The Arkansas football team will be without both of its starting linebackers for the Liberty Bowl, as Drew Sanders declared for the NFL Draft and opted out of the postseason Tuesday morning.
It was already known that the Razorbacks wouldn’t have team captain Bumper Pool in the bowl because he had hip surgery before the regular-season finale at Missouri, and now Sanders is out, as well.
“I am forever grateful for Coach Pittman, Coach Odom, Coach Scherer and the University of Arkansas for allowing me to be a part of the Razorback family,” Sanders said in a statement on Twitter. “Without my coaches and teammates being there for me every step of the way this season, I would not have the opportunities that I have today. It was truly an honor and a privilege to be able to work with this group of guys every day.
“Razorback nation, it was truly an unbelievable experience to be able to play in front of you in Razorback Stadium. Memories that I will cherish for the rest of my life.”
Since Sanders is ranked as the No. 17 overall prospect in the upcoming draft by ESPN’s Mel Kiper Jr., his decision isn’t surprising. He follows wide receiver Jadon Haselwood and center Ricky Stromberg as NFL Draft entrants who are skipping the Razorbacks’ bowl game.
When he met with reporters after the loss to Missouri, Sanders didn’t sound like he regretted leaving Alabama to play one season at Arkansas at all.
“Obviously with all of the close games that we lost it was frustrating, but playing in this defense is fun, and just the group of guys I have around me, it was a great environment to be in,” Sanders said. “It was fun every single game and every single practice.”
Other notable players who won’t be with the Razorbacks for the Liberty Bowl because they’ve entered the transfer portal include wide receivers Ketron Jackson Jr. and Warren Thompson, defensive backs Myles Slusher and Khari Johnson, backup quarterback Malik Hornsby and punter Reid Bauer.
The news hasn’t been all bad for Arkansas football, though. Quarterback KJ Jefferson and defensive end Jordan Domineck have already announced they are returning in 2023. Jefferson will be a traditional fifth-year senior, while Domineck will be a sixth-year super senior.
Drew Sanders with the Razorbacks
A do-it-all athlete at Denton Ryan in Texas, Drew Sanders was a five-star prospect and the No. 22 overall player in the 2020 class, at one point the No. 1 ranked player in the state.
Schools from across the country recruited him, but he ultimately picked Alabama over offers from the likes of Georgia, LSU, Notre Dame, Oklahoma, Oregon, Penn State, Texas, USC and many others.
In two seasons with the Crimson Tide, Sanders played 336 total defensive snaps and even started three of the first five games of his sophomore season before being sidelined by an injury.
He played well in limited opportunities as one of Alabama’s outside linebacker/edge rushers, but his replacement, Dallas Turner, was also a five-star recruit and is viewed as a potential first-round pick.
Although head coach Nick Saban later told reporters that Sanders likely would have moved inside and started alongside Turner and All-American outside linebacker Will Anderson Jr., Sanders said a major reason in wanting to leave Alabama was because he wanted to be more of a traditional, stand-up linebacker.
After also considering Texas and Oklahoma, the draw of staying in the SEC — plus a defense that produced three linebackers with 100-plus tackles a year earlier — was too much for Sanders to turn down and he came to Arkansas.
Sanders immediately established himself as a starter during spring ball, showcasing excellent speed and instincts. That translated to the field, where he finished second in the SEC with in sacks (9.5), third in tackles for loss (13.5) and fourth in tackles (103).
His 9.5 sacks this season were the most by an Arkansas player since Jake Bequette had 10 in 2011 and they are tied for seventh on the UA single-season list.
On top of that production, Sanders was on the field almost all the time for Arkansas. His 846 defensive snaps were the most of any SEC linebacker and Pro Football Focus gave him a 78.0 grade, which ranked third in the conference among SEC linebackers.
“I think he brought a bunch of energy and enthusiasm on the field,” teammate Hudson Clark said. “It’s always fun to play with him and watching him make plays and being that leader for us, I think it’s been really helpful.”
All of that helped him become one of five finalists for the Butkus Award, which is annually given to the best linebacker in the country, and earn first-team All-SEC honors from the AP. Sanders is the second first-team All-SEC linebacker from Arkansas in three years, joining Drew Morgan (2020). That’s significant because before Morgan, the Razorbacks went five seasons without a first-team linebacker and had only one in the previous 13 seasons.
What it Means for Arkansas Football
Losing a player the caliber of Drew Sanders is always significant, but this is one Arkansas probably saw coming since early in the season — if not sooner.
The silver lining to Bumper Pool playing hurt most of the season is that it gave redshirt freshman Chris “Pooh” Paul Jr. more reps than expected as the third linebacker. He ended up playing 334 defensive snaps during the regular season and started the finale in place of Pool.
Arguably the hardest hitter on the team after safety Jalen Catalon went down, Paul made 50 tackles and finished second behind only Sanders with 8 tackles for loss. That total includes four sacks, plus he notched two quarterback hurries, forced a fumble and recovered a fumble — all while playing only 37.0% of the defensive snaps.
He was already going to start in the Liberty Bowl because of Pool’s surgery and is widely projected to be one of the starters next season.
“Pooh did a great job,” Sanders said after his start against Missouri. “I mean, I’ve always thought pretty highly of him as a player. He showed you what he can do today. He’s just always around the field.”
With Sanders not playing in the bowl game, the question now shifts to who will start alongside Paul. The answer is likely true freshman Jordan Crook. He’s played 56 defensive snaps and been a big special teams contributor in a much larger role than Paul had as a true freshman last year.
Former walk-on Jackson Woodard, a redshirt sophomore from Little Rock, is the obvious choice to be the third linebacker who rotates in the Liberty Bowl, but true freshman Mani Powell could also get his first defensive action of the year. He burned his redshirt this year by playing special teams.
Looking ahead to next year, though, it would not be surprising if the Razorbacks dipped into the transfer portal again. Even with a trio of freshmen — Carson Dean, Alex Sanford and Brad Spence — coming in as part of the 2023 recruiting class, Arkansas is projected to have only eight linebackers on scholarship.
Considering the Razorbacks have had four different linebackers reach 100 tackles, three earn All-SEC accolades and two named at least Butkus Award semifinalists over the last three seasons, they should be an attractive landing spot for talented linebackers looking for a new home.
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