Arkansas needs linebackers, true inside linebackers. They need more like Brooks Ellis, the Fayetteville product who took the middle linebacker spot in November.
Bret Bielema told me in early January there is a need to sign "three like Brooks Ellis" every year – if you could find them. That's an inside linebacker with size, speed and a rugged durability to play and practice every week.
Bielema said there is one problem. There are few around the country. He said the Arkansas staff "scoured the country and found the pool very small" of true inside linebackers, with an even smaller pool for middle linebackers who can play in the center of a 4-3 and make all of the calls and adjustments for the front.
I have a theory on why that's an issue for Arkansas and others. I called a couple of highly respected high school coaches for confirmation. Greenwood head coach Rick Jones and Fayetteville assistant Jeb Huckeba agreed on the reasons for the small talent pool for middle linebackers in the prep ranks.
The change in the game towards the spread and the passing game puts an emphasis on the bigger, faster athletes on the edge where they can impact the game in space either as pass rushers or cover guys. And, it's hard to find the combination of size, speed and the ability to process information that it takes to play in the middle.
"You look at them as stand-up guys and see if they can process everything," said Huckeba, who played both linebacker and defensive end while earning letters at Arkansas at 2001-04. "If there are any process issues, you move them down (to end) almost immediately. It's much easier to just let them get after the quarterback, put their hands down. It's harder to find someone who makes decisions and adjustments."
That's exactly what the Hogs did with Huckeba. He played inside linebacker in high school at Harding Academy where everyone in the country flew to Searcy to offer a scholarship. But the Hogs were so short on pass rushers that he became a defensive end in a hurry. There was a year where he moved to linebacker. But when Clarke Moore arrived as a true middle linebacker, Huckeba was back in a three-point stance.
"I played two years at linebacker in college, but I played my best football at end," Huckeba said. "I could just shoot my hand and react. It's much harder to play inside linebacker."
Jones said it's an evolution of the game. He sees it at the NFL, college and high school level. There isn't a place for as many inside linebackers because of the need for good players in space.
"You want outside pass rushers," he said. "You don't see many two-back sets. So the inside linebacker isn't as much in need. So you move the guys that are in that body style.
"I see it in the NFL. It's almost gone to a shorter guy at mike, a 6-foot guy or not any taller than 6-2. If they are taller and can run, they probably are going to the outside or at end, or at safety.
"It's a natural progression. You take a safety and might make him an outside linebacker. You take an outside linebacker and make him an end in college. But rarely do you take a safety and make him a mike linebacker. You might do it, but not a lot. It's more unheard of than any other place. They generally came to you as mike linebacker.
"I watched Brooks Ellis. He looks like natural instinct to me. He just fits. That is what you are looking for at mike. I liked what I saw of him at the end of the year."
The Hogs appear to have found some linebacker help in the class set to sign Wednesday. There are as many as four defenders with linebacker-type skills, although none appear to be natural middle linebackers.
Khalia Hackett, Anthony Brown, Dwayne Eugene and Randy Ramsey have all grown since committing to the Hogs. Brown, at 6-4 and 230, is probably the biggest and might best fit at middle linebacker. The rest are speedier and a bit lighter, but have the ability to gain a few more pounds and that could help them in a transition inside down the road.
Huckeba helped coach Ellis at Fayetteville. He knew the adjustment to the college game would happen soon.
"I thought Brooks would do well," Huckeba said. "He's got the ability, but more than anything else, he has the accountability to play in the middle. He has great skill sets and the mental ability to see everything. You know he was going to impact the college game."
Nonetheless, Huckeba was impressed to see Ellis on the field as a true freshmen in the middle of an SEC 4-3 defense. Few can do that.
"I played as a true freshmen, but I wasn't very good," Huckeba said. "It takes a unique player to do it. I had no idea how to use my hands as a freshman. I was much better the second year. Of course, I hadn't played end. But I fell in love with end.
"Few young players are focused on how to use their hands. That's what they have to learn generally in college. It was easier when I could settle in at defensive end after Clarke Moore got there by my junior year. He was going to play the inside and I could just be an end."
What's so tough about mike linebacker?
"The checks and the mental part of it are so important," he said. "Then, you have to take on the fullback in the power. And, with so many of the schemes now like the Tampa Two, the middle linebacker is going to run with the tight end down the middle of the field. He has to have some speed and cover skills."
The coverage aspects have made decisions on linebackers tougher. Jones said he's gone more and more for speed.
"You always evaluate what you want there based on some of the teams you are facing," Jones said. "So if it's going to be a lot of spread teams, you probably go with a smaller guy at middle linebacker and just go with speed.
"So then, when you look at the college game, are they big enough? You just go small more times than not when you make those decisions. You end up much smaller at linebacker and you probably put that bigger guy down at end. The really good athletes, they are going outside to rush the passer.
"So is the pool of inside linebackers smaller now for the college coaches? Yes, that's pretty dog gone true. It's an interesting situation. It definitely has happened. Maybe you aren't looking for those big run stuffers at inside linebacker in high school anymore. So the college coaches aren't going to find as many now."
So what does Bret Bielema do? He projects.
"I think that's one of the things we've done well," Bielema said. "We did that at Wisconsin. I've done it at other places. You better be able to do that. I think it's a compliment when I evaluate a kid and tell him I think he's got options as to where he can play."
Definitely, one of them is at middle linebacker where the nationwide pool is not getting bigger. I'll be interested to hear Bielema's comments on the projections in the 2014 class Wednesday afternoon. Maybe he found him a few linebackers that most didn't see.
Jeb Huckeba understands the shrinking pool of inside linebacker talent.
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