Clues to Baffling Exit of Arkansas’ Top Tackler Emerge

Jaheim Thomas, Arkansas football, transfer portal
photo credit: Craven Whitlow

Arkansas will be down four scholarship linebackers entering 2024 following the unexpected departure of Jaheim Thomas over the weekend.

Thomas officially entered the transfer portal after one season with the Hogs in which he was the team’s leading tackler. He finished the season with 90 tackles (39 solo), 6.5 tackles for loss, 3.5 sacks and two pass breakups.

Transferring to Fayetteville ahead of the 2023 season, Thomas spent the first three years of his career at Cincinnati under head coach Luke Fickell, who is now coaching at Wisconsin. 

As part of the 2022 Bearcats team, Thomas opened that season in Razorback Stadium, albeit on the opposing sideline. The Hogs defeated Cincinnati 31-24 and Thomas recorded seven tackles (five solo) and 0.5 tackles for loss in that game. 

Despite losing, Thomas said the atmosphere in Fayetteville impressed him, as it was one of only two schools he visited after entering the portal. Now, after just one season with the Razorbacks, Thomas is moving on. 

He joins Jordan Crook (transferred to Arizona State), Chris “Pooh” Paul Jr. (transferred to Ole Miss) and Mani Powell as other linebackers who are headed elsewhere for next season. 

Jaheim Thomas’ Year in Review

Thomas was a pleasant surprise for the Arkansas defense this season. Entering the year, many had any combination of Paul, Crook and South Florida transfer Antonio Grier pegged as starters.

To Thomas’ credit, he quietly put together an impressive fall camp and turned heads in the team’s opener against Western Carolina. In that game, Thomas led the Hogs in tackles with eight, including four solo and 1.5 tackles for loss, plus notched a pass breakup. 

As the year went on, Thomas often excelled, consistently leading the Razorbacks’ defense in tackles. He finished with double-digit tackles in five of the first seven games of the season.

Everything appeared to be fine until the weeks following the open date. The Arkansas defense as a whole took massive steps back after being a top-40 defense in the country following the Mississippi State game. 

Over the final four games, the Razorbacks allowed 405.5 total yards per game. Over the course of an entire season, such a clip would have put Arkansas’ defense at 96th in the country – far worse than the top-40 mark we saw early in the year.

That dip in production coincided with Thomas’ decreased production and subsequent decreased role in the rotation. Thomas failed to get double-digit tackles one time across the final four weeks and didn’t record a single stat in the penultimate game against Florida International, playing only 12 snaps. 

In the season finale against Missouri, he backed up Antonio Grier and played sparingly, recording just three tackles on 19 snaps. 

Reasoning Behind Jaheim Thomas’ Departure

Arkansas football coach Sam Pittman answered why Thomas disappeared from the rotation when asked by Best of Arkansas Sports’ own Andrew Hutchinson following the Missouri game. 

“Well, Jaheim’s done a nice job,” Pittman said. “He obviously had some tackling issues, things of that nature. Not (un)like anybody else but, to be perfectly honest with you, I think Grier just played a little better when he was in there and he played better in practice when he was in there.”

While Thomas indeed did have a tackling issue, according to Pro Football Focus, and Grier really came on strong toward the end of the season, it seems a little drastic to completely bench your team’s leading tackler after just a few bad games.

After his announcement on Saturday afternoon, the speculation as to why he was leaving ramped up. 

One source who claimed to have knowledge behind Thomas’ departure was, once again, the “Wu Pig Podcast.” Oliver McGhee, the host of the show, doesn’t name his sources, so one must take this information with a grain of salt. Still, this particular show’s hosts do have a history of speaking directly to players and even speaking with players’ parents

In this particular episode, McGhee mentions how Thomas was upset he didn’t have a chance to finish the season with 100 tackles and that Thomas’ mother was even upset at his lack of playing time to end the year.

“I told y’all, Jaheim Thomas felt some type of way about not getting that 100 tackles,” McGhee said. “He felt some type of way, his momma was up in the stands big mad, ‘Why (is) my son not on the field.’ Because all he needed was a few tackles to get to 100.”

