Arkansas head coach Bret Bielema was only six years old when the movie “Bad News Bears” came out in theaters. Filled with comedy, one of the greatest sports movies of all time starred the late great Walter Matthau as a coach instructing a rag tag team of no-namers and a lack of talent, into eventual champions. When describing one of his team’s weakest position groups, Bielema chose to place the name,”Bad News Bears” on his linebackers; it’s not like anybody can identify them by name anyways!
Seniors Jarrett Lake and Austin Jones, and also redshirt junior Braylon Mitchell, have been nothing short of unnoticed from every SEC expert. All three started last Saturday against Louisiana-Lafayette with little to no game experience, after mainly being worked at as special teamers before the season. Lake played at the Will, Jones at the Mike, and Mitchell at the Sam linebacker position. For Jones and Mitchell, it was their first collegiate start, with an outpouring amount of red at Razorback Stadium Saturday.
The Razorbacks starters combined for 13 tackles all of last season. To put it in perspective, Arkansas only had 38 career tackles from its two-deep at that position coming into last Saturday. If you are a Razorback fan, it might be troubling to rattle off a name from this group, but you sure can name their position coach.
Bielema has built one of the deeper coaching staffs in the SEC and country at Arkansas, and there’s not a coach better equipped to handle this inexperienced outfit than Randy Shannon. The former Miami Hurricanes linebacker spent 17 seasons as both an assistant coach and head coach at his alma mater. His tenure as an assistant for the Hurricanes saw him mentor one of the game’s greatest players, two-time Super Bowl winner Ray Lewis, while being the architect of one of college’s best defenses ever in 2001. Last season, Shannon’s linebackers at TCU were the catalysts of the team’s defense, leading the Big 12 in rushing defense.
In his first season at Arkansas, Shannon has gone to a five or six man rotation at linebacker, creating a lot of versatility after interchanging many players to fit certain situations. Lake and Mitchell locked up their jobs very early in the process, and middle linebacker was wide open before the Louisiana game. Arkansas defensive coordinator Chris Ash and Shannon went with Jones on the week leading up to last Saturday’s game.
Jones, a transfer from Air Force, received a scholarship this August, after playing as a walk-on scout teamer his first two seasons at Arkansas. Jones handled his work like a true veteran last Saturday, with six tackles and bagging a loose fumble in the third quarter. Shannon has seen this episode before last year at TCU; Joel Hasley started 10 games for TCU in 2012 as a walk-on, becoming the team’s second leading tackler as honorable mention All-Big 12 linebacker.
Arkansas has three others that have the inside track of contributing in large parts towards Arkansas’ defensive middle: Daunte Carr, Martrell Spaight and true freshman Brooks Ellis. Carr, a former safety moved to linebacker during the spring, starting the Red-White game as the middle linebacker. Spaight, a junior college transfer from Coffeyville (KS) Community College, was named as a junior college All-American twice. Spaight can pack a punch as good as anybody at any level in football today. His heavy hits in practice have led teammates to say, “You’ve been ‘spaighted,’” when he strikes you. Coaches say that Ellis, who actually hails from Fayetteville, is more knowledgeable at his position than any first year guy you will find in the country.
A broken arm from Otha Peters has forced Shannon to go with other options like Ellis. Peters’ injury was initially supposed to leave him out for four to six weeks, but coach Bielema believes he might be healthy enough to go against Rutgers in just over two weeks. Peters started the last three games in 2012, being named to the SEC All-Freshmen team.
These linebackers noticeably stopped Louisiana quarterback Terrance Broadway dead in his tracks last Saturday. Broadway rushed for -1 yard, the rest of the Cajuns combined for 85 rushing yards. Arkansas ranked 19th in the country in rushing defense in 2012.
Shannon wants better communication on calls from this group on Saturday, yet the group has already communicated to their coaching staff, though unheard of, that they can do their jobs.