By Otis Kirk
FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas lost two key linebackers in Grant Morgan and Hayden Henry, but they return Bumper Pool as well as transfer Drew Sanders.
In addition, Arkansas has accumulated some very talented young linebackers under Michael Scherer. Jackson Woodard is a redshirt sophomore, Chris “Pooh” Paul a redshirt freshman and then Jordan Crook, Mani Powell and Kaden Henley true freshmen. Marco Avant is another redshirt freshman who has battled injuries at times, but is practicing now. Last year with Pool, Morgan and Henry Scherer used a three-man rotation. Could it be that way again?
“Yeah, it can change based on who’s in the game and what’s going on, but we’ll see,” Scherer said. “We’ll see. I think we’ve got a good amount of guys that can go and play in a game right now. I think Bumper and Drew can take a large load. But to last 12 games. He’s in the SEC. They’re going to need to go in and out. So, I can’t tell you if it’s going to be three guys, right now. I think we’ve got more than that to be honest with you. So, I do think it’ll be a little bit different. How exactly it’s going to look, I don’t know.”
Pool had 125 tackles to lead the Razorbacks last fall despite only starting one game. Pool opted to return for 2022 and bypass the NFL Draft for a year. With Pool and Sanders the obvious starter Scherer was asked what he uses to motivate them?
“They don’t need it, they’re very self-motivated,” Scherer said. “I just think those guys are competing to be the best around. When you become a starter and you have experience like those two, your focus isn’t climbing the top of the depth chart, it’s to climb the top of every chart. There’s a lot of that, both of those have a lot of goals after this year, next year, whatever year it may be. They’re working towards that. I don’t think that’s where their brain is, I think their brain is just on every day getting better. Especially a guy like Bumper, who, let’s be honest, he started one game last year. Great player, he started one game last year. He worked his butt off all year last year, never complained once, and so he’s got that mindset from last year. He showed up every day last year kind of mad at me. I liked it, and it made him a really good player. He’s kept that, and it’ll never leave him after last year.”
Sanders is a former five-star recruit from Denton (Texas) Ryan who went to Alabama. However, in December Sanders opted to leave the Tide and enrolled at Arkansas following official visits to Texas, Oklahoma and the Hogs. He was more of an edge rusher at Alabama and is considered an elite pass rusher.
“Yeah, he’s definitely an elite pass rusher,” Scherer said. “You know, it’s amazing, people don’t recognize how hard it is to do what Drew’s doing right now. Drew went from playing defensive end, outside linebacker, sitting on the edge every play, to being in the middle of the action. There’s a lot going on in there. Your eyes are all in a different place, and to be honest with you, it took Drew about a week and a half until we started watching film and I go ‘Oh, God, this kid is good.’ And so Drew, pass rushing, yeah, he’s very good at that. But the reality of the situation is a lot of his player are going to be off the ball, OK. So, we’re working on him getting better at that. He’s progressed every day. He’s a very, very, very talented player. A lot of my challenge with Drew is getting him to trust and believe how talented he is. Once he does that and lets it loose and once he gets the reps there in the middle and he’s not thinking about what he’s got to do, he can do some special, special things.”
Sanders talked about the challenges from going to linebacker from edge rusher.
“I would say it’s a pretty big adjustment, because on the edge you’re worried about half the field,” Sanders said. “When you’re inside, you’re worried about the whole field. You’ve got a lot more keys to read. But right now I feel pretty comfortable. Coach Scherer and Pooh and Bump have done a great job of helping me learn my keys and get more comfortable.”
Scherer talked about getting Sanders to realize how good he is.
“It’s easy to get frustrated, especially as a linebacker,” Scherer said. “It’s easy to get frustrated when you don’t make every single play. It sounds crazy, OK, but when you don’t make every single play, when you do something wrong and you know it … they’re smart kids, right, so when they do something wrong they know it. It’s easy to get down on yourself and think about that, so the challenge I’ve had to many of the guys — and a lot of that is in the maturity of the young guys, too — is you can’t let one mistake turn into two. A lot of guys, the young guys, they screw up and then they go and line up and they’re still thinking about the mistake they just made. Then one mistake turns into two and then two turns into three, then all of a sudden they’re having awful day and they’re all out of whack mentally.
“With Drew, a lot of it is just getting him to trust that the things he needs to do fundamentally as a linebacker will take care of themselves. He’ll make plays by just doing what he has to do. It’s getting him to not be frustrated at maybe the ball doesn’t come to him every time, so he stays disciplined in what he’s supposed to do. In our defense as a linebacker you do what you’re supposed to do, history says you’re going to be pretty successful. It’s just trying to get him to understand that and not get frustrated when one thing goes wrong. He’s learning, so as anybody who is learning, you’re going to make mistakes. I think the only way to learn in football is to make mistakes. I mean, I think that’s why I’m a football coach because I’ve screwed up so many times and I had to learn how to fix it. I’m just being honest. I had to fix all the mistakes I made in my life, so now I know how to fix mistakes, and I think that’s why I’m OK at this job. Just getting Drew to understand mistakes are going to happen and just keep going on and keep moving.”
Sanders wanted to stay in the SEC to play his college football and also liked the distance from Fayetteville to Denton.
“I mean, yeah, a big thing for me was trying to stay in the SEC,” Sanders said. “But between staying in the SEC, I wanted to be closer to home, too. So you know, Oklahoma and Texas were the other ones we were really looking at, but it just, you know, there’s a big sense of pride with playing in the SEC, and I just still wanted to be a part of that.”
Sanders gives Pool a lot of credit as well for making the move to linebacker and a new school much easier than it might have been otherwise.
“I mean, yeah,” Sanders said. “Ever since I got here, he’s done a great job of helping me and just like you saw, he’s talking to me. Every time we get off the field, he’s talking about what might have happened, what might have went wrong, how we can fix it, how we can be better. And then we’re always just trying to figure out ways to help each other.”
Arkansas will open the season on Saturday, September 3, at home against Cincinnati.