Grant Morgan could never play another down for the Arkansas football team and his legacy would be secure.
Few walk-ons Razorbacks outside Brandon Burlsworth have ever made such a significant impact on the program. In 2020, as a senior, Morgan finished with a team-best 111 total tackles and become only the second Razorback defense in the last 10 seasons to garner both AP and Coaches All-SEC recognition.
This year, as a super senior, he’s been part of a salty trio of linebackers that got the Hogs off to a 4-0 start. When it’s all said and done, he will have played a huge role in helping lift Arkansas football from the dark, two-wina-a-season days of the Chad Morris era to a team that should make a bowl game and has launched the Sam Pittman era in fine fashion.
Morgan, however, isn’t the only Arkansas native who came into college relatively unheralded but has emerged in a major way for his team.
Below is a list of current Division I Arkansans who are coming through big-time for their respective college football programs.
Let’s start with the headliner:
Grant Morgan (Greenwood) Arkansas
Year entered program: 2016 (ranked by Rivals.com as only a 2 star)
Arkansas football coach Sam Pittman was once quoted as saying “Grant Morgan is Arkansas”, and there could not be a better way to describe him. He embodies the blue-collar, “us against the world” mentality that many Arkansans possess.
He turned down multiple offers from smaller schools coming out of Greenwood High School knowing he had what it took to play in the SEC for Arkansas. When he first walked-on as an undersized linebacker in 2016, the most fame he probably had within the Arkansas locker room was being “Drew’s little brother”, then went on to earn a scholarship prior to the 2018 season. For the next two years he contributed, but was inconsistent during possibly the worst 2-year stretch in program history when the team posted a dismal 4-20 record.
In comes head coach Sam Pittman who hired one of the best defensive minds in the country, Barry Odom, and Morgan went from previously mentioned “Drew’s little brother” to the best defensive player on the team and one of the most productive linebackers in the country finishing third nationally in total tackles (111). He was tabbed All-American by multiple networks, first team All-SEC, and honored as a Burlsworth Award finalist. Morgan has collected 60 total tackles (22 solo) which ties him for 5th-best in the SEC.
Hayden Henry (Pulaski Academy)
2017: 2 star 2,228th overall, 173rd ranked safety (Per 247 Sports composite rankings)
The Henry name is quite popular amongst Razorback fans, dating back to his father Mark playing for Arkansas in the late 80’s-early 90’s. Hayden Henry’s older brother Hunter won the Mackey Award as the nation’s best tight end before becoming a second round NFL Draft pick.
Then there’s Hudson Henry, his youngest brother, a current tight end for Arkansas who was one of the top players at his position coming out of high school in 2019. Hayden has without question had the toughest path of his family members from accepting a blueshirt offer (started as a walk-on and went on scholarship in January of 2018) to cracking the starting line-up and has in-turn become one of the top contributors on defense.
Henry hardly saw the field his first year and has since tallied at least 20 tackles each season. He really came into his own last year playing in all ten games, starting 3, all while battling a shoulder injury. He was everywhere in the Texas game on September 11th posting a career-high 15 tackles (2.5 TFL) and was tabbed as the Walter Camp Defensive Player of the Week. Henry ranks 4th in the SEC with 61 total tackles (24 solo) right above his cohort Morgan.
Josh Johnson (Central Arkansas Christian) Tulsa
2017: 3 star 805th overall, 117th WR (Per 247 Sports composite rankings)
As the most highly-recruited wide receiver out of CAC since Arkansas football great Joe Adams in 2008, Johnson had his choice of multiple Division 1 offers and Iowa State won the battle. He caught one pass for 11 yards during his two years in Ames (redshirted in 2017) and transferred to Tulsa prior to the 2019 season receiving immediate eligibility. Johnson’s older brother, Frankie, had played for the Golden Hurricane from 1996-2000,
Johnson has played in every game since landing in Tulsa, leading the team in receiving yards (582) and receptions (43) through 7 games this year-his 582 yards rank 3rd in the American Athletic Conference. Against Arkansas State, Ohio State, and Memphis earlier this year, Johnson had his best games snagging a total of 25 passes for 416 yards and two touchdowns.
