Arkansas looked like the land of opportunity to Karl Roesler, even with scholarship offers from Purdue, Toledo and Miami, Ohio. And, there was also a walkon spot for him at Notre Dame, with everyone in his family for three generations holding a Notre Dame degree.
Turns out the Louisville, Ky., defensive end had a pretty good read on his athletic ability. He's still working to earn a scholarship, but he's making a difference for the Razorbacks in his third year in the Ozarks.
Roesler's pedigree is outstanding. So it shouldn't surprise that he's doing well in college, but it's somewhat of a long shot that it's anything other than at Notre Dame.
If you go to the Notre Dame lettermen's list you will find his name. Karl Roesler, Sr., was a three-year starter for the Irish basketball team as a 6-10 center. Karl Roesler, Jr., lettered for the Notre Dame football team before a knee injury ruined his prospects in an NFL training camp.
“My uncle pitched for the baseball team (at Notre Dame),” said Karl Roesler, III. “My aunt was on the swim team. My dad and grandpa played there.
“But they are all Arkansas fans now. They love that I'm here and having fun.”
It's fun when you make plays to help the Hogs go on an SEC winning streak. Roesler made the third-and-1 tackle for the only defensive stop in the second half at Ole Miss. He was a starter at LSU when the Hogs went to their base 4-3 front for 10 snaps. He also played 18 snaps at defensive end in the nickel package in a deep five-man rotation.
Roesler is one of the reasons the Hogs have been able to overcome injuries, moving to strongside outside linebacker last week with Josh Williams and Dwayne Eugene both out with injuries. It was really no big deal since that was his position in high school at St. Xavier in Louisville, Ky.
It's stories like Roesler that have made the Hogs the hottest team in the SEC over the last month. When a player has gone down with an injury, another has stepped up. It's been like that at wide receiver where Drew Morgan and Dominique Reed have emerged in the absence of Keon Hatcher, Cody Hollister and Jared Cornelius.
Roesler didn't get bigger scholarship offers because of his size. At 6-1 and 215, he was considered too light to play defensive end. His speed, while good, wasn't enough to make anyone believe in him as an outside linebacker in the SEC or Big 10.
Charlie Partridge, defensive line coach in Bret Bielema's first year at Arkansas, wondered if he might grow into something special. Partridge pointed to Roesler's quick development in the weight room in November of his redshirt season.
“He's going to be a player,” Partridge said. “He's got a quick twitch about him. I think he'll be able to rush the passer.”
The telling fact is that Roesler is now getting on the field in crunch time. Roesler, now right at 260, made the initial hit for the no gain stop of Ole Miss running back Akeem Judd to force a punt.
“They ran the same play back to back,” Roesler said. “He got six yards so I guess they thought it would be good for one if they came back to it. The first time I was one gap off. I saw it was the same formation and thought it might be coming again. I wrapped it right the second time and shot inside. I think Brooks Ellis was right behind me and probably a few other guys.”
The Hogs got more stops against LSU to pull away for a 31-14 victory. Roesler knows there is a tough challenge this week with Mississippi State quarterback Dak Prescott.
“He's a big back playing quarterback,” Roesler said. “He's a load to get down. We know he's a really good quarterback.”
Roesler will be back at defensive end for this week.
“It's a spread team so I won't be at outside linebacker,” Roesler said. “It was fun for a week to be standing up like high school. I moved there on Tuesday and by the end of the day Wednesday it was coming back to me.”
Linebackers coach Vernon Hargreaves said Roesler looked like a natural.
“He graded at around 85 percent,” Hargreaves said. “There was one play where they ran a back into the flat on a pass play and he was right there running next to him. We'd seen him do that in fall camp when we ran a package to drop an end into coverage. That's what got me to thinking he could help us when LSU went two tight ends. We needed a bigger body and someone who could beat up a tight end.”
The irony of that is that Roesler was deemed too small in high school by big-time college recruiters.
“That was the deal,” said Mike Glaser, his high school coach at St. X. “We sent his tapes everywhere. The thing about it, he'd been the MVP in the defensive line at UCLA and Louisville and maybe some other places for summer camp before his senior year. They all said he was fast and quick, but they didn't like his size.
