FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. — If there is one group that was consistently beaten on during Arkansas’ 2016 football season, it was the linebackers.
The offensive line started the year taking most of the fury from angry fans and observant media, but it played better as the season grew on. The defensive line took the brunt of animosity at various points, too.
The linebackers, however, were never out of focus.
Dre Greenlaw and De’Jon Harris know that, and they’re seeking to change it.
The junior and sophomore are the unquestioned first-team inside linebackers in Arkansas’ new 3-4 defense in 2017. Yes, a team that struggled to play two healthy, competent linebackers simultaneously last season will roll out four of them regularly this season. But if Greenlaw and Harris are, in fact, healthy, they will be more than competent.
Greenlaw’s injury last year was a big reason the linebackers took so much heat. When he was lost halfway through the season with a broken right foot, it left just Harris, Dwayne Eugene and Brooks Ellis.
Harris was a freshman, thrown directly into SEC competition. Eugene was a career backup, so this was new to him, too. Ellis was fundamental, but his lack of speed was glaring. One domino fell and the unit came crashing after.
In a way, it was good for Arkansas. At least in the long-term, anyway. Harris gained valuable playing time against the best teams in the country. Eugene, too. Greenlaw missed six games a season ago, so his body hasn’t exactly been through the grinder. Coach Bret Bielema sees the difference in just the last seven or eight months.
And he loves what he’s seeing with Harris and Greenlaw together so far this fall.
“Defense definitely plays at a different level when those two are in there together,” Bielema said.
They never played together last year. Ellis had his spot on lock. Harris didn’t see significant time until after Greenlaw was hurt. And, as a natural middle, he wasn’t taking many snaps away from the senior Ellis, anyway.
Now, though, with two inside spots, they can play side-by-side. Greenlaw just returned from that broken foot to full-speed practice last week. Harris is nicked up a bit now, but Bielema isn’t worried for the long-term.
Together, Greenlaw’s smaller frame — he’s a converted safety — and quickness is the perfect complement to Harris’ larger body and power. With Eugene potentially behind them and experienced players like Karl Roesler and Randy Ramsey on their outsides, not a soul in the world thinks Arkansas’ linebackers will be as bad as 2016.