Brooks Ellis didn't exactly raise his hand when Martrell Spaight finished his eligibility to open the weakside linebacker slot. But he didn't step back, either.
Ellis was the first into the interview room after Tuesday's practice, the second of the spring for the Arkansas football team. The junior linebacker from Fayetteville has been the mainstay at middle linebacker for most of the last two seasons, but he's now the starter at "will" in what coordinator Robb Smith calls the playmaker slot in his 4-3 defense.
"I didn't have to think about it long," Ellis said. "Coach Smith asked me what I thought about it. I thought it sounded good.
"I'd been at mike my whole life. But this is not something I thought was going to be difficult to handle."
Perhaps the bigger change was the offseason change in linebackers coach. Randy Shannon is off to Florida. Vernon Hargreaves is the new UA linebackers coach.
"It's a different style of coaching," Ellis said. "I like them both. Coach Hargreaves is more in your face."
The difference in positions is slight, Ellis said. He played at will in some games last year, particularly against Texas Tech and LSU.
"This defense the reads are similar," he said. "If you know one, you know the other. I think I could flip between them pretty easily. I'll say this, I didn't know this defense at this point last spring. I had no idea where to line up. Now, I know it well enough to tell everyone where to line up."
Ellis said it's "been smooth" through two days. But he noted there's been no pads yet. The Hogs will take one day off for meetings to review tape of the first two days, something head coach Bret Bielema likes about his spring system.
Then, they'll down full pads on Thursday before taking a week off for spring break. The schedule after spring break calls for practices on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday leading up to the April 25 spring game.
"We've done well," he said. "We've meshed well with the linebackers. We are further along than last year."
The first team linebackers have Ellis at will, Josh Williams at mike and Khalia Hackett at sam.
"We've got good competition," Ellis said. "This is a system that we know."
Ellis knew enough to nod his head when Smith asked him about playing will.
"It was attractive to me," Ellis said. "With what Martrell did last year, racking up tackles, I wanted to do that. Martrell took advantage of what Coach Smith does in this scheme and that's why I liked making the move.
"But if you can play one, you can play the other. I think I can do it. It's a little more in space at will. But you like what we do with our defensive line to keep blockers off you at linebacker in this scheme.
"We've got the same defensive coordinator. It's a different teaching style with Coach Hargreaves, but I like it. He's a good change of pace. He's going to teach us hard. We are going to build off what we did last year."
An obvious question is about the other changes on the weakside. Defensive end Trey Flowers and tackle Darius Philon started in front of Spaight, knocking off blockers. In their place will be Deatrich Wise at end and Taiwan Johnson at tackle, although Bielema indicates there will be plenty of depth there with the likes of Jeremiah Ledbetter, Hjalte Froholdt and Tevin Beanum.
"I think we have good players up there," Ellis said. "But we haven't put on pads. It gets more interesting up there when we put the pads on starting Thursday. We'll know more when we start hitting people.
"I do think we are further ahead at linebacker. I think guys like Josh Harris, our backup at mike, will start to shine when we hit people. That's what he does, hit people. We've got good competition there with Josh Williams in front of him. I think there is good competition at Sam with Khalia Hackett and Randy Ramsey and Dwayne Eugene is doing well, too. It makes you feel good to see how we've developed at linebacker. I will say that it feels like I've been around for awhile now."
Ellis is a leader in the linebacker group. Junior JaMichael Winston is one of the clear leaders in the defensive front, playing the end spot for the second straight season. He knows what the Hogs lost in Philon and Flowers.
"Just technique wise, those guys were freaks of nature at their technique," Winston said. "Darius making plays and Trey making plays all the time, you knew what you were going to get from them each and every day. So you just try to bring that approach and try to fill that void.
"We got a lot to prove. It's been on us since spring ball started, since winter workouts started. We've been out to prove that we can be a top notch D-line with those guys gone. We've just got to prove it this fall."
Winston starts beside sophomore nose tackle Bijohn Jackson, now taking over for Johnson, now at Philon's old spot. Winston said the El Dorado product has turned the corner with a few less pounds. He's among several turning heads.
"I've seen a lot of guys," he sdaid. "The new guys are picking it up. But most of all I've seen Bijhon get a little quicker on his feet. He's kind of moving with that weight on him. That's a good thing for us."
Someone suggested Jackson dropped some baby fat.
"It done moved out the way," Winston said of Jackson. "He's kind of rolling now."
Jackson is taking his cues from Winston.
"It's nice to have a young guy over there who can learn from you," Winston said. "I can teach him when he don't know stuff and he can just feed off me and I can feed off him, him being young and enthusiastic."
Deatrich Wise is first team at the spot previously held by Philon. He said there are plenty doubting the Hogs with the loss of the two defensive linemen, along with Spaight. It's a no name group now.
"There's a bunch of nobodies," Wise said. "I believe we are somebody. We're going to prove to the whole SEC, the NCAA, college football, that our D-line is the toughest D-line in whole world, really. That's what we want to prove.
No coaches have been to the interview room yet. That will change at noon Wednesday when Bielema fields questions, followed by the two coordinators, Dan Enos on offense and Smith on defense.
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