2024 Hogs LB Preview: New Anticipated Starting Duo Since Spring

Xavian Sorey Jr., Brad Spence, Alex Sanford, Arkansas football
photo credit: Craven Whitlow / Craven Whitlow / Arkansas Athletics

No position on the Arkansas football roster was hit harder by the transfer portal than linebacker.

By the time the dust settled, the Razorbacks lost essentially their entire two-deep depth chart. A trio of contributors — Chris Paul Jr. (Ole Miss), Jaheim Thomas (Wisconsin) and Jordan Crook (Arizona State) — landed at other Power Four schools, while reserve Mani Powell rejoined Barry Odom at UNLV and Antonio Grier exhausted his eligibility.

Together, that group accounted for 92.9% of Arkansas’ linebacker snaps in 2023. Their departure left a very young and inexperienced — albeit talented — linebacker room to head coach Sam Pittman and defensive coordinator Travis Williams. 

The Razorbacks were successful in landing some heralded recruits at the position and also addressed the issue via the transfer portal, but there are still quite a few questions that make filling out a depth chart before fall camp very difficult.

Best of Arkansas Sports will give it a shot, though, continuing our summer series previewing each of the positions for Arkansas football ahead of a pivotal 2024 season…

Projected Starters for Arkansas Football

Xavian Sorey Jr., Brad Spence

One of the biggest offseason additions for Arkansas was landing Xavian Sorey Jr. out of the transfer portal. A former five-star recruit, he spent the first three years of his career at Georgia.

Considering his status as a heralded linebacker coming out of high school and the fact that he’s joining the Razorbacks from a premier SEC program, comparisons to Drew Sanders are only natural. However, it probably isn’t fair to compare him to one of the Razorbacks’ best players at the position in recent memory, who earned second-team All-America honors during his lone season in Fayetteville.

Those aren’t fair expectations for any player, but Sorey is different in that he didn’t play as much as Sanders did at Alabama. In three years, he appeared in 27 games, but made just two starts and played only 304 total defensive snaps. Sanders played more than that (3 starts, 336 snaps) in just two seasons with the Crimson Tide and likely would have played more had he not been injured and surpassed by eventual first-round pick Dallas Turner.

That said, the Razorbacks are hoping Sorey will be able to make a similar impact this season. We previously took a “wait-and-see” approach with him, but based on his showing in spring ball, it seems like he’s already locked down a starting role and showed flashes of being a solid player.

Who starts alongside him is probably still up in the air, but the frontrunner appears to be Brad Spence. The Houston native is easily the most experienced player among Arkansas’ returning linebackers, getting 94 defensive snaps as a true freshman.

Spence had some big moments last year, including a pick-six in the opener against Western Carolina, but was also a typical freshman in that he wasn’t as consistent as the coaches would have liked. With a year under his belt now, though, he is expected to make a big jump forward in 2024.

Don’t Count Them Out Yet

Alex Sanford, Carson Dean

The other two linebackers who got their fair share of reps with the first-team defense this spring were also second-year Razorbacks: Alex Sanford and Carson Dean.

Sanford is an intriguing prospect because his name came up several times throughout the 2023 season, despite him playing only four total defensive snaps. Those snaps came in the opener against Western Carolina, but his role on special teams evolved as the year progressed.

By the end of the season, Sanford was on each of the four main special teams units — the return and coverage units for kickoffs and punts — and ultimately burned his redshirt by playing in all but one game. He finished the year with 135 total special teams snaps, which was the seventh-most on the team.

What likely held him back was the fact that he wasn’t an early enrollee and didn’t get to go through spring ball last year. Now a sophomore who got an entire spring, it wouldn’t be surprising to see him get extended reps on defense, even if it’s as a rotational piece.

Dean actually did get the benefit of spring ball as an early enrollee last year and was pretty consistently praised by the coaching staff. In fact, coming out of the spring, it felt like Dean had a chance to be in the role Brad Spence eventually earned.

However, things never quite materialized for him in fall camp. He was placed on the scout team and even  admitted it was initially discouraging. Dean ended up playing just seven defensive snaps — all against Western Carolina — and eventually redshirted.

He had another solid spring, with Sam Pittman singling him out for some physical tackles in the Red-White spring game, but this fall will be huge for him. If he can build on that performance, Dean could lock down a spot in the linebacker rotation. If not, there are several guys waiting in the wings to jump him on the depth chart.

