Roommates Share Space At Linebacker

FAYETTEVILLE — Roommates Jelani Smith and Khiry Battle have spent much of the past month studying their playbooks, watching film and dreaming of their first game.

The way the Arkansas true freshmen see it, they're in it together. So it doesn't matter that Smith was named the starter at weakside linebacker and Battle is his backup.

"We know we're both going to play," Battle said. "So we're just trying to help each other get the job done."

Arkansas will have youth all over the field when it opens the season against Western Illinois in Reynolds Razorback Stadium on Saturday, but one of the most critical spots is weakside linebacker where Smith and Battle make up the depth chart.

It wasn't what the Razorbacks imagined when they opened preseason camp with senior Elston Forte manning the weakside spot. But a knee injury has forced Forte — a defensive team captain — off the field the past two weeks and thrust Smith and Battle into the spotlight.

"I didn't even think I was going to play," Smith said. "I thought I was going to redshirt because I was small."

Depth problems and injuries have erased that idea. Battle held down a first-team spot for much of the past two weeks, but Smith earned the starting job after coach Bobby Petrino said he was "off the charts" in the latest scrimmage.

It's part of a learning curve that linebackers coach Reggie Johnson is hoping will continue Saturday. The biggest problem for the linebackers have come in coverage, where the freshmen have done more thinking than reacting. But Johnson said they've shown no fear of being physical.

Mistakes may happen on game day. If so, there's a caveat.

"If you're making one, please err on the side of going full speed and you going and chasing that dadgum football," Johnson has told the linebackers. "If they're tracking that football and playing full speed, we'll get it worked out."

Neither Battle, a Georgia native, nor Smith, a Louisiana native, have ever attended an Arkansas game. So they aren't sure what to expect when they run out on the field Saturday night.

But the roommates said they're ready to do their job.

"We both feel like we're capable," Battle said. "Everyone's goal is to get on the field. So we've accomplished that in a way. ... We're trying to make sure that just because we're freshmen, there's no drop off in the defense."

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