“Notre Dame wanted him to walkon, but Karl said if he was going to walkon it was going to be in the SEC against big-time competition. That's what he wanted.”
Arkansas was in the picture because of another walkon from St. X, quarterback Brian Buehner. Roesler was highly decorated in high school, earning defenwisve MVP honors in the Tennessee-Kentucky All-Star Game.
“I played with Brian as a freshman in high school,” Roesler said. “He'd come home and tell all of the stories about the SEC. That's what I wanted. He loved it here and I do, too. My dream was to play in the SEC. I thought I could do it. I just love it here.
“I'm living my dream. I do want to try to help my family by getting a scholarship. But I'm having a blast. Contributing to SEC victories, helping my team, that makes it worthwhile.”
Glaser calls Roesler one of his favorites from 31 years of coaching.
“He's a great one,” Glaser said. “I had no doubts he would play at Arkansas. He's got quickness, great hands, strength and a great, great motor. He's so smart. He just never could put on weight. He lifted the daylights out of it and was strong. His hands are quick and strong.
"He made plays all over the field, running down people. He was a mismatch at this level. Even though you knew it would be tough competition in the SEC, I knew when he left here it was just the beginning for him. It's that motor. He just chases like crazy. I saw the LSU game and saw his hustle even there.
“One of the things to remember, he is young for his class. He played for me when he was 16. I thought he might play tight end in college because of his speed and hands.
"I sent tape to Coach Partridge when Karl told me he was interested in Arkansas and I went on the visit to Arkansas with him and his dad. We got there and Coach Partridge just sold us. His dad was an assistant coach for me and wanted him to go to Notre Dame, but he was fine with Arkansas after that visit. Charlie Partridge just did a great job with them on that visit. He convinced us that walkons have a chance to play in Coach (Brett) Bielema's program.
"I know the SEC is good, but I just thought Karl fit because of his speed. He's so smart and always had a knack of rushing the passer. He'd study the tapes and know the opposition's weakness and then make plays.
"This is a great, great family that he's from. My daughter grew up with Karl's sister. I've been around them so much and you just couldn't come from a better situation.
"When Karl made up his mind -- and that took some time -- they were all supportive. They sent him there and have let him do it on his own. He's just done a great job, too. He's his own man and we are all proud of him. I'll tell you what I tell everyone, he's a great one."
Indeed, as far as age, Roesler just turned 20 in July. He thinks he's still filling out and he's now big enough to help at defensive end.
“I love rushing the passer,” he said. “I'm in the rotation at defensive end and I just want to do things to help my team win. Everyone here is supportive of me. My coaches and my teammates treat me great. I may be a walkon, but they don't act any different to me. I'm not sure most of my teammates even know I'm a walkon.
"Winning is so much fun. We've got some momentum and we want to keep it rolling.”
That's where we'll start for the keys to victory for Mississippi State, a 6 o'clock start Saturday in Reynolds Razorback Stadium.
Keys to Victory
1, Momentum – The Hogs got off to a fast start at LSU, going up 21-0. There was obviously some momentum from the overtime victories over Auburn and Ole Miss. They want to start fast against the Bulldogs, too. Winning is a huge boost to confidence. The Hogs will be trying for their seventh SEC victory in 10 games. To put that in perspective, they had won only seven times in their previous 26 SEC games. There's nothing bigger in athletics than confidence. It leads to productive film study, better attention to detail in practice and fast healing with injuries. It's as big of a key as there can be for the final two home games starting with Mississippi State.
2, Quarterback Duel – It's clear that the top three quarterbacks in the SEC are Dak Prescott, Brandon Allen and Chad Kelly. If only by the slimmest of margins, Allen won an impressive duel with Kelly two weeks ago at Ole Miss. He'll get a chance to match Prescott, the All-SEC quarterback in all of the preseason polls. Prescott's numbers are off the charts. He's thrown just two interceptions in 343 attempts this season. But he has been sacked 22 times. He's going to hold the ball in the pocket more than in previous seasons. Which quarterback can be effective when a play breaks down? Allen has done that well of late and was often spectacular against Ole Miss. Could All-SEC be on the line?
