This is thethird installment in a four-part series previewing Arkansas’ spring football practice. In today’s installment, Hogwired.com takes atakes a look atthe Razorbacks’ defensive line and linebackers.
DEFENSIVE LINE: When defensive coordinator Reggie Herring reflects back on the steady progression of the Arkansas defense in 2005, he doesn’t have to go far in the formation to identify some Razorbacks who made remarkable improvement. Although thinned by injuries, the Hogs’ defensive line bolstered its unit with quality depth and a bevy of outstanding individual performances.
Junior defensive end Jamaal Anderson was one of the Razorbacks that translated additional playing time into increased production. Anderson stepped up to fill a void at left end when teammate Anthony Brown was lost for the season after the sixth game of the 2005 campaign. The Little Rock Parkview product blossomed over the last five games of the season racking up 34 of his 47 season tackles, including 8.5 TFL (-47) and three sacks (-24) in that span. He staked his claim to the starting position and enters the spring as the Hogs’ top choice on the left side.
Sophomore Antwain Robinson was the last of 17 Razorback true freshmen to play in 2005 when he suited up against Ole Miss. He played in only three games, but tallied five tackles and three tackles for loss (-7) in his limited snaps. Redshirt freshman Michael Hall will get his first true look at end this spring as a reserve behind Anderson and Robinson.
Brown is back from his knee injury and is penciled in as the starter at right defensive end. The converted wide receiver was showing promise at his new position earning seven sacks (-21) in only six games before being sidelined for the remainder of 2005. He will use the spring to get back in the flow and prepare for his senior season on the right edge.
Sophomore Zach Snider was solid in his first season in a Razorback uniform. The Tulsa, Okla., native played in 10 games garnering 11 tackles and four quarterback pressures. Redshirt freshman De’Andre Bryant will add practice snaps to his time in the weight room in an effort to prepare for a backup role at defensive end.
The Hogs’ appear to be in good shape with a pair of experienced bodies to fill the defensive tackle spots. Senior Keith Jackson and junior Marcus Harrison not only are at the top of the Razorbacks’ depth chart, but also rank as some of the best defensive linemen in the SEC.
Jackson garnered second-team All-SEC honors in 2005 after earning 74 tackles and 6.5 TFL (-32). He ranked second only to Mississippi State’s Willie Evans in tackles per game in the league by defensive ends and down linemen. He was the only Razorback defensive tackle to earn a start in all 11 contests. Jackson will once again be at the center of Arkansas’ defensive fortunes in 2006.
Backing Jackson at right tackle will be sophomores Cord Gray and Marcus Shavers. Gray got his feet wet in three games last season. Shavers appeared in seven games earning a start at defensive tackle against Louisiana-Monroe. Late in the season, Shavers worked at defensive end to give the Hogs more depth at that position. He has added weight in the off-season and will likely spend his time at tackle in the immediate future.
Harrison made a seemingly smooth transition from defensive end to defensive tackle last season. He was steady in the trenches for the Hogs in 2005 appearing in all 11 games while starting nine. Harrison ranked fourth among Arkansas’ defensive linemen with 37 tackles. He led the team with 15 quarterback hurries. Harrison enters springs drills as the starter at right tackle.
Sophomore Ernest Mitchell played his way into the defensive line rotation in 2005. Mitchell played in all but two of Arkansas’ 11 games at defensive tackle. He will back Harrison on the right side in 2006. Junior Fred Bledsoe is back on the defensive front after a brief experiment on the offensive line last season. The Little Rock product has a high ceiling in regards to talent, but has yet to develop consistency in practice and on the game field to garner extensive playing time.
LINEBACKERS: He may not be the biggest player on the field, but there is no question that Arkansas linebacker Sam Olajubutu casts a considerable shadow on opposing offenses and carries more pop per inch than any linebacker in the nation. The 5-9 linebacker was sensational as a junior earning first team All-SEC honors at the will linebacker position. Olajubutu led the Razorbacks and ranked third in the SEC with 118 tackles in 2005.
He was around the ball on seemingly every play tallying 14 tackles or more in four games including a league-high 18 stops against Auburn. His gaudy total upped his career tackle total to 257 and leaves Olajubutu just 43 stops away from becoming on the 14th Razorback to record 300 tackles in his career.
Olajubutu made it difficult for opposing ball carriers to even get back to the line of scrimmage last season. He led the Hogs and tied for fifth in the SEC with 14.5 TFL (-40). National pundits have already taken notice of Olajubutu’s production naming him to the early-season watch lists for both the Lombardi Award and the Lott Trophy. He will anchor the Hogs’ linebacker lineup once again in 2006.
Redshirt freshman J.P. Square and junior Vernon McNeal are listed as the top reserves at will linebacker heading into the spring. The duo will need to make solid showings in the spring to ensure game time next fall. Arkansas signed several highly touted linebackers that will immediately challenge for snaps once they arrive on campus.
Senior Desmond Sims is accustomed to wearing the starter designation. However, he will do so this spring at a new position. Sims was an 11-game starter at left end in 2005 after switching from linebacker. By all accounts, Sims adapted well posting a standout season that included 63 tackles, 10.5 TFL (-77) and 5.5 sacks (33). Increased depth at defensive end has allowed Herring to return Sims to his original position for his senior campaign. Sims will get first crack at filling the spot at middle linebacker vacated by graduating senior Pierre Brown.
Junior Weston Dacus has the most experience of any reserve linebacker on the Razorbacks’ roster. Dacus played in all 11 games last season including a start in the season opener against Missouri State. Dacus earned 26 tackles in play at linebacker and on special teams. Sophomore Matt Stoltz is also listed as one of the Hogs’ reserves at mike linebacker. The LSU transfer practiced with the Razorbacks all last season, but played in only the Louisiana-Monroe game.
Freshman Freddie Fairchild learned on the job last season at the sam linebacker spot. The crash course for Fairchild began in earnest against No. 1 USC and continued throughout a brutal SEC schedule. Fairchild responded to the challenge and showed steady improvement week-after-week. The talented young linebacker ended his rookie season with 59 tackles, including 6.0 TFL (28) and two sacks (-16). Fairchild earned freshman All-America honors for his efforts. He was also named the SEC Freshman Defensive Player of the Year by The Sporting News. The Hogs hope he will build on his first-year progress as the starter at sam linebacker.
Sophomore Brandon Sturdivant was forced into action last season when the Hogs needed depth at linebacker. He played in only three games, but benefited from extensive snaps with the first and second team defensive units in practice as well. He is back in the linebacker fold in 2006.