With Thomas' pledge, Hogs in great shape at LB

By: Scottie Bordelon Scottie Bordelon's Twitter account
Published: Thursday, May 4, 2023
Cincinnati linebacker Jaheim Thomas is seen during practice for the Cotton Bowl NCAA football game, Monday, Dec. 27, 2021, in Arlington, Texas. (AP Photo/Brandon Wade)
Cincinnati linebacker Jaheim Thomas is seen during practice for the Cotton Bowl NCAA football game, Monday, Dec. 27, 2021, in Arlington, Texas. (AP Photo/Brandon Wade)

FAYETTEVILLE — For years, it seems, a common question has been posed to Arkansas football players and coaches in interview settings following spring practices and workouts in the preseason.

How do you feel about the team’s depth at linebacker?

The Razorbacks have consistently in recent seasons fielded two and sometimes three highly productive pieces at the position. Those players — the Bumper Pool, Drew Sanders, Grant Morgan, Hayden Henry types — were counted on to tally tackles and play the bulk of their team’s defensive snaps due to an overall lack of depth at the second level.

When fall camp cranks up in a few months, there should be little questioning what Arkansas has at linebacker or if the group has what it takes to withstand a demanding schedule. And it will be refreshing if a commitment holds.

The Razorbacks on Monday received a pledge from Cincinnati linebacker Jaheim Thomas. He bolsters a room that was already flush with promise and gives Arkansas a strong top four.

Thomas is expected to right away compete for time alongside rising star Chris “Pooh” Paul, Jordan Crook and another linebacker transfer in Antonio Grier, who went through spring drills with the Razorbacks and more than looked the part of a key contributor.

I don’t think it is a stretch to believe Thomas will transition smoothly based on the fact he was relied on (443 snaps) in another hard-nosed program and has produced in the past. His 70 tackles in 2022 were third most on the Bearcats’ defense.

Linebacker was a position of intrigue for me in the spring. For one, Arkansas was hitting the field without Pool, the school’s all-time tackles leader, and Sanders, a recent third-round draft pick of the Denver Broncos.

What would the group dynamic look like in their absence? And production aside, who would lead? 

In filling in for an injured Pool, Paul last season showed leadership qualities that inspired even greater confidence in his long-term prospects. That continued in spring drills, and he honed his all-league-caliber gifts and seemed to seamlessly step into Pool’s role as a trusted team spokesman.

Crook and Grier were reliable as well and can be more-than-adequate running mates with Paul. Crook in the team’s spring game led all players with 10 tackles, and Grier had five in addition to a tipped pass in the red zone that resulted in an interception for defensive back LaDarrius Bishop.

"Antonio has been a great addition to our linebacker room, in my opinion," Paul said after the April 15 spring scrimmage. "I feel like anybody on the defense would say that. He’s a high-energy guy that just loves football. That’s the type of guy that you can go to and just watch film for hours.

"Crook came in working harder than he did last year, and I like that about him. Crook is a hard worker anyway, so for him to pick up where he left off last year and continue that progress is great."

Thomas appears to fit a similar mold. And he is a big body at 6-4, 245 pounds.

PFF data shows he had an overall defense grade last season of 74.7, which was tied for sixth best on the team. Thomas also had a run-defense grade of 80.6 (238 snaps) and a pass-rush grade of 84.1 (66 snaps).

Arkansas’ linebackers wowed me often in March and April. Paul, Crook and Grier brought force to the field and ran well, and there seems to be optimism freshmen Brad Spence and Carson Dean will be hits in time.

"It's going to be something serious," Grier said of the group on April 6. "Our whole room is just dogs from the freshmen to the top to the bottom. You don’t got no room to slack. You ain’t got no time to come to practice and take a day off. There’s none of that."

Adding a talent like Thomas to the core already on campus gives the Razorbacks good numbers in the room, more valuable experience and, I believe, one of the best position groups on the team regardless of the side of the ball.


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