State of the Hog: Linebackers
When you read practice reports from spring drills, you have to know the questions to understand the answers. That's the case with any coach, so don't single out Bobby Petrino as being different.
For example, you can read the comments of the head coach as praise is handed out for a particular position or player after a practice or scrimmage and read too much into any one area.
Most notably, there may be general comments at the start, then specific questions from the media about a few players. Quarterbacks are usually targeted by the media almost every day.
Linebackers don't earn many questions from the media.
After about 12 workouts this spring, no one had really asked the new Arkansas football coach about the linebackers and he didn't bring them up in discussions. So I finally mentioned to him that linebackers had been the forgotten position in our group interviews.
"Up and down," Petrino said, moving his arm in a roller-coaster motion. "They have some good moments and there may be some good players in that group eventually. They just are so young."
Elston Forte is the lone exception and perhaps the best in the group at the three linebacker slots, so good that he not only is listed as the first teamer on the strongside and the backup on the weakside. It doesn't take much to figure out that's not a good situation. He's a senior with plenty of SEC experience.
Obviously, the Hogs need some help at linebacker in the freshman class. The only two listed at linebacker in that new group are Tenarius Wright and Jelani Smith.
Of course, there may be some others that are listed as "athletes" that could be converted to linebacker. That's been the problem of late. Of the five currently listed at the top two spots on the current depth chart, only Jermaine Love played exclusively at linebacker in high school. Love was a weakside linebacker in the prep ranks and is at middle linebacker now. Some of the others were used more on offense.
So can you convert someone to linebacker? Is it a position that is learned or taught? Not very often.
An old coach with ties to the NFL told me, "If you have to tell linebackers much, you might not have any linebackers." As much as any position on the field, it's instinct first.
The SEC is a nasty, physical league. It's a league that spits back linebackers without great physical ability and instinct. Stopping the run is first and foremost and without linebackers the good days will be hard to find.
There are a lot of exciting things going on with Arkansas football right now. No doubt, fans are pumped about everything they are finding out about ways, systems and philosophies. I hear some say that the new style of coaching will be worth "two more games" in the won-loss column.
When I hear thoughts like that, my initial reaction is two more from where? Were they thinking that the talent on this team is worth four or five and that coaching will bring the Hogs to six or seven?
What I worry about when I start calculating wins for next season is depth at linebacker. A few injuries at linebacker and those "two more wins" from great coaching will be out of reach. And, I don't remember an SEC season that didn't produce a few injuries at linebacker. Looking at those two incoming linebackers, Wright missed the first four games of last season with an injury, Smith missed two. The only point in mentioning those injuries is that you should expect a few next season.
It's not a comfortable thought when you think about freshmen and sophomore filling up the depth chart at linebacker. Of the returnees in the two-deep, three are sophomores and another is a redshirt freshmen. Excluding Forte with three letters, the other four in the depth chart total three letters.
If this sounds like an effort to throw some cold water on all of the excitement, it's not. It's an attempt to understand why the old heads around the SEC put them anywhere but the tail end of the SEC West. I like the idea of playing an SEC schedule with a senior quarterback. Casey Dick will give the Hogs some advantages. But I don't like playing a stretch of Texas, Alabama, Florida and Auburn with inexperienced linebackers.
There is merit to the old saying that if a dog is going to bite, he'll most likely bite as a pup. Hopefully, it's true for the Hogs in 2008.
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