There has been some shuffling during fall camp at the linebacker spots and it appears that Robb Smith and his staff on defense are looking at several options going into week one.
"Arkansas has a tradition of great linebacker play by undersized, under-recruited and undervalued guys. If Smith makes half as much progress in this off season as he did in 2014 will the results again surpass expectations?" From Why Robb Smith's New Contract is Worth Every Penny Jan. 2015
So how much progress has been made?
Harris- This guy is a thumper in the same mold as Sam Olajubutu. In the first part of the clip from the spring game Harris tackles running back Kody Walker by unleashing a shot to Frank Ragnow sending him into the backfield. His performance against the first team in the spring and what the coaches have been saying he brings every day in practice sound promising. But as you can see in the second portion of the clip he is not comfortable in the open field or in pass coverage. Keeping him out of those situations and as an in-the-box defender will be key.
Khalia Hackett: Totaling only 10 tackles last season, Hackett lacks experience but has all the physical tools. The same was said about Martrell Spaight before the 2014 season, and I really think Hackett can have a breakout season if able to align and adjust to the different situations.
In the clip above he shows his coverage ability and almost comes up with the INT. As a former safety that is a strength, but needs to improve in the box on read and recognition.
Who will emerge of these two inside? I think early in the season it will be an alternating series set up and Hackett may play on third down passing situations. When you have two guys with such contrasting skill sets a lot depends on the specific game plan each week.
Last season Robb Smith went in to the Auburn game with a plan to use TQ Coleman as a hybrid safety/LB. Auburn immediately took advantage of that mismatch in the passing game. Will a change be made quickly if the talented walk on Harris struggles in pass coverage or conversely will Hackett have trouble taking on blockers and meeting the ball carrier at the LOS instead of playing "on roller skates" 4-5 yards deep? Smith and LB coach Vernon Hargreaves may be using this as a motivating factor to push Hackett.
Weak side- Brooks Ellis
Ellis is a veteran linebacker and leader of this group. Even if playing on the weak side he will still be the defensive QB. Against most of the opponents on the schedule, Arkansas will be in personnel situations that include only two linebackers. So Ellis will be inside the tackle box a majority of the time.The idea seems to be to free him up to put pressure on the edge and to have less A gap responsibility. The fallback plan is clear, plug Ellis back in the middle if needed.
#2 Weakside LB: Dre Greenlaw- The coaches have been raving about his emergence in fall camp and say he will be in the rotation right away. Some depth will be needed as the Hogs roll through the season and against those fast-paced teams.
Sam LB: Josh Williams or Dwayne Eugene?
Who will fill this spot against the teams who use a TE or 2 backs, and on short yardage situations? Even against those teams Robb Smith will most likely only have three LBs on the field in 8-10 plays a game. One of these guys will be in the mix and called upon to contribute this season. Williams played on the inside some against Georgia when Brooks Ellis was out and did not show a lot of promise. He has the size and speed as well but needs to be quicker in reading blocks on runs to the outside and shedding when he meets them in the gap.
Dwayne Eugene: Played a few spots in 2014 recording 6 tackles. Showed improved patience in the spring game when attacking blockers and not getting himself out of position. He could be a guy to watch if it all starts to click.
Playing the role as the Under front Sam will be a key part of short yardage situations for this team.
Even with the changes in the line-backing group I have a huge amount of confidence in what Vernon Hargreaves and Robb Smith will put on the field. It may take a few games to iron out who that next two or three guys behind Ellis but they will get it done.
Big picture questions for opening game.
>Who emerges in the middle? Can Josh Harris cover in passing situations or will he be off the field on third downs? Does Khalia Hackett claim that spot?
>How much pressure does Robb Smith bring, or how much does he have to send from the LBs in order to get a pass rush? In the first few games the defensive line should generate pressure on its own, but does he turn Ellis loose on a few?
>How do the linebackers as a group align and set the defense to what the opposing offense shows,motion/ personnel?