Bob Holt is a sports reporter for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. A graduate of the University of Missouri, he sits on the board of directors for the U.S. Basketball Writers Association, is a member of the Football Writers Association of America, and a voter for the Heisman Trophy and AP Top 25 basketball poll. He has been awarded Arkansas Sportswriter of the Year four times and has been inducted to the Arkansas Sportscasters and Sportswriters Hall of Fame.
Razorback report: LBs update, Broden facing familiar foe
Arkansas linebacker Jordan Crook (36) tackles Western Carolina running back Branson Adams (22) during the first quarter of the Razorbacks’ 56-13 win on Saturday, Sept. 2, 2023, at War Memorial Stadium in Little Rock.
FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas' linebacking corps has undergone an interesting transformation since the end of spring drills and it continues to evolve as the Razorbacks face Kent State at 3 p.m. on Saturday.
Redshirt sophomore Chris “Pooh” Paul and transfer senior Antonio Grier emerged from spring drills in the first unit but neither player started last week’s season opener against Western Carolina.
Those assignments went to sophomore Jordan Crook and transfer junior Jaheim Thomas after Paul and Grier dealt with injuries during training camp. Paul suffered a medial collateral ligament (MCL) issue and Grier had a quad muscle problem early in camp.
Thomas led the Razorbacks with eight tackles in the opener, while Paul posted five, Crook had two and freshman Brad Spence added two. Grier just got back into individual work last week but is expected to join the rotation on Saturday.
“I think Jaheim Thomas has been the most consistent player for us there in the linebacker room,” Coach Sam Pittman said. “Obviously Pooh was the guy that we … and he still is, but he’s been beat up. He’s been hurt.”
Paul will not be available for the first half against the Golden Flashes after drawing a targeting ejection in the second half of the 56-13 win over Western Carolina.
“Linebacker honestly has been a little bit like the O-line room, where, man, you wish you could find guys and put them in a spot and put them next to somebody that they’ve played a majority with of the time. But, injuries haven’t quite let us do that.
“Now, the other part of that is we’ve found Spence. Crook’s gotten a lot of reps and with Grier coming back now that should help us feel every bit of good about five guys. I think in the long run it’ll all help us.”
Grier has 238 career tackles, the largest total on the Arkansas roster by 100 over senior Hudson Clark (138). The rest of the top five on the current roster: Al Walcott (118), Jaheim Thomas (103) and Dwight McGlothern (94).
The variety of players at linebacker runs in contrast to recent years when the Razorbacks ran largely with a three-man rotation: Grant Morgan, Hayden Henry and Bumper Pool in 2021, and Pool, Paul and Drew Sanders last year.
“I would like to have two guys sitting out here side by side that have played together, but I don’t know if we’ll be able to do that until maybe week 3 when Pooh gets off his [targeting suspension] … maybe the second half of Saturday’s game. But I think it has helped us overall.”
Hogs vs. MAC
The Razorbacks will play just their fifth game against a team from the current Mid-American Conference. Arkansas is 3-1 in prior games against MAC teams, with wins over Eastern Michigan in 2009 (63-27) and Northern Illinois in 1994 (30-27) and 2014 (52-14), and a loss to Toledo in 2015 (16-12).
Broden vs. Flashes
Arkansas receiver Tyrone Broden will be looking for his first victory over Kent State in four tries.
Broden is a senior transfer from Bowling Green, which like Kent State plays in the Mid-American Conference.
Broden’s Bowling Green teams were 0-3 against the Golden Flashes over three seasons, but he did well individually with a combined 14 catches for 196 yards and two touchdowns.
Speaking of the Hogs’ receiving corps on Monday, Coach Sam Pittman said, “We need to get Broden going. … He only caught one pass. Man, how valuable is he as a gunner on the punt team? But he came here to catch balls and we’ve got to get him going a little more.”
With ace tailback Raheim Sanders out for Saturday with a left knee injury, the Razorbacks have two other backs with starting experience.
Redshirt junior Dominique Johnson started six games in 2021 after beating out Trelon Smith for the job, and sophomore Rashod Dubinion started the Liberty Bowl last season. Dubinion rushed for 112 yards, quarterback KJ Jefferson had a team-high 130 and AJ Green added 99 yards in the Hogs’ 55-53 triple-overtime win over Kansas.
The Razorbacks were penalized seven times for 86 yards in their opener to rank 116th in the country in penalty yards.
The infractions included two targeting ejections on Chris Paul and Quincy Rhodes, pass interference calls on Lorando Johnson and Jaylon Braxton, a roughing the passer on John Morgan III, and a hit out of bounds by Jordan Crook.
Coach Sam Pittman said the Razorbacks sent in several plays to the SEC office for clarification, including the Morgan flag for going low on quarterback Charlie Dean in the second quarter.
“Let’s say the one when John Morgan got the personal foul for hitting the quarterback low,” Pittman said. “Mine was I felt like he was held and thrown into the quarterback. And their interpretation was when you take that edge, it’s really your responsibility to stay high on the quarterback.”
Pittman suggested on his radio show that a block in the back call on Cam Ball that nullified Isaiah Sategna’s 55-yard kickoff return to open the second half might have been an improper call.
The UA will have the initials “AC” and “RM” painted on the 3- and 15-yard lines at Reynolds Razorback Stadium this season as a memorial to Alex Collins and Ryan Mallett, who wore those jersey numbers. Additionally, the family of Chris Smith will serve as honorary captains for the home game against Auburn on Nov. 11.
All three of those former Arkansas greats died at a young age this year.
“Certainly it’s great to get older, but as you get older things happen in life that you go through, obviously not near what the parents have gone through,” Arkansas Coach Sam Pittman said. “It was just our way of saying ‘Hey, we respected your son.’ Just our way of letting them live through their legacy on the field a little bit.”
The temperature at kickoff Saturday in Fayetteville is expected to be 86 degrees with the wind out of the northeast at 8 mph, according to weather.com. The outlook is sunny with no chance for rain and temperatures gradually dropping toward an overnight low of 55 degrees.
Kent State GRIT
Kenni Burns has a motto for the team in his first season at Kent State: GRIT.
It’s an acronym for “Grow, Respond with Integrity Together.”
Burns was an assistant at Minnesota for Coach P.J. Fleck the past six seasons.
“P.J. Fleck kind of gave me the idea that when you become a head coach you need to have something you truly believe in ingrained in your program,” Burns said. “Grit was always this word that came to me. I thought I was raised with grit from my parents and it was something I always wanted in my program.
“I came up with the acronym a little bit later on as I started to say, ‘OK, what’s it mean to you?’ It was about growing every single day athletically, academically, socially, spiritually. Like, how can you grow to make a better man and then in your own life?
“I thought the biggest thing I learned from P.J. is to respond. You’ve got to respond to whatever you get, the outcome, and how you respond is everything.
“And then I wanted men of integrity and high character. The other two can’t happen unless you have that. The togetherness part was something that I just believe connectivity is everything.”
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