FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. — Well, here we are. Less than a week into preseason practice and the Arkansas Razorbacks are already dealing with a pair of familiar problems: broken feet and deteriorating linebacker depth.
Arkansas coach Bret Bielema announced during his Monday news conference that sophomore outside linebacker Jamario Bell will miss “10-to-12 weeks” after undergoing foot surgery. After switching from tight end to linebacker, Bell rose to No. 2 on the depth chart by the end of spring practices and appeared on his way toward significant playing time as a sophomore.
He’s the second Arkansas linebacker since mid-April to break a foot. Redshirt freshman Alexy Jean-Baptiste isn’t practicing because of a broken foot.
And don’t forget about junior inside linebacker and starter Dre Greenlaw, who broke a foot last Oct. 8 against Alabama and missed the final six games of the regular season before returning for the Belk Bowl, where he re-injured the foot. Greenlaw was limited throughout the spring and is being handled with caution.
Broken feet, of course, haven’t just been a problem for Razorbacks linebackers. Just since the beginning of the 2015 season, other members of the Arkansas Broken Foot Society include receivers Keon Hatcher and Cody Hollister; running backs Jonathan Williams and Kody Walker; and defensive end Mitchell Loewen.
Greenlaw’s injury last season exposed Arkansas’ lack of quality depth at linebacker, a problem that also existed in 2015. Really, from the 2015 season through Greenlaw’s injury against Alabama, he and now-graduated Brooks Ellis played most snaps — with a nickelback instead of a third linebacker on the field — because the coaches were uncomfortable putting anyone else on the field.
Sophomore De’Jon Harris is replacing Ellis in the starting lineup and coaches have high hopes for him. He saw his playing time increase last season as a true freshman following Greenlaw’s injury.
The Razorbacks switched to a base 3-4 defense during the offseason and plan to play with at least three linebackers on the field in most situations.
Junior outside linebacker Randy Ramsey is a sure-fire starter, and because of his pass-rushing skills could be a star in this new system. Between Ramsey, Greenlaw and Harris, the Hogs should have a solid group of starting linebackers, but experienced, quality depth remains a concern.
Another setback for Jamario Bell
For Bell, this injury comes at a time when he finally seemed to have gotten things together and put himself in a position to play. The native of Junction City, Ark., came to the Razorbacks as a defensive end, switched to tight end in the spring of 2016, then to outside linebacker last spring.
He was a consensus 4-star prospect according to the recruiting services. As a linebacker, Bell seemingly had found his home.
“Mario Bell was a new addition to the room toward the very end of the spring,” outside linebackers coach Chad Walker told me this summer. “He’s been great. He’s a lot of fun to be around, brings a great smile every day and works hard. He’s got really good length. He puts in great effort every day.”
Now, he’ll have to wait awhile to get back in the action.
“The kid hasn’t had an easy road, whether he’s brought it on himself or switching positions from defense to offense and now back,” Bielema said Monday. “He was really flourishing. … He just had the best semester academically he’s ever had. There were a lot of things that were very positive, but I think you’re defined more by your moments of adversity and this is one of them.”
The state of Arkansas’ linebackers
On Saturday, during the most recent slice of practice open to reporters, there were four walk-on linebackers in the 3-deep. And good for those guys. Redshirt freshman Grant Morgan — younger brother of Drew Morgan — has it in his genes to defy expectations.
Freshman Hayden Henry is a walk-on but has been promised a scholarship next semester. You might have heard of his brother — former Arkansas All-America tight end and current Los Angeles Chargers star Hunter Henry.
JUCO transfer Gabe Richardson and freshmen Derrick Munson and Josh Paul — both on scholarship and from the New Orleans area — could also have some opportunities moving forward. Paul, it should be noted, has yet to make the 105-man camp roster.
“He can join us at some point,” Bielema said of Paul last week. “We just need him to focus on academics and just doing things a little bit better. … Nothing involved with anything other than the expectations in our program to do them a little bit better. But I think he’ll lock in and be good in that regard.”
Based on the timeline Bielema laid out in April, Jean-Baptiste could be back in the fold before too long, although it might be difficult for him after missing summer workouts and so much practice time.
Looked through a more positive lens, this lack of experienced linebacker depth could mean an opportunity for some of these walk-ons and newcomers to get their feet in the door.
That is, if there are any feet left that aren’t broken.