State of the Hogs: Middle Linebacker

Can the Razorbacks make some stops at linebacker this week against Auburn's option offense?

The gnashing of teeth during the open date was centered on offense and style of play. What's better, a spread offense with smashmouth option running? Or, a pro power style with multiple tight ends?

I get all of that. You can't win many games scoring one touchdown in two games. And, no one should forget that Arkansas has not scored in the fourth quarter since Alex Collins raced 7 yards with 7:33 left in the Southern Miss game in week three.

Arkansas will need to score to beat Auburn, averaging 511 yards and 37 points. But what I want to look at today is the Arkansas defense. What was expected and what is reality?

The one thing that has been reality, the line is still the strength of the defense and the Hogs still don't have a natural middle linebacker. And, if you are going to play a 4-3 alignment on defense, it starts at that spot. Everything flows off that man.

I'll be honest, I didn't know what to expect at middle linebacker, but it wasn't Jarrett Lake. That's the reality, the Hogs still don't have a middle linebacker and it's been awhile since they've had the right guy there.

During the open date, I nodded my head in approval when head coach Bret Bielema, asked what he'll be looking for on the recruiting trail, started his answer with middle linebacker and said he was looking for help at all three linebacker spots.

Lake is a senior. Bless his heart, he's not a middle linebacker, but he is the best on the team. Reality is that he's about to play his last game in Fayetteville and the Hogs will be back to looking for a middle linebacker again.

Lake was at around 215 pounds as recently as last April. He's gotten close to 230 a few times, but he's not big enough to stand inside and take punishment against a downhill running game. But he is the best the Hogs have right now.

I do remember what Chris Ash said when he listed Daunte Carr there after last spring. There wasn't much to pick from and there still isn't.

Lake is about like Jerry Franklin, the leading tackler for the better part of four seasons, 2008-2011. Lake played wide receiver in high school. Franklin was a tight end/safety.

The Hogs had open tryouts every spring trying to find a middle linebacker so that Franklin could move back to his natural position, weakside linebacker. No one ever stepped up.

That's the same thing linebackers coach Randy Shannon tried both in the spring and fall camp. Lake was settled in at weakside linebacker. The Hogs spent fall camp with Lake filling the blitzer role off the edge in an alignment that was going to be the staple against spread teams. Because of injuries and failures, Lake finally had to make the move to the middle by the start of conference play.

I wouldn't have believed it. That probably explains a little bit how Alan Turner can lead this team in tackles. Of course, I didn't see him as a strong safety, his current position. He was moved from the backup free safety spot in camp, when Rohan Gaines, believed to be this group's best playmaker in the spring, began to have knee troubles. Turner had about two weeks of strong safety prep before the season started.

Turner has been credited with 54 tackles, Lake 52. Right behind is Braylon Mitchell at 51. He had to switch sides on the outside when Lake moved.

Linebackers should lead your team in tackles. But they shouldn't all be down the field. Here's the telling stat on this year's linebacker group: three tackles for lost yards for 9 yards. Martrell Spaight, Lake and Mitchell each have one tackle for lost yards.

Linebackers and safeties will have a tough job Saturday night against Gus Malzahn's option game. The load blocks for the read option and the multiple counters make it tough on those two positions.

Can anyone else help at linebacker over the next month? What about true freshman Brooks Ellis? He got a few more snaps, along with Spaight, against Alabama. Otha Peters might play a little more at middle linebacker.

I was listening closely when Bielema said last week that the goal is to run the ball and stop the run and that Auburn runs the ball better than anyone in the SEC. He reminded of the nightmare second half against Texas A&M when Johnny Football handed off over and over in two punishing touchdown drives that won that game for the Aggies. It was the read option that did the damage.

There has been some interesting talk about the missing tape from the swinging gate that Malzahn likes on extra points. If there was some tape to leave out from the Arkansas side, it would have been that second half of the Texas A&M game. The gate was open, not swinging.

Can the Arkansas linebackers shut the gate this week? That's what I'll be looking for early. Maybe they can. Shannon is one of the best linebacker coaches in the game. Bielema is an old linebacker coach, too.

I was interested when senior Chris Smith mentioned the role defensive ends will play in the game plan this week. Defensive ends need to make more plays, he said. And they need to make them up the field of play.

"We want to stop their backs before they get to the second level," said Smith, senior end. "That's the job for me and Trey Flowers at end this week."

The Hogs can't get in a scoring match with Auburn. They have a better chance if the defense steps up. And, there has to be some help for the running game with the pass.

"As long as I've been coaching," Bielema said on his Wednesday radio show, "if you can run the ball, you can have success. But we have to be more efficient in the passing game. We have to give our running game some help."

And, then it goes back to stopping the run. Can the Arkansas linebackers do that this week?

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