Shannon Retooling Linebackers

Randy Shannon's presence is the key factor in the continued development for the Arkansas linebackers. Here's a post spring look at the position, including player assessments of the linebackers by coordinator Robb Smith.

Perhaps no returning linebacker at Arkansas means more to the Razorbacks' defense than the position's coach, Randy Shannon.

Though it wasn't the promotion many expected, Shannon received a new title during the off-season and a hefty pay raise. Arkansas' new senior associate head coach might not be the team's new defensive coordinator, but he is the glue for plenty of fresh faces on that side of the ball.

Shannon has a connection with all three of Arkansas' new defensive coaches this season. He and defensive coordinator Robb Smith are branches in the same coaching tree, he and defensive backs coach Clay Jennings worked together previously at TCU and he was the head coach at Miami to some of defensive line coach Rory Segrest's players in the NFL.

"We've been having fun in the meeting rooms, we've been coaching our butts off and we've been having fun on the football field," Shannon said. "We all have a common goal, which is getting better than we were last year and keep competing to be the best we can be. "We know a lot of the same terminology and things like that. It's always great to have the same feeling and emphasis on what you're trying to get done as a head coach."

That Shannon would return to Arkansas wasn't necessarily ever in doubt, but it came as a surprise to many that he wasn't named defensive coordinator when Chris Ash left the Razorbacks for Ohio State in January.

Shannon instead was promoted to a position second in command to Bret Bielema on the football staff. His annual salary was increased to $400,000.

Pat Jones, a former Arkansas assistant who coached with Shannon for the NFL's Miami Dolphins, said he felt keeping a person, not just a coach, of Shannon's stature was big for his alma mater.

"This all sounds pretty homer-ish because I'm so high on him, but I think it was a home run," said Jones, the former head coach at Oklahoma State. "With his credentials, he's a guy that's got an opportunity. People know him and have a high opinion of him, and he's very connected with NFL guys. All of his credentials indicate his arrow is still pointed up. I thought it was a home run for him to stay around Arkansas.

"In essence, you've got two head coaches. He's run staff meetings and done big picture things. He's dealt with all aspects of it aside from being just a position coach. All the dynamics that go in a football office, you've got another veteran set of eyes and ears, which is an obvious plus."

One of Shannon's first duties in his new job was to help Bret Bielema identify a defensive coordinator. Bielema set up an informal meeting between Shannon and Smith in Miami during a recruiting trip.

The men quickly found they shared similar defensive philosophies stemming from their time working with longtime NFL coach Dave Wannstedt.

"We kind of grabbed a cup of coffee and we talked football," Smith said of the meeting upon his hiring. "I don't want to speak for Randy, but he was very comfortable in that setting talking football. And I know that's really my biggest comfort level, talking football. We sat for a couple of hours and it seemed like it was 15 minutes because the time flew. We really found we were on the same page on a lot of things and shared the same vision. I thought it went very smoothly.

"We were kind of able to speak the same language. We have a lot of the same goals and a lot of the same visions."

Simplifying things for Arkansas' defense was a goal for coaches during the spring. Bielema said repeatedly throughout spring practice the defense was able to react more and think less than the season before. According to Bielema, a more complicated defensive language hindered the Razorbacks during his first year.

Jones said the philosophy of simplifying language on defense dates to his coaching days with Shannon in the 1990s.

"Randy is a guy that is going to be very sound fundamentally and he's not going to try to overload them mentally," Jones said. "That's the kind of the family tree of all of us. A lot of times simpler is better, so just get good at it and let a guy run free and play. Don't coach caution into good players."

Arkansas' defense appeared to make strides in the spring, capping practices with a five-turnover performance in the Red-White game and returning two of the turnovers for touchdowns. It was a chore to install new defensive elements for a staff that had three new coaches, but Shannon's presence helped the process go smoothly.

"I think the great thing about this staff is Coach Shannon being the holdover," Jennings said. "He's the guy making sure Coach Smith, Coach Segrest and myself are going in the right direction. We're having a great time and we work really well together.

"It helps that we all have familiarity with him. When you get into those meetings and start talking about the game of football and schemes, when guys are on the same page and generally have the same ideas then things start coming together a lot quicker."

As far as the players Shannon will coach this season, Arkansas returns some experience unlike a year ago. Seniors Braylon Mitchell, Daunte Carr and Martrell Spaight add leadership, while junior Otha Peters and sophomore Brooks Ellis might be the unit's best playmakers.

