FAYETTEVILLE — It may not have received as much praise or had as much NFL talent as some other units, but the Arkansas football program had one of the top linebacker trios in the conference last season.
Grant Morgan, Hayden Henry and Bumper Pool each earned grades of 65 or better from Pro Football Focus in 2021, taking up three of the top-nine spots among the 27 SEC linebackers who played at least 500 snaps. In fact, Iowa, Pittsburgh and Syracuse were the only other Power Five programs with three such linebackers.
Together, that trio accounted for 99.6 percent of the Razorbacks’ linebacker snaps in SEC games. Heading into a new season, however, the Hogs must replace two of those three because Morgan and Henry were super seniors. On top of that, the guy who played the other 0.4 percent, Andrew Parker, hit the transfer portal.
It could have been worse, but Pool returned to Arkansas for his super senior season instead of trying his hand in the NFL Draft. The Razorbacks also landed Alabama transfer Drew Sanders out of the portal and he appears primed to take over the other starting spot.
Beyond those two, though, questions remain about who will emerge as the third — or fourth, or fifth — option at linebacker and just how many players Arkansas will rotate at the position this season. Linebackers coach Michael Scherer told reporters that five different guys have gotten first-team reps in camp.
Arkansas Linebackers Getting First-Team Reps
“I think Bumper and Drew can take a large load, but to last 12 games…in the SEC, they’re going to need to go in and out,” Scherer said. “I can’t tell you if it’s going to be three guys, right now. I think we’ve got more than that to be honest with you, so I do think it’ll be a little bit different.”
With the two primary starting jobs seemingly locked up, the remaining linebackers are vying for playing time whereever they can get it. Scherer doesn’t need to reach too far back in the history books for inspiration for those guys, as Pool — despite leading the team with 125 tackles last season — came off the bench in all but one game in 2021.
“No one bats an eye, no one complains, no one says, ‘Oh I’m going with the 2s this set?’ Nobody,” Scherer said. “Because they saw the guys do it before. If you want to complain about being second-string, well guess what? Bumper Pool was All-SEC, All-American.”
The fact that the Razorbacks have as many as five different linebackers they’d legitimately be comfortable putting in a game is impressive because it’s a position that traditionally hasn’t had much depth at Arkansas.
Even though he was one of the lowest-paid assistant coaches in the SEC last season with a $200,000 salary, Scherer probably deserves a lot of the credit for developing the room. Not only did he help recruit the trio of freshmen on this year’s team, but it wasn’t too long ago that he played for defensive coordinator Barry Odom at Missouri.
That on-field experience has helped him teach the system to the Razorbacks’ linebackers, both last year and this year.
“Not just coaching in it, but being able to play in it, you learn you learn a little bit more,” presumed starter Drew Sanders said. “He has kind of a bigger understanding just from playing in it, because he’s able to translate (it to) us and he just does a great job of emphasizing our jobs.”
With the media allowed to view only about 20 minutes of practice each day in fall camp and the linebackers rotating quite a bit during those periods, it’s hard to know exactly how the pecking order will shape up, but Best of Arkansas Sports decided to give it our best shot…
(READ NEXT: Updated Look at Arkansas’ Depth Chart in Fall Camp)
1. Drew Sanders
The Razorbacks have a bona fide preseason All-SEC, All-American at linebacker in Bumper Pool, so it’d be easy to slot him in at No. 1 — but we decided to go a different route.
Granted it’s just been in practice, but since arriving in Fayetteville as a transfer from Alabama, Drew Sanders has lived up to his five-star rating coming out of high school. He’s shown all of the qualities you look for in a linebacker, and then some.
That was on display in Arkansas’ first scrimmage of fall camp. It was closed to the media, but Sanders apparently had anywhere between one and three sacks, depending on who you ask.
“He’s tall, he’s smart and can run, got great instincts, he’s quick — some of the qualities that I never had as a player,” Odom said. “Man, he’s determined. He’s a fierce competitor. … Those combinations usually make up a pretty good player.”
Landing a player of Sanders’ stature, even out of the portal, is rare for Arkansas. You can count on two hands the number of five-star players who’ve suited up for the Razorbacks in the recruiting rankings era.
What helped Arkansas’ cause was the fact that last year’s aforementioned trio of Morgan, Henry and Pool each racked up 100-plus tackles. In addition to their production, the Denton, Texas, native said he wanted to stay in the conference.
