Featured image via the Arkansas Democrat Gazette
With week one of college football less than a week away, the smell of game one rosters are hot off the press. As with the entire country, it is the same for the Arkansas Razorbacks and Sam Pittman. Names that were expected starters to fresh faces to unresolved position battles, there are a handful of surprises across the depth chart. Many eyeballs are glaring down the tedious ‘or’ listed at the left tackle position and safety spots. There is also attention being placed upon new starters such as Luke Hasz and Jaheim Singletary.
While all of those positions of interest have great impact, there is none greater than the shake up at linebacker. More specifically, with minor injuries occurring, true freshman Brad Spence has battled his way into the two-deep. A player who was thought to be a lock for a redshirt, Spence has been able to rise above every expectation. Coming in as part of a deep linebacker class, that’s where his journey began.
Recruiting Services Provide a Spark
Coming out of Klein Forest High School in the Houston area, Spence was a consensus three-star prospect among the primary recruiting services. Listed as Arkansas’ next to last rated recruit according to 247 Sports, the chip on his shoulder had already been created. Alongside such a feat, Spence was rated last among his linebacker brethren. His offer list did not reflect the thoughts of recruiting analysts, however.
Following an 85 tackle, eight sack senior year, offers came in from the likes of Texas, Utah, Mississippi State, and Arkansas to relay a few. Eventually committing to the Hogs, Spence became an early enrollee and was able to participate in the Spring.
One can truly take stock in recruit rankings, but all the data presented is nearly meaningless once a recruit arrives on campus. Taking the aspect of ratings away, it was still evident that Spence was going to be in a tooth and nail battle with two other incoming freshmen. With Fall camp all but complete, that hypothesis proved to be correct.
During a press conference discussing the linebackers, coordinator Travis Williams said, “I think all three have bright futures here and all of them are on pace to help us at some point.” While playing time will solve itself on the field, Spence has been progressing in multiple facets rather quickly. Spence’s former high school coach, Jonathan Wilson, had a sneaking suspicion regarding his potential. “We knew he was something special. He had a knack for getting to the pass rusher and had great pass-rush moves and all that,” Wilson relayed. “He’s probably the best defensive player I coached in my career so far.”
Standing Out at Linebacker
Week one of Fall camp served as a proving ground for Spence as he stormed onto the radar of coaches, especially for Sam Pittman. “Spence makes plays every day,” said Pittman. “As a matter of fact, and I’m not great at singling out one guy, but I did single him out after practice today because it seemed like he was all over the field.”
Spence hasn’t been the only freshman linebacker to receive a nod from the head coach. Alex Sanford and Carson Dean have also received compliments individually from coach Pittman. The primary separation factor for Spence didn’t begin on the practice fields, but began in the weight room. Following week one of Fall camp, Pittman praised, “I think the weight room has done a nice job for him, first and foremost. He’s built his confidence through there, and now he knows what he’s doing, but I’ll tell you he makes plays all the time and he can really run.”
The argument could be made that the time missed by figured starters Pooh Paul and Antonio Grier has been a major player for his talents to come to light. Pittman has made it clear that the injuries did play a factor for the week one depth chart, but it wasn’t that casual. As with Chamblee in the absence of Devon Manuel, Spence was able to take the opportunity presented by the horns. As spoken by Sam Pittman during a Fall presser, Spence is not afraid to use every ounce of his ability.
“He made a play today, it’s not sideline to sideline, but one hash all the way to out of bounds on the other hash. That’s hard to do for anybody, but he did it. What’s that tell you? He’s got all the ability, but he’s using his ability. A lot of guys have ability, they don’t use it. He’s one of those guys that does. I think the future is really bright for him, and the future is now.”
How Could it Play Out?
Going into week one, there is no doubting that Spence will see the field for defensive coordinator Travis Williams. During his time at Central Florida, Williams’ defense gained a knack for both multiplicity and aggression. As a former linebacker at an SEC program himself, Williams expects the world from his linebackers. While other positions will have multiple alignments, there are none more than where Brad Spence will be lined up. “Brad Spence is someone we’ve been putting at so many different positions because he can do so much,” Williams noted during a press conference.
The common ground of the defensive product put on the field will be a four-man defensive line. While Williams primarily runs a 4-2-5 scheme, there are more than enough plays that require a third linebacker. When analyzing his two linebacker sets, the SAM or outside linebacker could be placed on the outside of either offensive tackle. The crucial aspect that must be possessed by that position for Williams is a mean pass rush. The same can be said regarding his 4-3 alignments. What it boils down to for Spence is that he was designed to fit that mold.
During his time at Klein Forest, Spence was vital as an edge. Possessing the incredible quickness and patience he still has, Spence was used in multiple ways. Whether it was playing as a 4-3 defensive end or a 3-4 edge, it was his duty to eliminate the ball carrier. Considering Spence will be asked to blitz as an overhang linebacker, that time spent on the line of scrimmage was vital. Needless to say, it was his strong suit in high school.
Spence also proved he was reliable in coverage when not lined up at edge. Getting into the backfield will be asked primarily of his position, but the coverage skills will be just as necessary. The more confident coach Williams is in his linebackers to do both, the more aggressive he can be.
Listed behind Sophomore Jordan Crook, he’s another player that has taken full advantage of the adversity in the room. With Crook being another young player at the position, there will be plenty of rotation. Spence has proven many doubters wrong to this point and War Memorial Stadium will be where he can finally unleash what he’s worked for.
Game One Information:
September 2, 2023 at 12:00 p.m CT
Arkansas v.s Western Carolina
War Memorial Stadium, Little Rock, AR