Forte Thrust Into Leadership Role

FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas senior Elston Forte has only been a linebacker for eight months.

So when the former safety looks around at the rest of the Razorbacks linebackers this spring, Forte really can't believe he has become the inexperienced group's veteran.

"I never saw this when I first came here," Forte said with a laugh. "It just happened so fast."

But there's no denying the 6-foot, 219-pound Little Rock native has become the new face of a position rebuilding under new coach Bobby Petrino. Just look around the field.

Key players like Sam Olajubutu and Desmond Sims are long removed from the program. Steady performer Weston Dacus has moved on as well. Even the group's top returning linebacker, Freddie Fairchild, isn't on the field because of an indefinite suspension for his offseason arrest.

Forte is surrounded by a pack of freshmen and sophomores like Ryan Powers, Jerry Franklin, Jermaine Love, Freddy Burton and Josh Minde. So the coaches are leaning on his leadership.

"Elston has played a lot," linebackers coach Reggie Johnson said. "He's been in some big games. Being a senior we expect a lot out of him. We expect a lot of all of our guys, but especially our seniors because they've been in a lot of big games.

"The expectations for him are to have that leadership and bring those younger guys along with him as he gets better."

Forte was a reserve safety for much of his career before being asked to give linebacker a shot last August. The move paid off.

He played in all 13 games as a junior and earned six starts at the weakside position. Forte finished the season with 51 tackles, 2.5 tackles for losses and forced two fumbles.

Forte moved to the strongside spot in the offseason and has shown some promise on the field this spring. For instance, he delivered one of the biggest hits during the first full pads practice last Saturday. Forte disrupted a run play by lowering his shoulder and the effort earned plenty of pats on the helmet.

"He's doing it by example," Johnson said. "He's out here practicing just as hard as everybody. He's going the extra mile to make himself successful. We've been pleased with where he is, but we've still got to be better. We've still got a long way to go, but I think he's up to the challenge."

But Forte admits it can be a difficult task under new defensive coordinator Willy Robinson.

Last year, Arkansas' linebackers did a heavy does of blitzing and attacking under former coordinator Reggie Herring. Robinson has implemented more zone coverages for the group and is asking his linebackers to learn how to play in space.

"(Forte) has a lot on his plate," Robinson said. "He has to understand that he's not just a run defender, we're also asking him to play in space. For those linebackers it's a whole lot different from what they are used to from last year.

"So much of it was man pressure. Now we've gone ahead and put in zone defenses. ... Each day is like a box of chocolates because these zones always continually change for him."

Forte said there have been mistakes. There will be more. But he studies any errors during film work each day, spends an hour in his playbook every night and is learning as quickly as possible.

There's pressure on the senior to perform because of the inexperience that surrounds him. But Forte welcomes it.

After all, the former defensive back knows he is the veteran of the group no matter how hard it is to believe.

"It's a good test," Forte said. "I got moved there the middle of last season. Now I know they're looking, trying to see the progress I've made. I want to see the progress I've made."

Elston Forte

Class: Senior

Position: Linebacker

Height: 6-foot

Weight: 219 pounds

Hometown: Little Rock

Notables: Began Arkansas career at safety, but moved to linebacker last August and started six games at weakside linebacker. ... Was 11th on the team in tackles (51). Also was tied for second in forced fumbles (2). ... Played in 24 games as a freshman and sophomore, predominantly on special teams.

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