State of the Hogs: Evaluating the Middle

Everyone watches quarterback and it wasn't a great day for Brandon Allen on Saturday. But how was it for middle linebacker and Khalia Hackett's bid to take the spot that Brooks Ellis left to try the will spot? Can Dre Greenlaw make a bid to return Ellis to the middle?

It always comes down to the man in the middle. It was an appropriate thought at the start of the week. It was what I wanted to watch Saturday in an open scrimmage.

There was something to nitpick about that very spot, on both sides of the ball when Arkansas football coach Bret Bielema came to the media room afterwards.

The Hogs went for 117 plays, counting a smattering of snaps with the threes at the end. There was also some work for the virtual reality cameras in a brief walk through afterwards.

How about the quarterback? Brandon Allen was just 10 of 23 passing, with an interception. That's what most will come away from the scrimmage wondering about. Is that what the fifth-year senior is going to be for the 2015 Razorbacks.

Bielema admitted it wasn't one of Allen's better days, but reaffirmed that the quarterback job is still all his. There were a couple of passes early that might have been caught in a cross wind, Bielema said. But more than anything, perhaps the wide receiver numbers need to be cut down so the timing can improve.

There were also thoughts from the coach that he might have pushed them too hard on Friday when normally it would be a light day just ahead of a scrimmage. But he wanted a heavy walk through early in the day to correct mistakes from a Thursday practice that started sluggish, kind of like Saturday.

I get all of that. The Hogs aren't going with Austin Allen ahead of his big brother. Yes, there were more big plays from Austin on Saturday, but he threw a pick six. Brandon's interception was a case of a wide receiver (Duwop Mitchell) having it pulled from his hands by Jared Collins.

I was more interested in the way the linebackers played, in particular Khalia Hackett. Can Hackett handle the spot in the middle, manned last year by Brooks Ellis? And, can Ellis handle the weakside slot in the same manner as Martrell Spaight, the SEC's top tackler with 126?

"That's probably what we are going to evaluate the hardest on tape right now," Bielema said.

Hackett led the defense with nine tackles in the scrimmage. He did have a holding penalty to keep a drive alive, a point that Bielema emphasized to the team afterwards. He said 45 of the 49 touchdowns that the Hogs gave up last year were either drives kept alive by penalties or big plays.

"I want to look at the tape to see how Hackett played, but I didn't notice a lot of busts by him. He has Brooks standing right beside him, but I think we were good there."

All of the linebackers were productive. Ellis had eight tackles, as did Josh Harris and Dre Greenlaw, the two backups at the two inside linebacker spots.

"Two years ago, Khalia was playing safety and now he's our middle linebacker," Bielema said. "He's very athletic.

"Josh Harris continues to impress in the run game. I think Dwayne Eugene has done well in the move to strongside. I think Josh Williams was impressive today. He hurt his wrist and had some significant swelling, but he wanted to be out there.

"We've got to continue to evaluate middle linebacker. That's a little bit of a concern."

If it's a concern, could Ellis still flip back to the middle?

"Yes, he could, especially if Dre continues to come on," Bielema said. "Dre hasn't played linebacker before now. He was a safety in high school, too. But he looks like a natural."

Bielema noticed a play late in the scrimmage when Greenlaw came through a crease and hit the back for a loss.

"He knocked the back three yards back, just an instinct play," Bielema said. "I know there are some things he hasn't seen, some looks he doesn't know. But he's really done well.

"He's at 231 right now. I said when we signed him that he was a classic linebacker. I know he didn't want to hear it. But he makes a routine tackle and knocks the guy back.

"I brought him in a few weeks after he got here and told him, 'You are a linebacker.' I called his dad at Arkansas State, Coach (Brian) Early after a few days of camp and said he'd be proud of what he's done. We had to calm him down socially. He's like the Prince of Fayetteville."

There will be a lot of decisions on personnel in the next couple of days. Historically, the staff uses the first week of camp and the first scrimmage to decide if freshmen can make an impact and put them into a faster rotation.

Of the freshman not here for the spring, Bielema said both Austin Cantrell and C.J. O'Grady have fought through ankle injuries, but could both be in the plans at tight end. Running back Rawleigh Williams has turned heads and looked quick and strong in the scrimmage. Jalen Merrick and Josh Allen have both looked good in the offensive line and could be in the plans as backups. Defensively, Greenlaw and Pulley flashed in the scrimmage and Bielema said safety Willie Sykes also figures in the mix, especially on special teams.

Junior college transfer Dominique Reed did some "wow" things in the scrimmage and has sparkled with a big play in almost every practice. Bielema said he'll be in the top six of the wideouts, the key number that must be worked up in the next couple of days.

"Keon is our war daddy," Bielema said. "We've got to make some decisions tomorrow. We need to get down to six (wide receivers). Reed is in there. Drew Morgan, Duwop, Jared Cornelius, Cody Hollister, JoJo Robinson and maybe some others."

It's clear Bielema can't get down to "six" in the defensive line. That group was part of the problem for Brandon Allen to open the scrimmage. He had linemen in his face throughout the early plays.

"The depth in the defensive front is real," Bielema said. "We've got more than I've ever had."

And, he said there is potential for more big plays than he can ever remember.

"We've got some big play guys," he said. "Alex Collins, Dominique Reed, JoJo Robinson and Duwop all can make big plays. We see that every day."

Now, the Hogs have to get right in the middle of the field. No one who has been around Brandon Allen doubts that he can handle the middle for the offense. What is going to happen at middle linebacker may prove interesting over the next couple of weeks for the defense.

"Khalia has taken every snap with the ones," Bielema said. "We think he can do it. We are going to keep evaluating."

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