Arkansas football’s historic 2021 season has finally come to an end following an impressive and cathartic 24-10 Outback Bowl win over Penn State on New Year’s Day. It removed most, if not all, of the bad tastes that the previous five seasons had left in the mouths of Razorback fans everywhere. What makes the season even more special is that almost all of this team’s key contributors had also stuck through it during those brutal seasons.
Saturday’s bowl win was bittersweet in a lot of ways. It was exciting to see these players finally enjoy the success they deserve, but sad knowing it’s the last time we’ll see some of them in the cardinal and white.
Shortly after the win over Penn State, all-SEC cornerback Montaric Brown declared for the NFL Draft via his personal Twitter account.
Then there was Wednesday’s whammy that Joe Foucha, a senior team captain, is going to transfer out to play his opt out year elsewhere. Foucha was fourth on the Razorbacks this season with 73 tackles, along with 7.5 tackles for loss, 1.5 sacks, five pass breakups, three quarterback hurries and a forced fumble.
Just a day after that, three-year starter Greg Brooks Jr. announced that he, too, will transfer to another school. Greg Brooks’ decision to transfer is even more baffling given he was only a junior. Senior graduate transfers Tre Williams, John Ridgeway and Markell Utsey are also moving on, alongside super senior linebackers Hayden Henry and Burlsworth Trophy-winner Grant Morgan.
All these moves are leaving the Razorback defensive cupboard increasingly bare, as this frightful rundown shows:
Need for Bumper Pool as Joe Foucha & Greg Brooks Leave
Linebacker Bumper Pool is the only remaining key defensive contributors left to decide on their playing future. Foucha is a really good player, and played one of his best games as a Razorback in Saturday’s Outback Bowl where he recorded six tackles, a sack and an interception.
However, he’s yet to show up on any NFL expert’s draft boards and his return wouldn’t have moved the needle as much after preseason All-SEC safety Jalen Catalon announced his return for the 2022 season.
Bumper Pool’s decision is now, by far, the most important decision left for Arkansas football going into the 2021 offseason. For a while, it wasn’t pressing on him.
“I’d been really not trying to think about it with the bowl game coming up,” he said today on the Buzz 103.7 FM. “Just kind of enjoying my last moments with the guys that were there. This is one of the toughest decisions I’ve had to make — not that I’ve had to make a lot of tough decisions — but I’m going to take the next couple of days. I kind of set a deadline for Friday.”
“Whatever happens between then and there, I want to make a decision Friday, come out with it and be 100% on board with it and live with it.”
Yes, the Razorbacks would greatly benefit from Pool’s return. Especially now that they are losing depth and senior leadership in the defensive backfield with the loss of Foucha and Brooks. But today’s players increasingly think about their own individual path as well. Even in this context, though, staying at Arkansas could benefit Pool in a big way too.
Returning to Arkansas Would Benefit Bumper Pool
Despite playing through two of the worst seasons in Razorback history, Bumper Pool’s career at Arkansas has been historically great. He’s amassed 349 tackles over his four seasons and his production and durability have been extremely consistent each year.
This year, Pool racked up 125 total tackles. That puts him in the top ten (tied for ninth) in the country of leading tacklers for the 2021 season. He was selected to the Coaches All-SEC second team this season, marking the second consecutive season Pool has received that honor.
If Pool, 23, chooses to leave, he would do so ranked ninth in school history in tackles with 349. That’s only 59 tackles behind Tony Bua’s school record 408 career tackles.
Top 8 Tacklers in Arkansas Football History
|1||408||Tony Bua (248 UT, 160 AT)||2000-03|
|2||382||Jerry Franklin (199 UT ,183 AT)||2008-11|
|3||381||Ken Hamlin (221 UT, 160 AT)||2000-02|
|4||372||Sam Olajubutu (223 UT, 149 AT)||2003-06|
|5||371||De’Jon Harris (198 UT, 173 AT)||2016-19|
|6||368||Caleb Miller (232 UT, 136 AT)||2000-03|
|7||367||Cliff Powell (172 UT, 195 AT)||1967-69|
|8||357||Ronnie Caveness (133 UT, 224 AT)||1962-64|
Pool returning almost guarantees that he breaks Bua’s school record and leaves as the all-time leading tackler at Arkansas.
Having that title alone wouldn’t be a make-or-break for Pool, because NFL scouts don’t necessarily care about collegiate records like that. But it could, at the very least, command a closer look from NFL scouts heading into the 2023 NFL Draft, if he were to improve in some areas of his game.
Currently, Pool is projected to go in the later rounds of this year’s draft if he’s selected at all. The consensus from draft experts is that he would be selected on day three of the draft around the pick 200-259 range. However, some analysts still have him going undrafted as a free agent.
That may seem as a shock to a few Arkansas football fans, but some of the same questions he had when he was being recruited out of high school persist. He is still not overly explosive with his speed and lateral quickness, which can cause him to react late to the offense and can cause issues in pass coverage.
Right now, that is the biggest knock on him not getting higher draft grades. Kevin Field, Boston Sports Journal NFL Draft expert, believes that Pool’s draft position would hinge on his NFL Combine numbers and measurables, which isn’t an ideal situation to be in.
This is where another year of college could help silence some of those doubts that an NFL GM might have. If Pool were to go through another offseason and continue working on his speed and lateral quickness in pass coverage, it’s hard to say that he wouldn’t be more highly touted.
That is still a large “if,” though. Pool has already played four college seasons, and is going to be 24 years old in next year’s draft. At this point, expecting him to turn into one of the best pass coverage linebackers in the country over one offseason is unrealistic.