“A big thing for me was trying to stay in the SEC, but between staying in the SEC, I wanted to be closer to home, too,” Sanders said. “So Oklahoma and Texas were the other ones we were really looking at, but there’s a big sense of pride with playing in the SEC, and I just still wanted to be a part of that.”
The Crimson Tide’s loss has definitely been the Razorbacks’ gain, but there was — and still is — an adjustment period that he had to go through because he’s changed positions in the process.
Drew Sanders’ New Role for Arkansas Football
In Tuscaloosa, Sanders was an outside linebacker/edge rusher who played with his hand in the ground most of the time. At Arkansas, he’s transitioned to a more traditional stand-up inside linebacker who can also be used as an edge rusher, as seen during Friday’s practice. That switch hasn’t been easy.
“I would say it’s a pretty big adjustment, because on the edge you’re worried about half the field,” Drew Sanders said. “When you’re inside, you’re worried about the whole field. You’ve got a lot more keys to read. But right now I feel pretty comfortable.”
Scherer was sure to point out that transition when he met with reporters and admitted that once he got it figured out, there was no doubt that the Hogs hit a home run with Sanders.
“People don’t recognize how hard it is to do what Drew’s doing right now,” Scherer said. “Drew went from playing 4i defensive end [lined up on the inside shoulder of the opposing tackle], outside linebacker, sitting on the edge every play, to being in the middle of the action. There’s a lot going on in there. Your eyes are all in a different place, and to be honest with you, it took Drew about a week and a half until we started watching film and I go, ‘Oh, God, this kid is good.’”
The main challenge, Scherer said, is getting Sanders to trust and believe in his talent because he’s capable of doing some “special, special things” once he lets it loose. That’s a battle even his teammates are working on with him.
“His skill set is so versatile that whenever he makes a mistake doing something he gets — not down on himself — but he wants to be a perfectionist,” Pool said. “So (we’re) just continuing to tell him, ‘Hey, listen. You’re doing so many good things. You don’t need to get down on yourself because there’s a certain mistake that you make having to go back from on the edge to back to linebacker.’”
2. Bumper Pool
Even though his lone start came when Hayden Henry was serving a first-half suspension for a targeting penalty, Bumper Pool was arguably the Razorbacks’ best linebacker last season.
A year after playing through the pain that comes with broken ribs and still notching the second-most tackles per game in the SEC in 2020, Pool finished third in the league with 125 tackles in 2021.
His rate decreased from 11.2 to 9.6 tackles/game, but Pool was much improved overall, as evidenced by Pro Football Focus’ grades. Largely due to an SEC-high 24 missed tackles in nine games in the 2020 season, he earned a 36.7 PFF grade — which was tied for dead last among the 84 Power Five linebackers who played at least 450 snaps. Last year, he improved his grade to 71.0, which ranked 27th out of 137 Power Five linebackers.
On top of being healthy, Pool was apparently motivated by the fact that he wasn’t a starter — even though Scherer said he never complained and was always in his office, looking for ways to improve.
“He showed up every day last year kind of mad at me,” Scherer said. “I liked it, and it made him a really good player. He’s kept that, and it’ll never leave him after last year.”
Heading into his final season of college football, Pool needs just 60 tackles to surpass Tony Bua’s career record of 408 at Arkansas. Barring injury, he should easily hit that mark and likely put the record nearly out of reach.
To do the latter part of that, he’s been working with Scherer on the little details that will help him get lined up in the right spot, recognize run/pass quicker and other things like that.
“Tackles aren’t the end-all, be-all, but if you want to go from 125 to 150, well, it could be this big of a difference,” Scherer said. “For him it’s making sure his body is going to be able to withstand the whole year and be healthy, and it’s those tiny little details.”
3. Jordan Crook
There is very little debate surrounding which of Arkansas football’s three freshman linebackers has the best chance to contribute on defense in 2022. What might be somewhat surprising is the fact Jordan Crook is third in Best of Arkansas Sports’ pecking order.
Earlier this year, Crook’s name was consistently mentioned by teammates on both sides of the ball as the freshman, regardless of position, who stood out the most throughout spring ball. As a high three-star prospect out of Texas powerhouse Duncanville, he has even exceeded Michael Scherer’s expectations — and that’s saying a lot because the Arkansas linebackers coach said he knew Crook was special in high school. Scherer added that there was “no doubt about it” that fans will see a lot of Crook this year.
“He has extremely bright football IQ,” Scherer said. “He takes the game extremely serious. His maturity is beyond his years, for sure. He’s going to play a lot of football for us this year. We’re going to need Jordan Crook in a lot of different situations, and he’s ready for it.”
