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Dismantled Not Defeated: Arkansas Linebackers Labor For Playing Time


Arkansas Linebackers
© Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports

Not unlike a lot of schools across the country, the Arkansas Razorbacks lost several starters from their 2023 team to other schools; by way of the transfer portal. The linebacking corp was the most depleted unit on the team.


The team lost its top two tacklers, linebackers Chris Paul Jr. and Jaheim Thomas. Paul Jr. skipped east across the border to SEC rival Ole Miss. Thomas departed to Wisconsin to reunite with the coach of his former team the University of Cincinnati Bearcats. Paul and Thomas accounted for 164 tackles and 5.5 sacks in 2023.



Five total linebackers left the program this winter. The other linebackers to transfer were Jordan Crook and Mani Powell to Arizona State and UNLV, respectively. Experienced college defender Antonio Grier declared for the Draft after racking up 36 tackles a fumble recovery and a pick-six last season.


The swift exits left the Hogs with limited scholarship players at the most important defensive position. The remaining were mostly redshirt players with limited in-game experience, even on special teams. Sam Pittman and company knew that young players would have to grow up fast and they must use the fickle portal to their advantage. Arkansas needed linebackers not only to replace the amount of experience leaving Fayetteville but to have enough players to hold the tackling dummies come spring and summer ball.



The Razorbacks are hoping for sophomore Brad Spence to elevate his play after flashes of elite-caliber play last season. Spence took an interception 85 yards to the house against Western Carolina in Arkansas' first game last year and recorded a season-high four tackles against Texas A&M. The 6-foot-2 Spence hails from Klein Forest High School in Houston, Texas. His versatility at outside and inside linebacker garnered him a consensus three-star ranking and his district's defensive MVP.


The sophomore chose the Hogs over Arizona State, Texas, Wisconsin, Vanderbilt, Utah, Nebraska and others. Built with a sturdy body at 240 pounds, Spence still moves lightly on his feet and has a knack for filling holes with force; he logged 16 tackles last fall in sporadic action spelling the starting group.


Defensive coordinator Travis Williams had his attention drawn to Spence early last season because of his physical presence. "He comes in and you can see him, he looks like he is a sophomore or junior in college. He has heavy hands and does a really good job striking" Willaims said after Spence's performance against Western Carolina.



Williams and the defensive staff are eager to see where the sophomore improves this year after gaining a wealth of knowledge in limited reps last year. The coordinator has also been pleased with holdovers sophomore Alex Sanford and redshirt freshman Carson Dean, Williams has been heaping praise on their growth since last season.


PULLING STRINGS IN THE PORTAL




Arkansas nabbed highly-rated transfer Xavien Sorey Jr. from the University of Georgia, a four-star commitment. At 6-foot-3 and 224 pounds Sorey brings in the sorely needed experience the linebacker room desperately needed. A portal priority, Sorey committed to Arkansas on December 19 after racking up 19 stops and one sack for the Bulldogs in 2023.



The redshirt junior made two starts for Georgia last year and appeared in 11 games. Heralded as a prospect from the football factory at IMG in Florida, Sorey plays with a high motor and shows great mobility in passing situations. Arkansas coaches hope to develop Sorey into a serviceable pass-rusher to pair with his great block-shedding techniques.


Arkansas could only acquire one linebacker in the early portal window frenzy. However, with the addition of 2024 top-20 linebackers Bradley Shaw and Julius "Juju" Pope, the Razorbacks have raw, young talent to bolster numbers in the linebacker room. Wyatt Simmons from Harding Academy in Searcy, Arkansas and Justin Logan from Marietta, Georgia were three-star pickups in the 2024 signing class for Arkansas and will also play linebacker.


FINDING THE RIGHT FIT


Regardless of who trots out there to start game one of 2024, that player will still be pretty green. Arkansas only returns 41 tackles combined in an NCAA game from every linebacker on the roster. Spence and Sorey have taken first-team reps all spring with Dean and Sanford getting reps with the twos. Pope and Logan arrived on campus early for spring practices and have shown promise, but are still adjusting to their communicative and leadership responsibilities.


Pope was recruited out of South Panola High School as an athlete. Sam Pittman and Travis Williams announced that the six-foot 200-pound Pope would be beefing up to slide down to linebacker. Arkansas expects his versatility to be key in getting Pope early playing time.





The Razorbacks are expected to pursue more linebackers in the transfer portal once it reopens after spring practices. While taking what some may consider "sloppy seconds" from other schools, that trend has boded well for Arkansas in recent memory. Jaheim Thomas led the team in tackles last fall after transferring in from Cincinnati, and Drew Sanders delivered on the expectations he had at Alabama before he became a Razorback in 2022.


Arkansas is looking to bounce back from a pedestrian 2023 campaign riddled with disappointment on the offensive side of the ball. Completing last fall at fourth in the SEC in passing yards and turnovers the defense was much more consistent last year and proved their ability to execute its game plan and wreck the opponents'. The defense finished 2023 improved in nearly every category from the previous year and that trend can only continue with quality linebacker play.


Disruption needed by Arkansas Linebackers


Spence, Sorey, and company will be tested and the success of the defense largely relies on their abilities to cause disruption in the passing game and stifle crafty rushing attempts. This defense will only be as effective as the linebacking crew can make them be.


Arkansas Linebackers
© Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports

The void left by Paul and Thomas will not be a cakewalk to fill, Spence and Sorey possess the tools and athletic prowess to blossom into SEC linebackers, but depth pieces can't fall too far behind. They must grow and elevate themselves. The SEC chews up and spits out the weak regularly and Arkansas is looking to avoid being the snack of choice for the conference's elite offenses.





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