3, Wide Receivers – Both teams are loaded. That seems odd to be saying about Arkansas since that was the weakness in recent seasons, but Drew Morgan, Dominique Reed and Jared Cornelius have been on fire in the last month. MSU's De'Runnya Wilson, Fred Brown and Fred Ross are just as talented. Ross has 19 catches in his last two games. Wilson has seven. Tiny running back Brandon Holloway has 20 catches this season and will be a tough matchup for the UA linebackers. Prescott likes to find Holloway in space. These are two good throw-and-catch teams that could put on a show.
4, Turnovers – Both teams are good at protecting the ball. State doesn't force many fumbles. They've only recovered one opposition fumble all season. They've lost 10. But where the Bulldogs get an advantage is with interceptions. They've gotten 11 picks while Prescott has only thrown two. On a cold night, could ball handling be an issue? It hasn't for Arkansas much of late, but it's going to be close to freezing by halftime. Turnovers may be the difference.
5, Sacks – The Hogs were the nation's worst sack team just one week ago. Then, they came up with five against LSU. Prescott was under constant pressure last week against Alabama. Can the Hogs repeat last week's pressure? Defensive coordinator Robb Smith said after the LSU win that it was like magic. “We pull a rabbit out of the hat sometimes,” he said during the victory celebration. Can he find another rabbit?
6, Red Zone – Prescott is at his best in the red zone. That's where he goes to the designed runs for the quarterback. He's smooth on the read option, generally keeping the ball. The Bulldogs are 69 percent on red zone touchdown conversions. They hold the opposition to just 30 percent. The Hogs were in the red zone often last year against the Bulldogs, but came up empty for the most part. There were two critical MSU stops late in the game to seal a 17-10 victory.
7, Alex Collins – All of the talk about All-SEC running back ballots has been about Leonard Fournette and Derrick Henry, but Alex Collins has been just as good. He's had eight 100-yard games this season, just two off Darren McFadden's school record. Collins has scored a touchdown in eight of 10 games this season. His 14 touchdowns is tied for seventh in school history for a single season. Collins seemed spent by the end of the LSU game. His 80-yard TD run against LSU was a thing of beauty. He's got 1,209 yards with two games to go. Does he have more in the tank for the Bulldogs?
8, O-Line Supremacy – It seems like the Arkansas front is finally living up to cover boy status that was highlighted at the start of the year when Bielema put them on the front of the media guide, unprecedented at Arkansas. Frank Ragnow has emerged as a solid SEC guard, something that wasn't the case early in the season. There were stacks of pancakes everywhere last week against LSU. Can they do the same against a tough Mississippi State front? The Hogs have won the battle up front of late against good SEC defenses. This may be where the game is won Saturday night.
9, Brooks Ellis and Dre Greenlaw – The Arkansas linebackers have been solid. They are easily the team leaders in tackles. Greenlaw nudged ahead of Ellis with 12 last week to put him at 84. Ellis is at 80. They'll have to chase Holloway and Prescott. The cat and mouse game with a spread offense is to put the linebackers in open space. Can they close on the ball carrier in front of the first down stakes. The tackling was improved against LSU, but that's been the issue against spread teams, getting help to finish off plays. It has been a problem when the pocket collapses. Can the linebackers keep Prescott contained in space and get the 230-pounder to the ground.
10, Hunger – Mississippi State had a four-game losing streak snapped last week against Alabama. The Hogs are on a four-game winning streak. Who has the passion and energy? State has been solid of late under coach Dan Mullen. The Bulldogs have been one of the SEC's best over the last 25 games, posting a 19-6 record, second only to Alabama's 21-4. But the Hogs have been hot of late. The Bulldogs have always been tough to beat in November, even when down. It may just come down to which team stays hungry. Bielema said early in the week that one of his jobs this week was to keep the Hogs humble as everyone in the state was proclaiming their greatness. Are the Hogs full, or will they still be hungry when the Bulldogs come to town?