Chris Ash said the defense is much further along than it was at the end of the spring, but the Arkansas defensive coordinator thinks there's a "long ways away" to being an SEC unit.
"You guys (in the media) are going to be upset at me because I'm going to say this over and over, I'm happy if we get better every day," Ash said. "That's all I ask. We are a long ways away from being an SEC defense.
"We are not even close. But we will keep coaching them hard until we get to the first game and we've got a few weeks after that before we play an SEC game."
There are positions where the depth chart is clear like in the defensive front and safety, but it's probably murky at middle linebacker. The news Wednesday is that Austin Jones filled the slot with the ones at mike.
"That's probably the position we are the furthest away," Ash said of mike linebacker. "There is where we have the most competition. At sam and will, I'd say Braylon Mitchell and Jarrett Lake are clearly one. Mike, it's open."
Still, Ash said the competition is intense everywhere in the eyes of the coaches.
"I've said this before, we are like it's NFL draft day as far as evaluations," he said. "It's constant. We tell guys this every day. We are evaluating everything we do, from the way they are in meetings as far as taking notes, how they practice, just everything. It's constant."
Both Ash and linebackers assistant coach Randy Shannon reminded that the goal is to develop depth and there is a constant rotation of players cross training at the three spots.
"I've worked Braylon and Jarret on both sides," Shannon said. "I've worked Austin Jones at middle and at strongside. We are moving Austin, Daunte Carr, Otha Peters, Brooks Ellis and Robert Atiga in and out at middle linebacker. It's great competition there."
Jones, now up to 238, was with the ones at middle linebacker said it was the first day he was with the ones in base. In the spring, when he worked with the ones at middle, it was more in nickel packages.
"I'm bigger after the summer -- about 10 pounds -- and the goal was to gain to play mike," Jones said. "So this is a little different. But Coach Shannon wants us all to learn different spots. He'll change it around a little during the practice, but today I started with the ones."
Ellis, the true freshman from Fayetteville, is also getting time at mike linebacker. Both Ash and Shannon said Ellis is impressive as far as technique and knowledge of the defensive scheme and has the size they are looking for at Mike.
"Brooks is a gifted freshman," Shannon said. "He makes mistakes like a freshman, but he's done well so far."
Ash said, "Brooks Ellis is an outstanding freshman. Ellis and D. J. Dean at corner are the two freshmen that stand out the most so far. Ellis is big and fast and looks like a physical player. He's had great teaching and understands things very well. He comes from a very good high school program and is advanced as far as technique and scheme."
Junior college transfer Martell Spaight is also trying to learn two linebacker spots, both outside spots. He reported at 227, lost two pounds in the first three days, but expects to play at 230 by the opener. Spaight is like all the linebackers, has been impressed by the calm nature of Shannon and the way he keeps it simple as far as technique and scheme so that linebackers can play fast.
"I'm just trying to get in the playbook as much I can," Spaight said. "I've played a lot of Sam and Will so far, but I expect to learn Mike from the nickel package, too.
"We mix it up. You'll get four or five reps with one group, then Coach Shannon will get another group in, then another.
"I knew Coach Shannon was a great coach. Everyone knows he's developed some great linebackers. You all know about Ray Lewis and there are a lot more other great ones. Coach Shannon has great passion, but he's awesome in that he makes it simple for you at linebacker."
Jones said the key is that all three spots are similar in the Ash defensive scheme.
"After you learn the scheme, I think you can play all three," Jones said. "Sam and Will are close. Mike is different in that you have a big job to protect the middle and you do have to handle some of the dirty stuff."
Jones said the dirty stuff can be fun.
"I like it in there," he said. "Carrying a little more weight should help me there. I'm excited about Mike. This is my last year so I have to make the most of my opportunity. I think I'm having a pretty good camp so far."
But it's just beginning. All of the linebackers were excited to don pads the last two days. But there has been no tackling. That comes Saturday in the first major scrimmage.
"I think we are all excited and anxious about the scrimmage," Spaight said. "That's what linebacker is about, when you scrimmage. I think for the whole team, it's a big day. We are pointing for that."
Spaight is trying to make up for lost ground. He missed spring while finishing up some junior college credits.
"I know I'm behind," he said. "It just means I have to study the playbook that much harder. I know I'll get there, but I'm not there yet with all I have to learn."
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