State of the Hogs: New Backers

Reggie Johnson likes the new developments at linebacker. The Hogs may have added the missing links for this defense in Alonzo Highsmith and Robert Atiga.

Arkansas linebackers coach Reggie Johnson likes what he sees early in fall camp from his two newest veterans, Alonzo Highsmith and Robert Atiga. It could be that these newcomers have shown enough early in camp that the Hogs have found the missing link to the depth at linebacker, a huge need.

Highsmith is a junior transfer from Phoenix College in Arizona. He's working with the first team at weakside linebacker, perhaps the trouble spot as far as depth and consistency in the UA 4-3 scheme. Atiga is a sophomore transfer from Snow College in West Valley, Utah. He's the backup at middle linebacker.

Highsmith has been on campus for the two summer school sessions and started the first day of camp with the number one unit. Atiga, who made it to campus just last week, worked with the newcomers for a day, then got a battlefield promotion to the veterans. He got first team snaps Saturday when Jerry Franklin was absent on family business. Franklin was back to the first team Sunday.

"We've had Highsmith around her for four months," Johnson said Saturday. "He's a sharp kid. He has a football background since his father (of the same name) is in the game. He understands concepts and has linebacker instincts. I like him where he's at (on the first team) a lot.

"Robert, we just got him two days ago (on Wednesday). We are still evaluating, but he sure has the instinct for the position and he has the physical tools. We haven't hit yet, but when you watch him move in the box, his steps and his instincts, it's sure pleasing."

Highsmith is listed as 6-1, 229, but he said on media day that he's close to 240 on a daily basis now. Atiga is perhaps the best looking linebacker on the field at 6-3, 240. And both have quickness. They are equpped with fast twitch muscles and instinct that pops on drills.

"I think Atiga played more out on the edge at Snow, but he did get some work down inside," Johnson said. "He's got the speed to play on the edge. I'd say he was more of a weakside backer last year, but he looks fine at mike right now.

"Alonzo has really good quickness. And like I said, he's got those football instincts. He understands running back angles. He sees the quarterback. He can make all the plays.

"I think both of these young men are going to be on the field an awful lot for us this season. I think we are going to get them on the field quickly."

Johnson is still developing young players to go along with veteran middle linebacker Jerry Franklin. He knows that Franklin still has the understanding of will linebacker that he could be a swing player.

"He's played will and could do that again," he said. "We know that as we develop (Highsmith and Atiga) that Jerry has that flexibility. Jerry knows the scheme pretty well. Between Jerry, Jerico Nelson and Tramain Thomas, we have three that really have knowledge of the scheme out on the field.

"What we have at linebacker is some depth now. We have guys that have ability. And I think we have a guy in Jerry that gives us some freedom there. He's got the comfort level to play several positions. With Jerry, I say we need you to move, I don't get a bit of body language. He's ready to do it if that's what we need to get our best players on the field. He knows he will do what it takes for our defense to get better every day, whatever that takes."

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