If this is true, it’s easier to see why Thomas would be somewhat upset. From a mathematical standpoint, Thomas was very much on pace to easily get to the 100 tackles mark, even with his tackling struggles over the final five games of the season.

However, being virtually benched for the FIU game, a game in which Arkansas won rather convincingly, put that in serious doubt. Then, only seeing limited action against Missouri officially put an end to that being a possibility. 

Getting 100 tackles in a single season is a huge accomplishment for a linebacker, but especially in the SEC. Only three linebackers in the SEC were able to eclipse the 100 tackles mark this season, and Thomas could’ve been the fourth. 

Based on what we’ve heard from Sam Pittman, it’s not that much of a stretch to believe these rumors of Thomas being upset with his use and playing time.

Mass Exodus at LB for Arkansas Football

Given that Jaheim Thomas is the fourth linebacker to depart Fayetteville this offseason, it’s at least a little troublesome. When you add in the fact that two of the four were leading tacklers, and both supposedly cited playing time, role and usage as reasons why they’re leaving, that is even more concerning. 

Travis Williams, Arkansas’ defensive coordinator and linebackers coach, was brought in last offseason after a pretty successful stint at UCF. He has the reputation of running a very aggressive scheme, but also being the kind of coach for whom players love to play.

He played linebacker at Auburn from 2001-05 and has parlayed that into an impressive coaching career. While serving as Auburn’s linebackers coach from 2016-20, Williams mentored All-SEC linebackers in three consecutive seasons – Tre’ Williams (2017), Deshaun Davis (2018) and K.J. Britt (2019). All of them had stints in the NFL, with Britt still a key member of Tampa Bay’s defense.

That’s why the situation is even more perplexing. Being that linebackers are his speciality, why is he struggling to keep guys at that position around?

For guys like Chris Paul Jr., Jordan Crook and Mani Powell, the turnover is more understandable. Williams didn’t recruit them and they didn’t come to Arkansas expecting to play his style of defense.

Jaheim Thomas, though, was the first big-time transfer linebacker that Williams was able to land after arriving at Arkansas. That’s what makes his departure so notable and, understandably, makes some Razorback fans concerned. 

Was this just a case of Thomas’ late-season struggles coupled with Grier’s strong late-season surge forcing the coaches’ hands, not allowing Thomas to eclipse 100 tackles? Or could this be indicative of bigger issues? 

Thomas didn’t jump into the portal immediately, like his fellow linebackers. He waited longer than usual and in the last few weeks, watched Arkansas add two more linebackers – Xavian Sorey Jr. and Bradley Shaw. As a result, the ample playing time Thomas appeared to have after Paul’s exit appeared to be in jeopardy once again.

His departure may have also been enabled by the NCAA loosening up its restrictions on multi-time transfers, allowing Thomas to be immediately eligible at his next school regardless of whether or not he was a graduate transfer.

Either way, Arkansas is now left with just seven scholarship players at linebacker for next season. They entail a definite youth movement, with Georgia transfer Xavian Sorey Jr. now the elder statesman of the group. 

Arkansas Football 2024 LB Room

Here’s a full rundown of where things stand for the Hogs at the linebacker position on next season’s roster.

Projected 2024 Roster

* denotes walk-on

  • Xavian Sorey Jr. – redshirt junior (transfer from Georgia)
  • Kaden Henley – redshirt sophomore
  • Brad Spence – sophomore
  • Alex Sanford – sophomore
  • Carson Dean – redshirt freshman
  • Justin Logan – incoming freshman
  • Wyatt Simmons – incoming freshman
  • Bradley Shaw – incoming freshman
  • *Brooks Both – redshirt senior
  • *Mason Schueck – redshirt sophomore
  • *Donovan Whitten – redshirt freshman
  • *Brooks Yurachek – redshirt freshman (transfer from Wake Forest)

Leaving the Program

  • Jaheim Thomas – transfer portal
  • Antonio Grier – out of eligibility
  • Chris Paul Jr. – transfer portal (signed with Ole Miss)
  • Jordan Crook – transfer portal (signed with Arizona State)
  • Mani Powell – transfer portal


YouTube video

More coverage of Arkansas football from BoAS…

Facebook Comments