Arkansas turned to another true freshmen Wednesday, this time in the heart of the defense. Zach Stadther, first-year player from North Little Rock, will replace Ernest Mitchell in the starting lineup at nose guard.
Mitchell missed the offseason after knee surgery. He underwent a second surgery, an arthroscopic procedure Wednesday. Defensive line coach Bobby Allen said Mitchell would be lost anywhere from four to six weeks.
Stadther moves to the front of the line at nose guard with veteran Cord Gray slated to be his backup. Mitchell reinjured his knee in the first half of the Texas game. Stadther got the bulk of the snaps afterwards.
"I got my confidence up in the second half," Stadther said. "There was one big tackle on third down, my best play. I think I got 30 snaps in the Texas game. That has really helped my confidence. I'm excited about the opportunity to start against a top SEC program like Florida."
There could be some other lineup changes on defense. Willy Robinson, the coordinator on that side of the ball, said Wendell Davis could start at one of the inside linebacker spots after a solid week of practice ahead of the Texas game and some quality plays against the Longhorns.
"Right now, we are working three guys at the two (inside) linebacker spots," Robinson said. "It would be Wendel Davis, Jerry Franklin and Elston Forte at those two spots. They would roll there. Yes, Wendell could be the guy at one of those spots. There are three possibilities at those two spots, mike and will linebacker."
Freddy Burton is the starter at strongside linebacker.
Mitchell has had trouble with swelling in his knee during the summer and throughout the fall. He was unable to practice on consecutive days in August because of the swelling.
"He got it dinged in the first half against Texas and he wasn't able to play the second half," said Allen. "We really didn't know how bad it was then. We found that out Sunday and we have waited a couple of days before going to surgery.
"It's a four week to six week thing, they say. Really, you don't actually know until you see how he handles it. It is different for every single person. It might be even quicker than that or longer. You just have to wait."
Robinson said he's comfortable with Stadther and Gray after watching them progress over the last two weeks with more practice time and snaps in games.
"You've got a freshmen and a veteran to back him up," Robinson said. "It's unfortunate with Ernest. You don't know if it's temporary or permanent right now.
"The starter (Stadther) is not the athlete that we had there, but he's very reliable. Really, both of them, Stadther and Gray, have been very reliable, to be honest. We feel good about both of them.
"It's another freshmen. I know it's tough on freshmen to play in these situations, but they have to trust that we think they can do it. I think a lot of freshmen sell themselves short. They should have confidence that we wouldn't go with them if we didn't think they were ready."
Stadther seemed to understand that and noted he's worked his way up from fourth team at the start of August workouts.
"I came here thinking I'd redshirt," he said. "Really, if you think back on it, I didn't think I'd be there. I thought I'd be in the Big 12 at Kansas before Coach (Bobby) Petrino got here. It all changed then."
That came in response to questions if he ever imagined himself playing against Heisman Trophy winner Tim Tebow.
"No, because I thought I'd be in the Big 12," he said. "This is exciting. You look forward to playing in this setting."
Apparently, he didn't know if he'd be here even in August practices.
"We had to talk him out of going home back in August," Robinson said. "He got homesick like a lot of freshmen. We told him he was doing well. But he was ready to go home in preseason. We had a few coaches talk him out of it. I think Bobby Allen did some talking to him and so did Kirk Botkin."
Botkin said it was a tag-team effort.
"You just knew he was like so many freshmen and just having second thoughts," Botkin said. "August workouts are rough. So, yeah, I talked to him. But it was all of us. We just took turns. It was tag team. I bet all of the coaches took a turn talking to him and he got through a rough couple of days."
Stadther hasn't done many interviews, but he held up fine when he was swarmed after practice after some initial confusion over his own size.
"I'm just going against some big guys in the SEC," he said. "Some of the guards are 6-5, 330. I'm just 6-1 and 230 ... I mean 290."
He mentioned his opposite number this week with Florida, right guard Mike Pouncey, a 6-5, 312-pound sophomore.
"He's pretty good, very strong, very good," Stadther said. "I know a little about him. He started there as a freshmen, so that's impressive."
It will be a tough matchup.
"I know what to expect from him, but all I'm thinking about is just going out there to play some football," he said. "I'm happy to be where I'm at right now."
Asked what Stadther does well, he said, "I think I have vision to the ball and some speed. I'm still working on some aspects, like using my hands."
Robinson said his strength, is his strength.
"He can anchor a point inside," Robinson said. "He takes on a double team and doesn't give. He holds that spot and that's important in our defense."
Robinson isn't sure who will be the mike linebacker starting behind Stadther, but it sounds like it could be Davis.
"Wendel has really done well in the last week," Robinson said. "He's got the attack mentality we like. He sniffs things out. He is physical and he's really played with game speed the last two weeks in practice and he brought that to the field at Texas. That's what has has been impressive from Wendel in the last two weeks. He's played at a very good tempo in practice."
The Hogs changed their approach slightly in Wednesday's workout. They took off the leg pads for the first time this week in a mid-week workout.
"We went back and forth as a staff on whether (to take off the pads) today," Robinson said. "We decided we'd get the same thing accomplished that we did last Wednesday. We had a very good workout."
Robinson said Wednesday's practice was better than Tuesday's workout, in typical fashion.
"What you have in Tuesday is the same each week because you are looking at a new team and learning their system," Robinson said. "So yesterday was typical of that. It was a situation where you are trying to grasp concepts."
And, the big issue is finding No. 1 on the field. That would be Florida wideout Percy Harvin.
"He is in a lot of places and in different personnel groups," Robinson said. "You have to see that he's on the field, and then where they are going to use him. The good news is that they do some similar things in certain groupings. They have a formation and do two or three things with him in that formation. What you know is that he has great vertical speed."
The Florida speed isn't relegated to just Harvin.
"You guys know they are fast," Robinson said. "You don't have to have me say it. They can just fly. They are extremely fast at the skilled spots."
That goes for Tebow at quarterback.
"He has been more of a pocket passer this year, but after what they saw Texas do against us, that might change this week," Robinson said. "They may try to get outside a little more, or look for some running lanes for him. We do know that when he sees it open up, he can be so quick and fast through the hole. It puts a lot of pressure on us to maintain our lanes and be ready. If he sees an open window, he takes it."
Robinson said defensive end Damario Ambrose, bothered by a knee injury against Texas, returned to practice and appears ready to play against Florida.
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