By Nate Allen
FAYETTEVILLE – Missing their best in the spring prepared Arkansas’ linebackers for among the worst that could happen to them and their defense this fall.
And even if the best holds forth healthy all year, his spring absence created more autumn depth.
Arkansas’ best senior middle linebacker and 2018 SEC leading tackler, De’Jon “Scoota” Harris, missed spring ball for surgery repairing a chronic foot injury.
Harris returned full tilt starting with Arkansas’ first two preseason practices last weekend, linebackers Grant Morgan of Greenwood, the fourth-year junior top backup at Mike middle linebacker and Will weakside linebacker, and first-team sophomore Will linebacker Bumper Pool of Lucas, Texas both said.
They and second-year Coach Chad Morris and second-year defensive coordinator/linebackers coach John Chavis welcome Harris’ return like the Alamo would have welcomed reinforcements.
But senior defensive end Jamario Bell admired how Morgan, Pool and reserves Hayden Henry and Giovanni La France held the spring fort.
“It really was a blessing in disguise with Scoota missing the spring,” Bell said. “Because it gave a lot of younger guys a lot of reps that that they wouldn’t have gotten if he was still there. I felt we just grew as a team.”
Bell explained the growth.
“You know with Scoota when a linebacker does something wrong, he’s going to fix it,” Bell said. “But you have to depend on more than one person. So, with Grant and Bumper, Gio and the rest of the linebackers it creates a chemistry and a culture.”
Following his 2016 season redshirting as a then walk-on freshman under former Arkansas Coach Bret Bielema, Morgan lettered in 2017 and 2018 all over the lot as a 2-position backup and special teams constant. He’s amassed 59 tackles over the last two seasons, including six for lost yardage and forced a fumble.
Yet even with that experience, Morgan said responsibilities weighed spring heavy replacing Harris instead of merely filling in some plays for him.
“It definitely helped me and Bumper growing up in the spring,” Morgan said. “I felt like I was grown up last year beginning the season but having to step up as the No. 1 all spring I felt that put me to the next level. And Bumper should be able to keep growing up because he’s still a young guy. He should be able to step up and play a lot of good football.”
Pool, last year’s true freshman behind graduated senior Will ‘backer Dre Greenlaw, and a starter for three games looking to Harris for guidance when Greenlaw was either injured or returning from injuries, said it wasn’t just Harris’ absence but Morgan’s presence helping him grow last spring.
“Grant knows the defense very well,” Pool said. “It definitely helps having him on the field. Me and Grant worked well together in the spring. It kind of caused both of us to step up and play without Scoota being there.
The brother of 2014-2016 letterman Razorbacks receiver Drew Morgan, UA career marks 138 catches for 1,765 yards and 14 touchdowns, Grant imprints his own name in his own right on the Razorbacks athletically and academically. He’s an SEC Honor roll member already with a UA kinesiology degree and taking grad school classes eventually with med school in mind.
Morgan’s academics apparently translates to athletics.
“He’s a very valuable player for us because he has the ability to play two positions,” Chavis said. “He’s a guy that benefitted from that (Harris’ convalescence) and had a great spring.”
Morgan progressed storybook style as a walk-on placed on scholarship in August 2018. But the 4-8 of 2017 and especially last year’s 2-10 remains a nightmare contrasting to his Greenwood Bulldogs winning teams including the 2015 state championship.
“I’d never been on a losing team in my whole life,” Morgan said. “I was talking to John Stephen Jones (Arkansas’ redshirt freshman reserve quarterback who quarterbacked Dallas Highland Park to consecutive state high school championships) about it. We had never been on a losing team. We’ve got to expect to win every game. We’ve got to be winners every single day and I see that changing a lot.”
Morgan said the 2019 Hogs en masse heed the Morris methods unlike last year’s team in transition.
“It’s night and day from last year and the way people have bought in and who wants to be here and who doesn’t,” Morgan said. “To see everyone grow in that aspect is really nice to see. I think everyone recognizes what Coach Morris brings to the table and I think everyone has developed into that system and we’re all bonding into his system. We’ve all bought in and it’s the way it’s supposed to be.”