More than any other defensive player, eyes were fixed on Alonzo Highsmith entering Arkansas' spring practices.
With the departure of four-year starter and four-year leading tackler Jerry Franklin at middle linebacker, Highsmith's development in the spring was thought be pivotal to the success of the defense in coordinator Paul Haynes' first season on the Hill.
But one day before the start of spring practice, Highsmith partially tore a pectoral muscle during a weight-lifting session and relegated to the sideline until the fall.
"I worked so hard and got to be the biggest I had ever been, ran well and got faster. I did so much and then I had that injury," Highsmith said. "It was frustrating at first and I was mad, but I couldn't get depressed about it because the rest of the players didn't need to see me moping about it. I figured if I could show everyone I'm in good spirits about it and cheer them on in practice, then it would make everything better."
Instead of learning more about Highsmith's demeanor on the football field, Arkansas coaches learned something about his one off it. Highsmith helped assistants during practice, offering advice and encouragement. And he would be voted team captain by players after the spring.
"If you watched him in the spring, we actually gave him a script every day," said Haynes, who coached the Razorbacks' Cotton Bowl win in January. "He would call out plays to the rest of the linebackers.
"He's a good leader for us on defense. He's attacked this whole offseason well."
Highsmith, who was a junior college all-American at Phoenix Community College in 2010, contributed immediately for the Razorbacks in 2011.
As a back-up to Franklin, his 80 tackles ranked third on the team and his 12.5 tackles for loss ranked first. Highsmith also had 4.5 sacks, an interception and returned a fumble for a touchdown in the second quarter at LSU.
"He's a fearless guy," said Arkansas fullback Kiero Small, a former junior college linebacker.
"No matter who lines up against, he's going to give it everything he's got. If he gets knocked down, he's going to bring it again. That's just the type of player he is.
"If you want to have a good defense, you've got to have everybody going to the ball at 100 percent and have a bunch of fearless guys, and I think that's what he represents. He came the JUCO route, so he's going to work hard to get what he's going to get. That's how you've got to build your defense."
Part of Highsmith's work ethic is demonstrated in his attention to detail. "He's always over here watching film," Haynes said.
Part also comes from being a member of a football family and the free advice that comes along with it. His father, Alonzo Highsmith Sr., won a national championship at Miami in 1985 and spent seven years as a running back in the NFL.
"My dad had a great career and anything I can learn from him, I'm going to learn from him," said the younger Highsmith. "Any time he tells me something, I'm going to listen.
"A lot of people think he pushed me and my brothers, but he never pushed us. He told us what we needed to do to get better if we asked for it. He never pushed himself or his success on us. For the most part, he let us sit and learn ourselves."
Highsmith is joined at linebacker this season by Tenarius "Tank" Wright, a fifth-year senior who made the position switch in the spring in part because of Highsmith's injury. Wright is a two-year starter at defensive end, recording 25 tackles and 1.5 sacks in an injury-reduced junior season.
With senior Ross Rasner (53 tackles, 2 sacks in 2011) splitting time between safety and linebacker, the Hogs could line up with three seniors at linebacker on any given snap.
"Tank is going to bring a tough, physical, smart football player," Highsmith said. "He could probably play the whole front seven if he was given the chance. With us all having experience, I think we're going to do just fine without the players we're losing.
"Even though I didn't come in with this senior class, I still feel a connection with them. I want to get sent out the right way. I'm going to do everything in my power to make that happen and everything in my power to be the best I can be. This is my last time, so everything I've got, I've got to put into this season right here. It can either make your future or break your future."
Highsmith (6-foot-1, 233 pounds) and Wright (6-foot-2, 252) give the Razorbacks added size at the position. While that will help, the duo's agility could prove their most valuable asset.
"Those guys are flexible, fast and then they're tough," Small said. "At the end of the day, it's about who will out-tough and out-physical who, and we've got a lot of physical guys there."
In addition to breaking in new players and starters at the position, Arkansas' linebackers are also learning from new coaches. In addition to Haynes, Taver Johnson took over for former linebackers coach Reggie Johnson, who left to become defensive coordinator at Alabama-Birmingham.
Highsmith said his unit will also benefit from the return of head coach John L. Smith, who coached linebackers in addition to his role as special teams coordinator at Arkansas from 2009-11.
"The more, the merrier," Highsmith said. "I think since Coach Smith has been a linebacker coach, he will probably spend more time with us."
Haynes called linebacker — which has often been out-manned in years past at Arkansas — the strongest position for his defense coming out of the spring, alongside defensive tackle. Taking the position to a higher level, Highsmith said, is up to the players.
"This summer is crucial because we've got plans and the only way we're going to see those through is to get better, and not take any steps back," he said.
"I'm going to do everything I can to the maximum. This is my last season, my last off-season as a college player, and it's just crucial. We want to win it all, and this is when you do it."
Fearless Highsmith Ready to Lead
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