State of the Hogs: Strong Up the Middle

Coach Buttermaker likes what he sees in the middle of the Arkansas football team. There are new solid pieces falling in place, including Dre Greenlaw at weakside linebacker.

The conversation with Robb Smith took place in the middle of May in advance of the Hawgs Illustrated summer football preview. The question was about depth at linebacker, in particular the will linebacker slot.

Could Dre Greenlaw be a fit behind Brooks Ellis, a second Fayetteville product in the playmaker position in Smith's weakside triangle?

“I think so,” Smith said. “I love Dre's playmaking ability. But, I am waiting to see him on campus this summer to talk to him about that move. I think he'll like it.”

Smith preferred that Greenlaw not read about the possibility of moving from safety into the box. The thought was that he would like it once all of the cards are on the table.

Greenlaw packed 229 pounds on his 6-0 frame over the summer and looks remarkably similar to Martrell Spaight, last year's phenom at weakside linebacker. It seems like the perfect fit.

There will be an open scrimmage Saturday at Reynolds Razorback Stadium. Starting time is around 2:30 p.m. I'd focus on No. 23, Greenlaw's number. And, he is in Smith's depth chart, working enough at the backup will spot so that Dwayne Eugene can flip to the strong side, adding more depth.

“Dre has flashed,” Smith said this week. “No question. I think he embraced it from the first time I suggested it. I think our guys all know what Martrell did there last year. Dre has flashed as much as anyone. He's done well.”

All Spaight did was lead the SEC in tackles with 126. Smith sets his defense to funnel playmaking chances to the weakside. Teams can be stubborn and run into an over loaded front, but usually it's going to flow towards that weakside.

“I feel good about where we are at will,” Smith said. “Brooks Ellis has been fantastic. He's really having a good camp. We moved Dre up to get second team reps and he's done well. He just makes plays. I think he likes it there, too.”

Depth at linebacker was one of the big questions about this team coming into camp. Of course, Smith still wants more development from starter Khalia Hackett at middle linebacker, the spot Ellis manned last year.

Hackett said if he can meet Smith's standards, all will be well with the 2015 Arkansas defense.

"It's about meeting his standards every day," Hackett said. "He doesn't allow anyone to fall to a level of anything other than what we did last year. That's what we want."

Smith said it comes down to believing in each other.

"As players, they have to trust that we are going to put them in the right spots that allow us to collectively play at a high level," Smith said. "And, as coaches, we have to trust that they are going to put in the work whether that's on the field, in the film room or with Coach (Ben) Herbert.

"I will tell you this, I really, really like this group. I like their approach to work and their attitude. I do think they like each other."

Head coach Bret Bielema has compared the defense to the Bad News Bears, the movie about a Little League team of misfits that came together to win a championship.

There are no doubts within the team. Smith is pleased with where this unit is headed and likes the Bad News Bears analogy.

“My wife is calling me Buttermaker,” Smith said, making reference to the role of coach played by first Walter Matthau in 1976 and then Billy Bob Thornton in the 2005 remake.

“I kind of like myself as Billy Bob Thornton, but Walter Matthau was good, too. I like the idea a lot.”

Told that Thornton was born in Hot Springs, Smith said, “There you go. See, it’s meant to be.”

Since the defense has been compared to a baseball team, Smith thought it appropriate to speak in baseball terms. Some say that the key to a strong baseball team is the ability up the middle — at catcher, pitcher, shortstop and center field. So how do this defense stack up through the middle?

“I will answer that starting on offense,” said Smith, a big Pittsburgh Pirates fan. “We’ve got the pitcher, a fifth-year senior in Brandon Allen. I’m extremely high on our pitcher. You gotta be good at pitcher and we are.

“Then, you look at our center, another fifth-year senior in Mitch Smothers. I love the running backs and I’m talking all of them. So we are strong up the middle on that side of the ball.

“Defensively, I think it starts at nose tackle and defensive tackle. We have good players there with DeMarcus Hodge and Hjalte Froholdt at nose, Taiwan Johnson and Bijhon Jackson at the other tackle, then Khalia Hackett and Brooks Ellis at our inside linebackers, then Rohan Gaines and Josh Liddell at safety.

“Liddell has jumped out in fall camp. He’s directing traffic. Josh took pride in getting his body right in the last year. He’s really shown up in camp as a physical player.

“Hackett has a great approach and we are getting him ready. He’s followed Martrell Spaight’s lead and is doing all the work in the film room.

“We have asked those guys to meet our standards, whether it’s middle linebacker or free safety. No one in our defensive room wants to go backwards.”

Wide receiver Keon Hatcher doesn’t think the defense will go backwards, either. The senior bell cow marvels at the way that side of the ball has closed ranks after the loss of key players to the NFL.

“We have guys to step into big roles,” Hatcher said. “I go against those guys every day. We have heart and work ethic over there. Defense is not a concern. It’s a matter of how they work.

“I think we are even better there. Our program continues to build. We improved on that side of the ball.

“I see Josh Liddell at safety every day. I love him. First, he’s very smart. He sees things that most don’t. I love him there.

“I work against the corners and they are top SEC caliber, great SEC corners. Those guys can play. They are great players.”

Secondary coach Clay Jennings smiled at those words.

“Those are flattering words from Keon,” Jennings said. “It goes both ways. Our corners reciprocate. They say the same thing about Keon and those guys. We’ve added some speed, too.

“The key thing about our guys, we are still hungry. They have a chip on their shoulders.”

New pieces to the puzzle continue to be added. Cornerback Ryan Pulley is another freshman with eye popping ability. Both Pulley and Greenlaw figure to be in the two deep. So when you roll into the stadium on Saturday, keep your eyes peeled for Pulley's No. 10, too. They are making it fun for Coach Buttermaker.

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