Linebacker play critical to Razorbacks’ success

Linebackers coach Vernon Hargraeves talked about junior linebacker Dre Greenlaw and sophomore De’Jon Harris.


In 11 days, the Arkansas Razorbacks’ new-look defense debuts at War Memorial Stadium against Florida A&M, and everyone in attendance will get their first look at the 3-4 defense that veteran defensive coordinator Paul Rhoades and his staff installed.

Change was needed after last season when the Razorbacks posted one of the worst years ever by an Arkansas defense. The Razorbacks gave up 205 yards rushing per game and a whopping 39 rushing touchdowns. Both numbers ranked in the lower ranks of the Bowl Subdivision Ratings.

Improvement is expected. How much remains the big question.

The 3-4 scheme installed by Rhoades, who served as Auburn’s defensive coordinator before working a seven-year stint as Iowa State’s head coach, is supposed to supply the Razorbacks with more versatility and the ability to disguise its blitzes better than in the 4-3 defense the Hogs ran last year.

Arkansas head coach Bret Bielema said the move makes the Razorbacks automatically more athletic with eight defenders standing up rather than seven in the 4-3.

However, there is an issue as the roster adjusts to the move. Ideally the two outside linebacker spots would be populated with different body types. The Hog linebacker spot would be a heavier player, who could play in a down position on the defensive front when desired.

Currently senior Karl Roesler (6-1, 252), a converted defensive end, is starting at the position and being backed by Gabe Richardson (6-3, 239), a sophomore transfer from Hutchinson County (Kan.) Community College. Roesler played in every game last year and is somewhat of an overachiever, but is a technician with technique. Richardson is a rangier athlete with good speed, but will play a bit light for the position by SEC standards. The Hog will often will put a hand in the dirt as well as drop back in passing lanes.

The Razor linebacker is somewhat of a hybrid linebacker/safety with pass rush responsibilities as well as more duties in the passing game. Junior Randy Ramsey (6-4, 228) has the height and length desired for the position, but is a little light in the britches for stopping the run. However, he should shine as a pass rusher.

Senior Dwayne Eugene (6-1, 240) has always held promise as a Hog, but early on, he failed to grasp the keys for playing weak- or strong-side linebacker. As a junior, he started the last half of the season when Dre Greenlaw went down for the rest of the season with a foot injury. He made 44 tackles and picked off Alabama quarterback Jalen Hurts. Eugene has worked his way into a steady performer under assistant coach Vernon Hargreaves. Eugene has also been cross training at the weak and middle linebacker spots to help with depth. Freshman Hayden Henry (6-1, 209), brother of former Hog tight end Hunter Henry and son of former Hog center Mark Henry, has surprisingly worked himself on to the travel roster. Bielema said that Henry would see playing time this year.

Fayetteville native Dre Greenlaw /

Hargreaves said he was impressed with the way inside linebackers De’Jon “Scoota” Harris (6-0, 242) and Dre Greenlaw (6-0, 229) have worked together despite the fact that Fayetteville-native Greenlaw had been limited until last week from an injury. Though both are undersized for SEC play, they are smart, aggressive and instinctive players.

Despite missing half of last season, Greenlaw, who plays weakside linebacker to Harris in the middle, is one of the most experienced Razorbacks. He made 42 tackles and two fumble recoveries last season before being injured against Alabama. As a freshman, playing primarily on instincts, he made 95 stops and was named Freshman All-SEC and Freshman All-America.

Like Greenlaw, Harris had a strong first year for the Hogs. He played in all 12 games and was a key factor on special teams with 11 stops. Harris recorded 37 tackles as a backup and also forced a fumble.

Hargreaves said Thursday that Greenlaw and Harris complemented each other in the middle.

Red-shirt freshman Dee Walker (6-2, 215) is running behind Greenlaw on the depth chart at weakside linebacker, and red-shirt freshman Grant Morgan (5-11, 220) is working behind Harris at middle linebacker. However, with Eugene’s experience at both positions, he could work as a sixth man across three of the four linebacker spots.

Linebacker play is critical to every defense’s success. How this group performs will go a long way in deciding what type of defense, team, and season the Razorbacks will have.

The Razorbacks are undersized at the second level of their defense, but that’s nothing new. Dating back to the 1960s, Arkansas has generally faced that situation when playing elite teams and at times has still been potent.

Knowing their responsibilities and technique as well as their opponents can allow a smallish defense to play fast and aggressive enough to mitigate the size factor.

Size is not as great a concern as the Razorbacks overall inexperience at the position, particularly in a new scheme.

The Hogs ease into the season by hosting the Florida A&M Rattlers at 6 p.m. Aug. 31 in an SEC TV-televised game, but the stakes increase tenfold in their Razorback Stadium opener Sept. 9 against TCU.

The TCU game will give Razorbacks fans their first true indication of how quickly the Hogs are adapting to their new defensive scheme.