FAYETTEVILLE — Another year, the same story line for the University of Arkansas linebacking corps.
Is there enough quality depth to give stalwart middle linebacker De’Jon “Scoota” Harris in-game breathers to keep him fresh for the fourth quarter? Is there more up-and-coming talent like weak-side ‘backer Bumper Pool, who was thrust into the season opener as a true freshman last fall after an injury to Dre Greenlaw and is now a starter?
Junior Grant Morgan knows that’s the issue fans have been worrying about with the linebacking corps for years. Morgan, who can play in the middle or either of the outside spots, is at the top of the group of players who must take on bigger roles for coordinator and position coach John “Chief” Chavis to hit his goal of limiting Harris to 55 or so snaps per game.
“I definitely think we’re going to have a rotation this year,” Morgan said. “I think Chief’s got a good enough understanding of who can play and I think he’s really excited about it.”
Morgan said the cluster of linebackers after Harris have heard the rap on them and it “definitely” bothers them.
“Like if you were told you weren’t good at your job and you weren’t good enough to play at your job, it’s not good to hear, you know,” Morgan said. “So when people say we don’t have enough depth and you’re a guy giving depth, you know it kind of sticks on your shoulder, like everything else. I definitely know we have depth and I know we can hang with anybody in the SEC.”
Juniors Hayden Henry, Deon Edwards and D’Vone McClure, who switched to linebacker from nickel back in the spring, are expected to add to the depth, along with redshirt freshman Andrew Parker and true freshman Zach Zimos.
Pool’s playing time is going up and he thinks the talent of the players surrounding Harris is on the rise.
“I think we’re going to surprise people,” Pool said. “I think we’ve got a good group and we have guys that are just young but they have the talent.”
A foot injury that sidelined Harris on the second day of spring drills — and required surgery — might wind up being the catalyst the linebacking corps needed to make depth happen. Morgan played middle linebacker for a huge chunk of spring and grew from the experience.
“Grant Morgan had a great spring,” Chavis said. “I can’t say enough about Grant Morgan, his leadership and his ability to play two positions. Grant is going to be a very valuable player for us.”
Said Morgan, “Just being able to be with that group, that first D-line, letting them hear my voice, letting them know, ‘I got us. Y’all can respect me. You can rely on me,’ I definitely think that gained a lot of respect.”
Harris didn’t just rehab his foot during spring. He watched from the sidelines and served as mentor to the rest of the group.
“I think he grew from that,” Chavis said. “We didn’t just say, ‘Hey, you can’t practice, so you’re not involved.’ He was involved.
“When you build a program, guys like Scoota are able to teach the younger guys and when we get to that point to where we’ve got that across the board, you can feel even better about your program. So we’re building a program and I think Scoota has taken a lot of steps in that direction. … You’ve seen him on the field the last two years. He’s a really good football player, but I think from a mental and leadership standpoint, he grew a tremendous amount this spring.”
Harris, the SEC leader with 118 total tackles and 62 solo tackles last season, said he wanted to improve his pass coverage drops heading into his senior year and the focus appears to be paying off. He had three interceptions the first week of camp to lead the team.
“That’s one of the things me and Chief came together after the season and tried to focus on, just doing a better job in the passing game,” Harris said.
The senior from Harvey, La., understands he needs to be fresher in the fourth quarters of games.
“Obviously when I’m tired, I’ll make sure I get out of the game and get somebody fresh in there,” he said. “I feel like as an older guy, you need me fresh toward the end of game.”
Greenlaw had 80 tackles last season, followed at linebacker by Pool with 29, then Henry and Morgan with 24 each. No other linebacker totaled more than 17 tackles.
The Razorbacks are expected to utilize their strong-side or “Sam” linebacker frequently in the season opener against Portland State. After that, the nickel back might be on the field more often. Still, the opportunity should exist for more linebackers to push up the tackle chart this fall.
Henry, who had shoulder surgery over the winter, is back at full speed and confident in the position group.
“We definitely have enough guys to do some really good things this fall,” Henry said. “We’ve got enough guys to make it happen, for sure.”
Chavis was asked about depth at the position following Saturday’s scrimmage.
“Where we are at camp right now, I feel real good,” Chavis said. “We’ve got five or six guys I feel good about. I’m not gonna single them out.
“We pulled Scoota after a certain number of plays today … and didn’t have any drop-off. Grant Morgan can play, there’s no question about that. He proved that all spring long.
“Bumper and Hayden Henry, if we were playing a three-linebacker scheme, Hayden would be our starting Sam linebacker. … We’ve got several guys we feel real, real good about. Do we have enough depth? If we stay healthy, I feel real good.”