takes to win.”
Back to that original question: when is it going to happen? From a defensive perspective, Chavis said improvement has been made.
“Last year, we weren’t awful, but we underachieved as a defense,” Chavis said. “I didn’t get everything out of them. That’s on me.
“I take it personally. Plain and simple, we underachieved.
“What I can say after spring, we are better. Part of it is knowing the kids better. I know what they can do and they know our system and they know me. They know our concepts better. We can play a lot better than what we did last year.
“Are we where we want to be and have to be? Not really. But we are going to play better this coming year. A lot of that is just the kids buying in all the way. They have.”
Offensive coordinator Joe Craddock said expectations are for a better season just because of knowledge of the system.
“We have higher expectations,” he said. “Our guys know what we are doing now. They know what to expect from Coach Morris and our staff.
“There are a lot of issues we don’t have to deal with anymore. It’s just a better culture.”
The issues were vast last year.
“It’s hard to get ready for an SEC opponent when you are trying to run down players who didn’t go to class or missed study hall or did not go by to see the tutor,” Craddock said. “We aren’t having that any more.”
The team is closer and some of that was by plan. Morris instituted methods for helping position coaches become familiar with players that weren’t in their area.
“We did a lot of things last semester that helped in that,” Craddock said. “It’s stuff that you would know had your staff been a part of their recruitment. But we weren’t, so we spent time before practice learning everyone a little better.”
Craddock said he challenged leaders at each position on offense to take on responsibilities for off-the-field activities. For example, senior Devwah Whaley planned a cookout for the rest of the running backs.
“We’ve challenged him to be a senior leader for that room and show the others the ropes,” Craddock said. “He mentioned to me last spring that one of the things he enjoyed that had happened lately was a cookout the seniors did for the younger players.
“He said it hadn’t happened in the last three years. I told him it was on him to organize it and get that started again.
“The other thing I told him, he’s got to hang out with the younger players more. Some of our guys don’t do that. We worked to change that this spring, get the team closer. We told the older guys, be that guy that gives back and helps develop the entire team. I think we are doing that.”
Will that translate into some victories?
“We are getting better,” Craddock said. “You see the culture changing. You see us getting better in recruiting with every class.”
It comes down to just getting better depth and more talent.
Morris said after the spring, “We are better. We do the little things better. I don’t think there is any question that we are a better team.”
And, he continues to predict winning will come.
“I know that it’s coming,” Morris said. “I’ve won every where I’ve ever been.”
Players think they are improved and quietly predict the turning point might be near. Linebacker depth isn’t great, but it is improved.
“We are better,” Harris said. “I see it even at linebacker, a position that some think we lack depth. I think we have it. Grant Morgan, Bumper Pool and Andrew Parker are some of the young ones who are coming on. I think Grant really showed his versatility this spring in playing both.
“I was out this spring with my foot injury. It allowed Grant to do some leadership things in the room. He showed that ‘next guy’ mentality that we have to have. Bumper grew up. Andrew started to show his talent.
“I saw that kind of growth all around our team. We do have depth to absorb some injuries.
“We are building a brotherhood. We are getting better.”
That may make watching those TV replays in the fall a lot more enjoyable. The truth might not hurt so much.
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