Taylor Powell (Fayetteville) Troy
2017: 3 star 784th overall, 34th Pro-Style QB (Per 247 Sports composite rankings)
Powell has had somewhat of a whirlwind of a college career. He initially committed to Wake Forest in the summer of 2016 and de-committed on January 23rd, 2017, a day after being offered by Missouri, then committed to the Tigers on that same day and signed with them a week later.
After laboring as a backup in 2018 and 2019 throwing for 431 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions, Powell opted to not play in 2020 so he could focus on pursuing his degree. He moved onto Troy University as a graduate transfer and won the starting job beating out Gunnar Watson, who started last season for the Trojans.
He threw for a career-high 311 yards on September 25th in a 29-16 loss to Louisiana-Monroe. Despite splitting starts with Watson, Powell currently ranks 7th in the Sun Belt in both passing yards (1,171) and 9th in touchdowns (7).
Breylin Smith (Conway) UCA
2016: 2 star 2731st overall, 123rd Pro-Style QB (Per 247 Sports composite rankings)
Coming out of Conway High School, Smith was looked at by some Power 5 programs, but ultimately signed with UCA over an offer from Southeast Missouri State.
After redshirting in 2016, Smith saw mop-up time for the Bears in 2017 and became the starter in 2018 averaging 252 passing yards per game before he broke his ankle a third of the way into the season. He returned with a bang in 2019 throwing for 3,704 yards (UCA record), 32 touchdowns, which tied the school record, and tabbed All-American by multiple outlets. Smith started eight of the nine games played by the Bears in 2020 and concluded the season moving up to 4th in school history for total offensive yards with 6,705.
Coming into his 6th collegiate season this year Smith was on numerous preseason All-American & All-conference teams, along with the Walter Payton Award Watch List, which is the Heisman Trophy equivalent for FCS schools. Smith has passed for 2,082 (9th in FCS) and 17 TDs (T-6th in FCS) so far this season.
Robert Scott Jr. (Conway) Florida State
2020: 3 star 508th overall, 39th OT (Per 247 Sports composite rankings)
Scott initially committed to Ole Miss prior to his senior season before Matt Luke was fired, then decommitted from the Rebels three days after visiting Arkansas. Sam Pittman made a late push to gain his services, but in the end UCA alum Mike Norvell and Florida State got his signature.
He became one of four true freshmen to start on the offensive line for the Seminoles in 2020 appearing in eight games, starting seven, at right tackle. Scott was honored as a 247Sports True Freshman All-American, Florida State co-Offensive Freshman of the Year, and also earned a spot on the All-ACC Academic Team. He is currently the starting left tackle for the Seminoles.
Brandon Thomas (North Little Rock) Memphis
2020: 3 star 1654th overall, 97th RB (Per 247 Sports composite rankings)
Thomas received an offer from the Razorbacks during the Chad Morris era but committed to Memphis 14 days later in June of 2019. He then signed with the Tigers that following December.
After only two carries during his freshman year in 2020, Thomas is one of the top backs in the American Athletic Conference kicking off his young career and currently has 661 rushing yards, good enough for 3rd in the conference, and 4th in touchdowns (8).
Akial Byers (Fayetteville) Missouri
2017: 4 star 275th overall, 16th DT (Per 247 Sports composite rankings)
As a four star recruit, Byers had a higher profile in high school than the players listed above. But his story is so interesting it has to be included.
Former Fayetteville High coach Daryl Patton said Byers was “the most dominant defensive lineman I had seen coaching 13 years in Arkansas Class 7A football.”
Byers could have gone anywhere in the country, but ended up committing to defending national champion and long-time powerhouse Alabama. During his senior season, Byers did not have the grades, nor the ACT scores, to qualify per the NCAA’s academic standards and as a result Alabama pulled its offer.
Long story short, he was going to go the JUCO route, but once he met the requirements he accepted a scholarship from Missouri and enrolled in July of 2017. All signs were pointing toward Byers possibly having to put his Division I college career on hold for a year or two, but he was able to defy the odds to meet his academic requirements.
Barry Odom, the former Missouri head coach and current Razorbacks’ defensive coordinator, took a gamble on him that paid off.
Byers saw action in 4 games his freshman year and has since been a consistent contributor for MIZZOU. He has a scoop & score to his name against, as coincidence would have it, the home state Razorbacks during the Tigers lopsided 38-0 victory in 2018.
Through 7 games this season, Byers has accounted for 13 tackles (8 solo) and contributed on a sack.