However, he doesn’t have to become the best in that area to raise his draft stock more. Pool already has the size, strength and skill to play at the next level. He also has the physicality to, as Darren McFadden would say, “bring the wood.” Penn State quarterback Sean Clifford found out firsthand last Saturday:
Now, Pool just needs to show that he can improve his speed to the point where he’s not a liability in coverage. With the loss of two highly talented linebackers in Hayden Henry and Grant Morgan, all eyes will be on Pool to pick up the slack while others gain valuable experience.
Bumper Pool in a Future NFL Draft
That’s exactly the type of stage where, if he flourishes and showcases improvement, he could skyrocket up 2023 draft boards.If that were to happen, I’d be willing to predict that would help his draft stock rise at two, possibly three, rounds.
Moving up from the seventh round, where he’s projected now, to even the fifth round would be the difference in almost $500,000 per year of guaranteed contract value and signing bonus according to spotrac.com.
Already, Pool has been able to put up the stats that compete with the best in the country, while playing alongside two other highly talented linebackers. Pool would have ample opportunity to not only put up even better stats next year, but also prove he can handle the added pressure of being one of the few returning leaders.
Aside from individual improvement, there’s also the element of Arkansas’ brutal 2022 schedule. It’s once again going to be the toughest in the country.
Not only is it another year in the SEC West gauntlet, but you also have two big non-conference games against Cincinnati and at BYU. This provides more opportunity for Pool to showcase his larger role and talent in more marquee matchups next season.
Also, no Arkansas player has ever won the Butkus Award, which is given to the nation’s best linebacker. Pool returning would immediately put him in the running alongside other top linebackers like Alabama’s Will Anderson, Oregon’s talented duo of Noah Sewell and Justin Flowe and Louisville’s MoMo Sanogo, who transferred there from Ole Miss, among others.
Jalen Catalon Returning Could Sway Bumper Pool
Arkansas’ defense is losing a lot of key pieces next season. The Razorbacks got some very good news when junior and preseason All-SEC safety Jalen Catalon announced that he’d be returning to the Hogs in 2022.
Catalon’s draft stock was much higher than Bumper Pool, even after missing most of this season with a shoulder injury. This may have provided some reassurance to Pool that the cupboard won’t be as bare as people think on defense.
Catalon coming back softens the blow of some of the losses up front, while allowing Pool to command the linebacking core on his own as the leader. While it sounds like a tough challenge, it’s one that NFL scouts would like to see a guy like Pool embrace and flourish in.
On the other side of that coin, you risk injury or a dip in production because of the lack of talent in other key positions on defense. Factor that in with another tough SEC schedule, and you can’t guarantee that anything will go how you planned.
However, Bumper Pool has been the most consistent player on the Arkansas defense the last three seasons as a starter. He has only missed one game, the 2020 Ole Miss game, in that same timespan. If anyone would be up for that kind of challenge it would be Bumper.
Arkansas football’s historic 2021 season may also help Pool come to the same conclusion that led Grant Morgan back for his super-senior year last offseason. Morgan had one year of eligibility left, but ultimately decided to come back for one final season.
He made it no secret he came back to play for Sam Pittman to further build off the success of that foundational season in 2020. While the road to similar success in 2022 as in 2021 is more difficult, Sam Pittman and his staff excel at getting players to buy in and want to come back to play for them.
It may also help that Sam Pittman has been vocal that he wants Pool back and is actively recruiting him to return for 2022.
“I’ll be shocked if he’s not a team captain for us if we can get him to come back next year,” Pittman said leading up the Outback Bowl. “We’re trying like crazy. He’s a draftable linebacker, a great player.”
Pittman will get his answer in the coming days.
At the end of the day, Pool’s decision is to do what is best for him and his future. If he does decide to test NFL Draft waters, nobody should be upset. Certainly, nobody should cast F-bombs at him on air as they did with Treylon Burks. Pool has given Arkansas football everything he could for four years.
In his first couple of seasons, Pool completely invested in the Razorbacks without seeing a return. This season, he’s seen nearly exponential returns after the team won four trophies and finished nationally ranked. Whether he sticks around in Fayetteville a little longer, or moves on to the NFL, 2022 is Bumper Pool’s time to recoup on all of those earlier investments in a big way.
ESPN Arkansas’ Tye Richardson on Bumper Pool
Tye Richardson, the co-host of the Hit That Line’s “Morning Rush,” believes Pool will return to school.
“I think playing alongside two guys that were COVID super seniors, Grant Morgan, Hayden Henry, I think that that’s going to be enough to just say, ‘You know what? I’m coming back,'” Richardson said on his show.
“Now, I don’t know no Bumper’s relationship status or anything. I don’t think he’s engaged or dating or married. I know Grant was when he decided to come back to school, and that led me to believe that he wasn’t. Hayden I think had an enticing offer from JB Hunt.”
“I remember I was sitting down having lunch and Mark Henry [Hayden Henry’s dad] came by and said Hayden – or Hudson Henry – was selected as one of two or three prestigious internship positions. And he had to, I think, give that up in order to come back. So I was kind of surprised Hayden did. When that announcement gets made tomorrow, that he’s going to be coming back, but we’ll have to wait and see.”
Richardson’s co-host Tommy Craft chimed in, mentioned Pool grew up a diehard Razorback fan in Texas. His family includes a lot of Arkansas alumni. “The family seems to be all in on the University of Arkansas, the Razorbacks, the whole deal.”
“So I think right now, we’re all in wishful thinking and we wish he comes back. He may wish to go on and begin a professional career and life for himself. Try his hand in the NFL. But I have a hard time logically thinking through the idea that he’s going to go play football somewhere else in college next year, just based on knowing the family ties, connections, and the lifelong affection for the Razorbacks.”
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