Ready or not, it is almost time for Arkansas football once again — kind of. Spring ball is set to begin March 9, which marks the unofficial start to Year 4 of the Sam Pittman era.
To help get you acquainted with the 2023 squad, Best of Arkansas Sports will preview the team position-by-position. We’ll take a look at the biggest questions, key players and newcomers that will define the Razorbacks’ upcoming season.
Our series continues with a deep dive on the linebackers…
Biggest Question Facing Arkansas Football at LB
How deep will the Razorbacks go at linebacker?
Depth at linebacker has traditionally been a problem for Arkansas football, but that has gradually changed in recent years. However, that was under former defensive coordinator Barry Odom and former linebackers coach Michael Scherer.
They are now gone to UNLV, though. Travis Williams has taken over as defensive coordinator and will also coach the linebackers. Much like Scherer, he played the position in the SEC — doing well enough at Auburn to spend some time in the NFL before beginning his coaching career.
Under the previous regime, the Razorbacks had tackling machines at linebacker. Grant Morgan, Hayden Henry, Bumper Pool and Drew Sanders each had seasons with 100-plus tackles, with the first three of those guys hitting the milestone together in 2021.
That year, Arkansas had a pretty solid rotation of three linebackers who played about the same number of reps. This past season, though, Sanders played a vast majority of the snaps with Pool and Chris Paul Jr. rotating at the second linebacker spot while Jordan Crooks played a handful of snaps here and there.
Looking at the snap counts on Pro Football Focus, it appears that Williams primarily did what the Razorbacks did in 2020, which is play the same two linebackers for a majority of the game with very little rotation.
Of course, what Williams decides to do at Arkansas will likely be dictated by personnel. Between Paul and incoming transfer Antonio Grier, it seems like the Razorbacks have at least two known commodities at linebacker, but how much rotation there is at the position could depend on the development of the younger guys or whether they add any more from the transfer portal.
The Star: Chris Paul Jr.
Even during the 2021 season, when he played only 14 defensive snaps and 17 special teams snaps as a true freshman, Chris Paul Jr. — fondly known as “Pooh” — was consistently mentioned by the coaching staff as a player with a bright future.
Of course, the only time anyone got to see him play defense outside of practice came in a blowout win over UAPB, so there were still questions surrounding his potential going into last season.
Well, consider those questions answered after a really solid redshirt freshman campaign in which he played a large role on the defense. An injury that severely limited Bumper Pool led to Paul playing even more snaps than expected and he made the most of them, racking up 62 tackles, 8 tackles for loss, 4 sacks, 3 quarterback hurries, 1 forced fumble and 1 fumble recovery.
Defensive stats can sometimes be misleading, but that’s not the case for Paul. He earned a solid 76.2 grade from Pro Football Focus and his best individual game came in the Liberty Bowl, when he posted a 79.0 grade on a whopping 96 snaps. On top of that, he is likely the hardest hitter on the team now that Jalen Catalon is no longer here.
Despite not being a regular starter, Paul landed on the SEC All-Freshman team and was named a Freshman All-American by The Athletic and College Football News — and that was before his strong play against Kansas.
It really isn’t a stretch to say Paul is capable of having an All-America type of season in 2023. After all, he played almost exactly half the number of snaps as unanimous second-team All-American Drew Sanders last season and put up very comparable numbers when factoring in the playing time discrepancy:
- Drew Sanders: 103 tackles, 13.5 TFL, 9.5 sacks, 6 QBH, 39 PFF pressures
- Chris Paul Jr. (doubled): 124 tackles, 16 TFL, 8 sacks, 6 QBH, 36 PFF pressures
Also, consider the fact that Paul didn’t exactly rack up those numbers in non-conference play. His playing time significantly increased down the stretch, when the Razorbacks were in the thick of SEC play, so there was no stat-padding that artificially inflates the comparison to Sanders.
Newcomer to Watch: Antonio Grier
With Drew Sanders declaring for the NFL Draft and Bumper Pool running out of eligibility, the Razorbacks were in the market for a transfer who could provide immediate help at linebacker. By hiring Travis Williams away from UCF, an obvious solution emerged: Antonio Grier.
Although he didn’t play for Williams with the Knights, Grier was committed to do so next season. However, with his future coordinator and position coach changing jobs, the Razorbacks were able to flip him during the early signing period.
It was the perfect fit for Arkansas because Grier is a sixth-year super senior who should be able to slot right in and play after earning second-team All-AAC honors his last two full years at South Florida. The American isn’t the SEC, but it’s the best conference outside of the Power Five and he was already set to play in the Big 12 this coming season because UCF is changing conferences.
The Razorbacks have a lot of young talent at the position, but it is mostly inexperienced and could use another year of seasoning. Adding a guy like Grier allows that to happen. He also appears to be what you want in terms of a veteran leader, as he’s been very active in the community throughout his collegiate career and it seems like that has already continued in Fayetteville:
Arkansas Football 2023 Projected Depth Chart
1. Chris Paul Jr. — redshirt sophomore
2. Antonio Grier — sixth-year super senior
3. Jordan Crook — sophomore
4. Mani Powell — sophomore
The rest: Kaden Henley (redshirt freshman), Carson Dean (freshman), Alex Sanford (freshman), Brad Spence (freshman), *Brooks Both (redshirt junior), *Mason Schueck (redshirt freshman), *Donovan Whitten (freshman)
For all of the reasons laid out above, Chris Paul Jr. is the clear-cut No. 1 option at linebacker — even with the addition of a two-time all-conference performer from the transfer portal. Regardless of how the position develops behind him, expect Paul to get significant reps and produce some bone-crushing hits this year.
Considering his experience and production in the AAC, Antonio Grier makes the most sense to start alongside Paul in what projects to be a 4-2-5 base defense.
It would not be surprising, though, if Jordan Crook makes a serious push for that starting job or at least splits reps with Grier. After all, he played significantly more as the No. 4 linebacker as a true freshman this past season than Paul got in the same role his true freshman year. Perhaps the coaching changes impact that, but Sam Pittman is very high on the Duncanville, Texas, native.
While we still aren’t sure how deep the Razorbacks will go at the position this year, the frontrunner to be the fourth linebacker in 2023 is Mani Powell. Despite missing most of spring ball as he recovered from a torn ACL, he managed to contribute significant reps on special teams and even burned his redshirt. Another year removed from the injury, he could be ready to take on a bigger role on defense and crack the linebacker rotation.
2023 Arkansas Football Spring Preview Series
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