The Wildcards for Arkansas Football

Stephen Dix Jr., Larry Worth III, Bradley Shaw, Wyatt Simmons

The main reason it’s so hard to sort out the depth chart at linebacker is that several players who could be in the mix for significant playing time weren’t here in the spring.

In recent years,  not enrolling early has hampered some freshmen from cracking the rotation their first year on campus. Bradley Shaw and Wyatt Simmons, despite arriving this summer, are certainly two standouts capable of overcoming that obstacle.

A top-200 recruit on both 247Sports and ESPN, Shaw is probably viewed as the most likely to compete for early playing time. He had an impressive offer list that included the likes of Alabama, Clemson, Georgia, Notre Dame, USC and many others. His late addition to the class was a massive win for a team that really needed one. Plus, Shaw comes from a big-time high school football program in Alabama, Hoover High.

Simmons is a guy Arkansas fans are excited about because he was an in-state kid who chose to stay home despite having other big-time offers. His three-star rating is deceptive considering Clemson and Auburn were both after him hard. Unlike Shaw, though, Simmons played at a small school in Harding Academy. However, one thing working in his favor is he’s the son of a college football coach, so he’s grown up around the game.

The other two players listed in this section are transfers, with Stephen Dix Jr. coming from Marshall and Larry Worth III coming from Jacksonville State.

Dix was a four-star recruit coming out of high school and showed some promise early in his career at Florida State, but injuries played a part in him getting buried on the depth chart. That led to him dropping down to the Group of Five level, where he flourished to the tune of an 80.7 Pro Football Focus grade.

Perhaps that playing time — 538 total snaps — was just what Dix needed to regain his form and he’s ready to do it on the Power Four level again. If so, he could easily assert himself as a significant contributor for the Razorbacks.

Worth is a bit more of a mystery. He signed with Jacksonville State when it was still an FCS school and, in his second season, was still more of a role player last season for the Gamecocks, their first at the FBS level.

It sounds like Jacksonville State was going to get creative with how it used him this year before he hit the transfer portal. Now it’ll be up to the Razorbacks’ coaching staff to figure out his best role in 2024, which could be as a hybrid capable of defending the pass like a nickel, playing traditional linebacker and rushing the passer like an edge rusher. Fall camp should tell us a lot more about Arkansas’ plans for Worth.

The Other Scholarship Linebackers

Kaden Henley, *JuJu Pope, Justin Logan

Even though this is his third season at Arkansas, Kaden Henley still seems to be buried on the depth chart. He has yet to appear in a game and didn’t get much, if any, action with the first-team defense during the spring, despite the position being low on numbers.

The fact that he’s a local kid who played at Shiloh Christian just down the road in Springdale has probably helped the Razorbacks hang on to him this long. Perhaps he sticks with it and carves out a role in the future, but — at least as of now — it doesn’t look like he’ll play much on defense this year.

The other two players listed in this section are true freshmen.

We put an asterisk by JuJu Pope because Sam Pittman told us they viewed him more as a nickel and he worked with the defensive backs this spring, but he’s still listed as a linebacker on the roster.

It’s also hard to say much about Justin Logan because he spent most of the spring in a green non-contact jersey due to an injury. He still got the benefit of going through practices and learning the playbook, but being limited makes it hard to slot him in any of the above sections.

The Walk-Ons

Brooks Both, Brooks Yurachek, Mason Schueck, Preston Davis, Joseph Whitt

This group shouldn’t be discounted because recent Arkansas walk-on linebackers include Grant Morgan and Jackson Woodard, the latter of whom earned first-team All-MWC honors at UNLV last season.

Both of those guys were in-state products. That’s also the case with five walk-on linebackers on this year’s team, with Joseph Whitt (Prosper, Texas) being the lone exception.

Considering he’s been around the longest and played some special teams, Harrison native Brooks Both has the best chance of carving out a role this year, even if it’s still on special teams.

Brooks Yurachek, the son of Arkansas athletics director Hunter Yurachek, played his high school ball at Fayetteville High and spent last year at Wake Forest before deciding to transfer home.

Mason Schueck is entering his third season in the Arkansas football program after starring at Pulaski Academy in Little Rock, while Preston Davis is a true freshman out of Little Rock Christian.

Arkansas Football Position Previews

Wide receiver

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