Talking to his teammates, it’s clear that he’s well liked and respected, despite his youthfulness. Fellow linebacker Chris Paul Jr. described his energy as “contagious.”
“He’s just a great example of what you can do when you first get here,” Paul said. “He reminds me a little bit of myself. I came in (with) a little confidence, as he was. It took me a little longer to learn the concepts and stuff as he did, but he’s been a great addition to the linebacker room.”
4. Chris “Pooh” Paul Jr.
At this time last year, Chris Paul Jr. was getting a lot of attention and there were quite a few comments by the coaching staff that he’d play as a true freshman. He ended up appearing in only four games, preserving his redshirt.
Despite the lack of playing time in 2021, Michael Scherer said he still has an “extremely high” ceiling and he very well could end up being the No. 3 linebacker.
“It’s all about maturity, being disciplined and doing things right when you’re supposed to do them,” Scherer said. “He’s gradually getting there. With him…it’s a mental toughness thing, the play-after-play, ‘Can I refocus and not worry about what happened the last play?’”
Where he has an advantage over Crook is that he spent all of last year with Morgan, Henry and Pool. Scherer said he sat in the back of the room and soaked up all the knowledge he could from that trio.
“In my opinion, I feel like I’ve made some great strides with the help of Grant, Hayden and Bump last year,” Paul said. “I learned a lot just by sitting and watching them maneuver, watching them talk, make checks.”
5. Jackson Woodard
A few years ago, when he showed up on campus for a visit as a recruit, Jackson Woodard weighed all of 180 pounds. Scherer wasn’t sure what to think of the preferred walk-on out of Little Rock Christian, but he shot up to 230 pounds in just five or six months.
Although he still had to learn how to carry that weight, he at least looked like an SEC linebacker and earned a handful of snaps as a true freshman. Woodard redshirted in 2020 and once again played only a few snaps last year, when he got up to 235 pounds.
Heading into this season, Scherer said he sat down with him and they agreed he should lose a little bit of weight so he could move a little bit better.
“I want to say he’s about 228-ish, in between there and 230 right now, which is a really good weight for him, and he’s moving better than he ever has,” Scherer said. “He’s a tough kid, getting his weight where it needs to be and his movement skills and everything he’s done in the weight room. He’s put himself in a position to really play for us and to really be one of the guys we count on.”
While Best of Arkansas Sports lists him fifth in the pecking order, Woodard also has an excellent shot at being the No. 3 linebacker. He has routinely worked alongside both Pool and Sanders with the first-team defense and even shared the field with both of them during one team period Friday morning.
Other Arkansas Linebackers
It could be on special teams, but linebackers coach Michael Scherer told reporters that he believed his other two freshmen would also play in some way this year.
An Ohio native who moved to Fayetteville his senior year of high school, Mani Powell tore his ACL early in the season and missed all of spring ball despite being an early enrollee.
Now with only a handful of practices under his belt, Scherer said he’s “exponentially better” and is a physical specimen, with only 6-7% body fat.
“You’re talking about a kid who is 6-3, 240 pounds, and the nutritionist is telling him he needs more body fat,” Scherer said. “He likes to eat a lot of candy, too. I wish I had that problem.”
The other freshman linebacker is Kaden Henley, a local product who played his high school ball at Shiloh Christian in Springdale. He also enrolled early and went through spring ball.
“Kaden’s a very smart kid, so the challenge with him is he knows what he’s doing and now it’s getting him to do it fast and not think about it,” Scherer said. “When you’re smart, you start to think a lot.”
Arkansas Football: 2022 Linebacker Overview
Definitely Will Contribute
1. Drew Sanders — junior
2. Bumper Pool — super senior
Vying for Spot in Rotation
3. Jordan Crook — freshman
4. Chris Paul Jr. — redshirt freshman
5. Jackson Woodard — redshirt sophomore
Likely to Redshirt
6. Mani Powell — freshman
7. Kaden Henley — freshman
Not Expected to Contribute
~Marco Avant — redshirt freshman
~Brooks Both — redshirt sophomore (walk-on)
~Jordan Hannah — redshirt freshman (walk-on)
~Ethan Joseph — freshman (walk-on)
~Mason Schueck — freshman (walk-on)
Listen to linebackers coach Michael Scherer talk about his room and hear from Drew Sanders and Chris Paul Jr.:
See More: Ranking the Room Series
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