The list is surprisingly long. Chris Paul is on it.
The Arkansas football team might have once tried to brand itself as Offensive Lineman U or Running Back U Pt. II and the muck-and-grind, ground-and-pound, insert-hyphenated-cliche-here style was true. Darren McFadden, Felix Jones and Peyton Hillis were legit. Then Jonathan Williams and Alex Collins tag-teamed SEC defenses in front of the biggest line in the conference, a line so big and intimidating that then-coach Bret Bielema put it on the front of the team’s media guide.
The real position of strength, most consistently, for Arkansas football in the last couple decades, though, hasn’t been on offense. It’s been on defense. Linebacker, specifically, where the Razorbacks have churned out solid All-SEC types year after year. Now, the Hogs are looking for their next one after Paul announced Monday evening he would be entering the transfer portal.
The redshirt sophomore did not quite reach the heights of Drew Sanders, Bumper Pool, Grant Morgan or Hayden Henry who came before him, all of whom Paul played with and at times apprenticed under. Paul wasn’t quite on the level of De’Jon Harris, Dre Greenlaw, Brooks Ellis, Martrell Spaight or Jerry Franklin. But he also didn’t quite get the opportunity to be, partially of his doing by exiting the program early.
Chris Paul Jr and Jordan Crook Transfer
But few can blame him. Paul, having played with the aforementioned quartet, learned from them what it takes to be an SEC linebacker. Not just a regular SEC linebacker, but a stud, All-SEC linebacker. Sanders, Pool, Morgan and Henry all made it. Paul likely would have in 2023 had he been healthy all year. Instead, injuries limited him in the first two games of the year, kept him out for one in the middle and hampered him again immediately upon return. He still produced 74 tackles and 2 sacks on the season.
Jaheim Thomas and Antonio Grier were fair players in his stead. Paul was the team’s No. 1, though, when he was healthy. And now, with Thomas’ cryptic tweet (Or his “X”? What in the world are they called now, anyway?) suggesting he may not return to Arkansas and Grier out of eligibility after six seasons, Arkansas could be without its top three linebackers heading into 2023.
Well, well make that top four, actually. On Tuesday morning, sophomore linebacker Jordan Crook announced that he, too, was saying “sayonara” to Fayetteville. Crook, a promising backup, notched 28 tackles this season:
Now, regardless of Thomas’ status, wouldn’t Grier moving along have created more opportunity for Paul and Crook? Yes, of course. And it’s a blow to defensive coordinator Travis Williams, whose primary positional unit is linebacker, that Paul and Crook are exiting the team even as the Razorbacks gave up their fewest yards per game since 2014. In light of these departures and the wheels coming off down the homestretch vs. Auburn and Missouri, one could quite easily read into something being awry on the Arkansas defense.
Or they could read what was clear through the course of the season. Arkansas has more serious issues than just one guy on defense. The Razorbacks were bad in 2023. Certainly, five of the team’s eight losses came by one possession. Those could have been wins. They weren’t. They were still a team that had the 108th-ranked offense in the country, fired its first-year offensive coordinator after eight games and gave up 48 points to both Auburn and Missouri in their final two SEC games.
Heck, even Arkansas football coach Sam Pittman, a man who has long been defended by this writer, stumbled in his last few press conferences, his tendency for frankness getting the best of him and clearly showing something was amiss.
Grant Morgan was notorious for his hard work. Henry was right there with him. Sanders had raw NFL talent, sure, but it didn’t just come easy for him. Pool is the team’s all-time leading tackler for a reason, regularly fighting through injuries. Those are the men Paul wanted to emulate. And it appears, for whatever reason, he didn’t see enough players cut from the same bolt of cloth beside him on defense this year.
Angry with Arkansas Football for All the Right Reasons?
Former Hogs tight end DJ Williams, now an Arkansas football analyst, said as much.
“I look at Chris Paul, love the way that he plays,” Williams said after the Missouri loss on his show, 4th & 5. “And I can see the passion, and he’s out there just pissed at his own teammates, not calling anybody [out], not doing all that, but he’s just pissed because he’s like, ‘What are we doing?’ All these mental mistakes, just take this stuff seriously. It’s wild to me how some of these guys don’t take it serious.”
Of course, that’s Williams talking more or less as a media member. He is a former player who’s often on the sidelines, yes, but he’s hardly around the team on the regular anymore. He’s trustworthy because he’s been there, but at the same time, we can’t pretend he has the exact vibe of what was going on. Regardless, what he’s saying makes sense, especially now that Paul has announced he’s entering the transfer portal.
It really is a shame. For all parties, really. After a Freshman All-SEC campaign in 2022, Paul could have joined the Franklins and Spaights and so on with another two solid years. So long as he stayed healty, he was all but guaranteed to have that by virtue of his talent and work ethic alone. Arkansas could have added to its list of damn-fine linebackers by keeping him. Alas, now the Hogs go into December with a very bare cupboard at a position once brimming with talent. If Jaheim Thomas does return along with the inevitable incoming transfers, it’s hard to imagine the defense would be able to replicate the quality of this season, pre-Auburn anyway.
In other words, when it comes to SEC Media Days in Hoover next summer, no one will be putting Arkansas linebackers on the media guide.
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