"Get better," Graham said.
It sounds basic, but the 6-foot-3, 210-pound Graham, who scribbles the phrase on his wrist tape before every practice, believes the motivational message is valuable. It helps him keep things in perspective as he polishes off good days, struggles with bad ones and prepares for his important role a few months removed from high school.
"When I look at that, it helps me out," Graham said. "I know I've got to get better every day. I know I've got to improve. I can't fall down."
Graham and his true freshman position mate, Freddie Fairchild, will get a chance to show how much they've learned during tonight's Arkansas Fan Day scrimmage in Reynolds Razorback Stadium. The tandem will work with the first-team defense in place of resting veterans Sam Olajubutu and Pierre Brown, picking up important scrimmage time two weeks before the Sept. 3 season opener against Missouri State.
They know they're being counted on as key contributors to a thin group of linebackers this season. In fact, Olajubutu, Brown and senior Michael Robinson are the only three with experience. So defensive coordinator Reggie Herring wants the inexperienced duo to get on the field and in a game-like situation.
Fairchild will man the weakside spot and Graham will open the scrimmage at middle linebacker. Redshirt freshman Weston Dacus, who has spent the preseason in the middle, will work at the strongside spot.
"There's no doubt we needed them here desperately," Herring said about Graham and Fairchild. "They're freshmen who are going to play.
"They're going to be second-team (middle) and (weakside linebacker) and they are going to play against Missouri State first game."
Graham and Fairchild knew that before they even arrived on campus. They were listed on the post-spring depth chart as second-team linebackers.
Herring moved players like Clarke Moore, Desmond Sims and Zach Snider from linebacker to defensive end in the spring, leaving little depth and experience behind Olajubutu and Brown. Instead of redshirting, the duo has been asked to learn the position as quickly as possible and Herring is hoping to ease them onto the field.
"It's a lot of ups and downs," Fairchild said. "There's a lot of stuff being thrown at us right now and we're just picking it up slowly.
"One day we'll do excellent, we'll do everything well. Then, the next day, we'll miss assignments or something like that."
That can be frustrating for Herring, who said it has been difficult teaching them the schemes, assignments and other skills needed to succeed.
In fact, he compared the process to raising toddlers.
"If you've got children, terrible two's, baby," Herring said. "Terrible two's. You love them one day, the next day you want to give them up for adoption. It's just terrible two time. They're very frustrating to coach. It's not their fault. They should all be redshirted, learn the system, grow.
"But bless their hearts, they haven't quit on me yet."
The good news, Herring said, is that both players have promising futures.
Graham came to Arkansas after averaging 15 tackles a game and being named the Greater Houston Class 4A Defensive MVP last season at Yates High School. Arkansas senior Pierre Brown said Graham has proven to be an aggressive player in the preseason, but still is working on understanding his assignments.
The same can be said for Fairchild, who spent a year at Hargrave (Va.) Military Academy after a successful prep career at Little Rock Central. Fairchild said the year at Hargrave was valuable, giving him time to bulk up from 176 to 210 pounds.
Both consider tonight's first-team work an important step in their development.
"He's basically trying to get us some reps so we'll actually know (what it's like) if we have to slide down to first team sometime this season in case one of those guys gets hurt," Fairchild said. "He just wants us to feel comfortable with the first team.
"It's going to help us understand our assignments a lot better."
Said Graham: "Me and Freddie, we've got to pick up our intensity, got to pick up the speed of the game. We've just got to pick it up and make sure we do what Pierre and Butu do, give it all out on every play."
Herring is also expecting that from more than the two freshmen tonight.
Graham and Fairchild will be watched closely, but the scrimmage also will give him a chance to sort out several other positions.
There still are open battles at cornerback, where Matterral Richardson, Michael Coe and John Johnson are fighting for playing time at cornerback while Darius Vinnett (knee tendinitis) and Michael Grant (broken pinkie finger) sit out with injuries. Herring also wants to know more about his depth at both safety positions and defensive tackle. Then there's defensive end, where Zach Snider and Clarke Moore are battling for backup roles behind first-teamer Anthony Brown.
"We're going to nail it down after this scrimmage," Herring said. "We're going to settle in and we're going to start getting game ready."
Of course, those plans will include Graham and Fairchild, who came to Arkansas in search of early playing time and will get their first dose of it tonight.
The freshmen might blow assignments, miss tackles or make other rookie mistakes during the scrimmage. But, as Graham's wrist indicates, they understand the most important goal is to "get better."
"It's tough for any freshman to go through, to compete for a second-team job," Herring said. "So, for them to be here with a smile on their face, still working hard, that's an accomplishment in itself. It really is. They've both got nice linebacker bodies and they're got great futures.
"It's just going to take time."
A Glimpse Of The Future
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