If Bret Bielema can't find more middle linebackers to join Brooks Ellis, he's not afraid of making projections. The Arkansas coach said he's had success with that tactic before.
At the time of the interview, Bielema was still looking to fill five more slots in his recruiting class. He said to balance numbers on the roster, they needed to be all safeties and linebackers. And, he said he's not afraid to project some at those positions even if they didn't play there in high school.
Bielema coached inside linebackers as defensive coordinator before becoming a head coach. He said he's had good look at taking safeties and making them linebackers and putting linebackers and tight ends at defensive end.
"We've found our best cornerbacks with projections, some great players" Bielema said. "We've taken safeties and projected them as middle linebackers. You are looking for speed to project at positions. It's one of the things I think we've done very well over the past and we are not afraid to do that.
"I think the best middle linebacker I've ever found – he played this year (at Wisconsin) – was Chris Borland. He came to us as a safety and maybe a running back. We moved him to outside and everyone thought I was crazy last year when I said he'd go to mike. He's been very good.
"The one thing we found when we came here that this roster was missing was linebackers and safeties. We have to continue to sign them. We signed Brooks Ellis, a natural linebacker last year. I think we'd like to sign three more just like him. The problem, we only have one of him.
"I think we may have another one in Martrell Spaight. About when he had things figured out and we were ready to play him, he got hurt and the knee bothered him for three or four games. It was tough. He couldn't practice, so he couldn't play. The kid is dying to get out there. And then he missed out on that development time.
"I think he's going to be fine, dying to play. You saw the play he made against Florida, then he got hurt just after that. I wish we could have redshirted him, but it was too deep when he got hurt. I saw things that lead me to believe he has the linebacker skills.
"But if we don't find natural mikes, we will project them. One of the greatest compliment I can pay someone is to tell them I project them at another position.
"The best corners we've ever had, came from quarterback, running back, wide receiver or safety. They were the fastest players on the field. We've moved players to other spots, too.
"I think the rarest breed there is in football right now is a true mike linebacker. The pool is just very small. We needed them and we scoured the nation and we came up with a very small number that fit what we were after.
"We know our board, our team. We know what we have. A year ago, we didn't. We just didn't have enough SEC linebackers and safeties."
Recruiting took an upswing when Bielema got a yes from Trey Flowers for next year. The big defensive end took in all of the information in a 13-document packet delivered to him by Bielema before deciding to pass on a third-round grade in the 2014 NFL draft.
"I always say that's the best recruiting you can do, get one of those guys back for their senior year," Bielema said. "I talk about getting running back Monte Ball to come back (at Wisconsin), he was our biggest recruit. We were in the running for some really good backs, but here was a seasoned veteran. That's a big deal to get a senior back when he's playing his best football. I triple dog dare you to find an incoming player better. It's at a whole other level.
"It was a celebration day around here. Now I'm probably a little screwed up, but I was just trying to give him knowledge and let him make his best decision. But they were celebrating in the weight room. Knowledge is power. I guess some thought he was going. I didn't know that perception was out there, but it was. He is a smart guy. He gets it. he believes. So I didn't have that perception."
Bielema wished he would have had time to "build a folder" for some players that could have returned for their senior season this year at Arkansas. He didn't mention names but the Hogs saw running back Knile Davis and offensive guard Alvin Davis leave after their junior season.
"They were gone before I had a chance to talk to them," Bielema said. "No one talked to them and they were gone, several guys who would have benefited from another season. Before I got here, they used an outside agency to deliver information. I saw that and wanted to know where is the system in place to inform them?"
Bielema said the key in the Flowers talks was visits with his father.
"I got to know Robert Flowers early on and had many talks with him on the phone and in person," he said. "It was great flying to Huntsville and being in the home, seeing their trophy room and getting to know them better. That's where you find about a young man and the family and know what they are about.
"I know dad was big in that house. He runs things there. I asked mom if she had questions. She said, 'I just want him to get stronger and get off blocks.' She was the best and I loved it."
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