FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. — The Razorbacks linebacker unit appears to be in great shape entering the 2016 season, at least among the starters, behind a pair of experienced standouts.
Senior Brooks Ellis and sophomore Dre Greenlaw are the returning starters. Both shined for the Razorbacks defense last season, leading the team in tackles by a long shot.
The position also features one of the top position coaches around in Vernon Hargreaves, who is known for developing NFL talent and assisting strong defensive units during his 30 years as a college coach.
However, depth at the position is a concern, with some unknown and unproven players needing to step up in support of Ellis and Greenlaw.
Continuing SEC Country’s nine-part series looking at Arkansas’ 2016 position groups, here is a glance at the linebackers.
Players to watch
Brooks Ellis (senior), Dre Greenlaw (sophomore), Randy Ramsey (sophomore), Dwayne Eugene (junior), Khalia Hackett (junior).
Ellis and Greenlaw served as a two-man wrecking crew on the Arkansas defense last season.
Behind those two, Arkansas finished 12th nationally in rushing yards allowed per game at 116.5 and second in the SEC behind national champion Alabama.
Ellis led the team and tied for fifth in the conference with 102 tackles at middle linebacker. He was also on the Butkus Award Watch List, given annually to the nation’s top linebacker.
Greenlaw registered 95 tackles at outside linebacker, including a 16-tackle performance in a win over Auburn. He was twice named SEC Freshman of the Week.
The pair led the Razorbacks by a wide margin, with third on the team being 67 tackles from now-departed senior defensive back Rohan Gaines.
Here’s a look at some plays from last season that show why Ellis and Greenway are so effective.
- One of Ellis’ greatest strengths is his ability to play with a fearless mentality. During this play against Alabama last season, Ellis steps up into the hole, takes on Heisman Trophy winner Derrick Henry and wins. Not many players can, or are willing to, meet Henry one-on-one at the line of scrimmage and bring him down for no gain.
- During this play against Auburn last season, Ellis shows his knack for quickly reading plays. His understanding of what the opposing offense is doing is a major part of his play-making ability, as he doesn’t possess elite athleticism for an SEC linebacker. Here he shifts with the motion and quickly reads the screen pass, allowing him to disrupt the play and force a third down.
- Greenlaw was exceptional last season at not allowing opponents to get to the edge and turn upfield, a critical responsibility for an outside linebacker. He doesn’t make the tackle on this play against Alabama, but notice how he flows with the run while crashing the line of scrimmage and forcing Henry toward the sideline where he is eventually out of room and brought down.
- On this play against Auburn, he doesn’t collapse inside on the option-read fake to the running back. Instead he sticks to his responsibility, and when the quarterback keeps the ball, Greenlaw is there to prevent him from running around the corner and into the end zone.
While continued production can almost certainly be expected from Ellis and Greenlaw, the depth behind them is a concern.
The two played almost every snap last season, and the Razorbacks were forced to use a nickelback rather than a third linebacker probably more often then they would have liked.
The return of Ramsey could help tremendously. The sophomore is now back on the roster after being suspended for all of the 2015 season for academic reasons. At 6-foot-4, 230 pounds, Ramsey has ideal size and athleticism to contribute at either middle or outside linebacker. He appeared in seven games as a freshman in 2014 with one start.
Hackett lost his starting job after the season opener last season. He has experience, having played in 24 games over two seasons, but hasn’t broken through as a steady contributor.
Eugene may be the most reliable option for added depth. He played regularly on special teams as a freshman before seeing a decent amount of time at linebacker last season. He even started against Alabama in 2015, a game in which Arkansas often deployed three linebackers.