State of the Hogs: Linebacker Hunt

Bobby Petrino didn't take long to get back to business and the main job is to find some linebackers. A tough coach is looking for some tough run stoppers.

Bobby Petrino doesn't know the folks who put him in their car and headed him towards the hospital Sunday evening after his motorcycle wreck. He doesn't think they knew he was the Arkansas head football coach.

That was the surprising news that came out of Tuesday's visit with the toughest coach since Wilson Matthews was on staff at Arkansas. Or maybe it shouldn't surprise that one Arkansan would stop to help another in need. That's normal.

I'm reminded of the time Danny Ford stopped to help someone change a flat tire. Ford didn't tell anyone about that good deed, but he was recognized as the Arkansas coach and couldn't just be an anonymous Good Samaritan. Word got out.

But maybe Petrino was so beat up Sunday that no one would have recognized him. Those that saw him Sunday night and Monday say he looked much better by Tuesday.

I wasn't surprised Petrino was at practice Tuesday afternoon, only that there was a doctor -- perhaps the equal of Matthews -- tough enough to keep him in the press box and not on the field. Those who know him expected him to attend the workout.

Perhaps the upset was that Petrino didn't introduce himself on the ride to the hospital and ask if his transport knew where he could find some inside linebackers. Perhaps he was in too much pain to worry about football for those few minutes. Trust that it was only a few minutes that football was erased by pain.

It's clear that thoughts on linebackers have been frequent over the past few weeks. That was even before Alonzo Highsmith, the lone returnee of the three starting spots, was lost for the spring with a partially torn pectoral tendon.

Tenarius "Tank" Wright has been the first teamer at mike linebacker over the last three weeks. He's a former high school inside linebacker converted into the team's top defensive end.

Wright has shown promise at linebacker this spring but he's by no means a finished product.

The Hogs are looking for toughness at both inside linebacker spots. They are looking at anyone and everyone. That became clear Tuesday after practice when fullback Kiero Small, a linebacker in junior college, confirmed he has gotten some work there after practices this spring. Small might play both positions in the fall, helping at linebacker in short-yardage situations or on the goal line. He likes collisions and is as much a "Tank" as Wright.

Walk-on transfer Austin Jones got some time beside Wright with the first team Tuesday. He was good in the scrimmage on Friday. He's a Dallas product and a transfer from the Air Force Academy.

Jones, 6-2 and 230, helped Lake Highlands to a regional championship with 160 tackles as a senior, 100 as a junior. The junior squadman has been on the UA scout team the last two years.

How can it be that hard to find linebackers? Watching practice with David Alpe, retired high school coach from Malvern, gave me a hint.

"So much of high school football is all passing," Alpe said. "You don't even play with mike linebackers any more. You play with all defensive backs -- or at least a lot of teams do. They are playing against spread teams. A lot of teams are playing their linebacker types at defensive line and rushing the passer with them."

And then there's the Matthews warning that I often quote from Tommy Brasher, retired NFL coach and a member of the UA Hall of Honor.

"Wilson told me you don't make linebackers," Brasher said. "He always would tell us if you have to talk to them, they probably aren't linebackers."

I told that to Alpe and drew a laugh. He could hear Matthews saying that. Matthews coached UA linebackers and sometimes jumped into full-pads tackling drills to demonstrate -- without pads.

Alpe liked what he saw of Wright in the scrimmage. And he was pleased with the work of Jones. Both were physical and made plays during our conversations.

They both looked tough enough. So did Petrino when we saw him Tuesday. That toughness was obvious to his players.

"When we saw him," Small said, "we thought if he can be here, we should never take a play off."

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