"I think those guys are further along than they were at this time last year, because last year none of them had even played a snap and Otha was hurt," Shannon said. "We were just trying to piece together somebody that could play.

"Now you see guys that have played some SEC football, so it's been really good and fun."

Ellis began to play more late last season after being inserted into the starting lineup during the final four games. The Fayetteville native had 11 tackles in a game at Ole Miss and 10 in the season finale at LSU.

Peters, an all-SEC Freshman team selection two years ago, played sparingly last season while battling injuries for the second straight year.

"We're throwing a lot at (Ellis)," Shannon said. "He's a guy that we've got to depend on, and he's been doing a good job. It's great to see Otha really come back and shown some things…because he's healthy now. He's been flying around and making plays, so we're really excited with what we have."

Assessments from defensive coordinator Robb Smith on Linebackers:

Strong Linebacker
Braylon Mitchell (6-3, 231, Sr.) — He played our strong side, what we call our Sam. He had a really solid spring. He fought some bumps and bruises in the spring and never begged out. He showed up and worked hard every day. Because of that, he was able to improve. He's going to be the guy who lines up on the displaced tight end. We are going to ask him to set an edge and primarily cover the flat for us and blitz some. I'm excited about him.

Daunte Carr (6-3, 213, Sr.) — He got better this spring as well. He's a long body type who can really help us set an edge on defense. He's like a lot of them, maybe he didn't come here as a linebacker and has learned the trade on the go. Randy Shannon has done a nice job with Daunte and all of this group. From day one to day 15, they made a lot of progress.

Nicholas Thomas-Smith (5-10, 225, Fr.) — He's a great program guy. He gives you everything he has every single days and those are the kind of guys you need in your program to win championships.

Middle Linebacker
Brooks Ellis (6-2, 237, Soph.) — He's just starting, in my opinion, to scratch the surface of his potential. He works extremely hard. He's smart and is always studying. Like Trey Flowers, that kind of football junkie mentality that pays off and they end up making a lot of plays on Saturday. Brooks is a smart football player and that will provide us some flexibility at the linebacker spots. He's the guy who sets the front for us. He did a lot of good things this spring. He absolutely can step in and fill the gap. And the thing about our scheme, it all ties together. The better we play up front, the easier it is for a linebacker to do that. The more decisive a linebacker is at pressing the gap, the easier it is for a defensive linemen to occupy his gap. We made a lot of progress this spring as far as the cohesion of our defensive line and linebackers this spring.

Otha Peters (6-2, 226, Jr.) — He had a really good spring. He was clearly the best guy in the second group. He took reps with the ones and the twos. He gives us a physical presence on the inside. He can set the front for us and he did this spring. He embraced what we are trying to do in a schmatic sense and that's what you need from your Mike linebacker. We are pleased that we have two Mikes. Two is better than one. You really need two. You can make things work on the edge, but you need a guy who can step in and have a presence on your defense.

Weakside Linebacker
Matrell Spaight (6-0, 228, Sr.) — If there was a guy was most improved, Martrell would be at the top of that category. It really started to click from a schematic standpoint. He's a fast football player who plays hard. I thought he really got a good feel for the Will position. Traditionally, that spot has been a big playmaking position in this scheme. I'm excited for a big year from Martrell. That being said, he's like all of them in that he has to spend the time this summer and work hard so that when we get to fall camp we are better than what we are right now. We must keep improving. With what people throw at you on offense now, it just takes time to get a feel for how to play the position and the speed and physicality that you need to play at this level.

Tiquention Coleman (5-10, 207, Sr.) — What I love about TQ, he brings a physicality and a level of speed to that position which can help us, especially when we get into teams that play three and four wide receivers. I thought his performance in the spring game that was indicative of the improvement that he made throughout the spring and finding a niche for himself on this defense. He's not afraid. He will run through an open gap which is very encouraging. For the overall depth of this defense, he's got to do a lot of things. It's all hands on deck. To have (safety) in his back pocket is something that is valuable to us down the road. When he comes to our building, he goes to the linebacker room, but he also spends time with me and Coach (Clay) Jennings. It's based on situation for the day.

Alex Brignoni (6-1, 206, Fr.) — He was a little banged up this spring, but Alex did a good job in the early part of the spring. We just have to get him healthy as we come to fall camp. In the limited time we had him in the spring, I was encouraged.

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