Before the involvement of the transfer portal, Arkansas’ linebacker room was staring down the barrel of an identity crisis. Four-year starter Bumper Pool had finally reached the end of his college career. The duct tape that was Drew Sanders made his way rightfully onto the NFL. With Chris ‘Pooh’ Paul Jr. having zero doubt, what was behind him? What was only a small glimmer of hope emerged from the rubble of the chaotic Liberty Bowl.
Freshman Jordan Crook was seemingly the only other player in the room to have any backing for 2023 success. An injury laden, youth loaded, depth tilted room needed help. Alongside coach Sam Pittman, new defensive coordinator and former linebacker Travis Williams patched up what was a scary sight. First on board was a player that vowed to play with coach Williams at Central Florida. After minimal drama, Antonio Grier signed as a Hog in early January. With lots of quality production at USF, he comes in as the most experienced linebacker on campus.
Secondly, insert into the portal a very physical and familiar face by way of Cincinnati. Jaheim Thomas, a player who recorded a seven tackle game versus Arkansas, was tabbed by the staff immediately. Committing to the Razorbacks in early May, the mean age in the room continued to trend up. Bringing as much physicality to the field as Grier, his usage is likely to be quite different in comparison.
Since Antonio Grier was the first to join via the portal, let’s dive into his breakdown.
Coming out of the metro of Atlanta, GA, Grier was not the most sought after prospect. By way of the rankings at 247 Sports he was an outsider. Listed as a two-star prospect on the Composite ratings, he managed to garner some solid group of five offers. Credit the 100+ tackles reeled off in his senior season. With lots of local flavor and Eastern Michigan finding their way in the mix, USF landed his signature.
Coming into Tampa, it felt as if his freshman season was mismanaged. Playing in all 12 games, only eight tackles became of game action. An overload of special teams participation made up the majority of his snaps. Grier’s sophomore year rolled around and he was leaps and bounds better in every facet. Once again playing in all 12 games – starting six – he compiled 58 tackles with 8.5 for loss and four sacks. It became clear that middle linebacker was the spot for him as a Bull.
His stats continued to improve even during the COVID season. Playing in just eight games, Grier was able to jump the previous season in tackles with 59. He also racked up 5.5 TFLs, three sacks, and two forced fumbles on the road to a second-team All Conference selection. 2021 became the season where he finally pieced everything together. Staying healthy and starting every game, Grier recorded 92 tackles. With plenty more of the same in other categories, Grier once again earned second-team All Conference honors.
His final season of eligibility was cut short due to a season ending hand injury resulting in a redshirt. Likely looking for a new start and a new conference to take on, Grier took to the portal. The recruiting process done by Travis Williams while at UCF wound up beneficial for Arkansas. While ties to south Florida remained strong, he trusted his gut and followed his lead recruiter to Fayetteville. An instant impact player when healthy, it’s just a matter of where he gets placed on the field.
Above Average Lurking Linebacker
Looking at the size of Antonio Grier and it’s one of the first things to jump off the page. While at USF, he was playing middle linebacker at just 6-1 and 220 pounds and has since jumped to 230 at Arkansas. His size doesn’t hint at the heart he gives, but it does shed light on where his A-game lies. Not known as a true gap plug in the middle, Grier possesses great technical skills in the coverage game.
Improving with time in Tampa, Grier has a knack for reading the quarterback’s eyes. Combined with upper level agility to make up ground, he can bait QBs into certain throws. Doing so is what led him to two interceptions during the breakout 2021 season. Looking at one in particular versus Tulsa, Grier pieced it all together. Jumping on a curl route down the field, he read the ball so early that he had positioned himself in front of the intended target. Making the play a step in front of the receiver, the pick would be returned for a touchdown.
Staying typically centralized on the field in zone coverage, Grier can wreck short routes. Anywhere from a slant to a check-down underneath route may result in a catch, but the receiver will remember the hit afterwards. Teams like to chance play action passes to displace Grier, but with his IQ it doesn’t happen often.
As a guy that also possesses great patience he’s a quality quarterback spy candidate as well. With great foot speed and acceleration he has proven the ability to close angles on QBs quickly. While Grier doesn’t own the 4.39 speed of someone like Owen Pappoe, he has enough to showcase sideline to sideline range. Good luck out running him at the point of attack.
A Quarterback’s Nightmare Fuel
Not to mention, he will bring down any quarterback he can get his hands on. Desmond Ridder while at Cincinnati tore up the American Conference but one player at USF always caused problems – Antonio Grier. Whether it was a scramble or a read option it rotates back to his incredible patience. The fact he’s a sure tackler makes him more of a problem.
Stacking up ten career sacks as a Bull, Grier was quietly good at getting after the quarterback in the pocket as well. When sent on an immediate blitz he transforms into a missile that will more than likely rush the QB out of the pocket. His biggest success, however, came on delayed blitzes. Giving the blocking a chance to work itself out, he doesn’t just come boiling off either edge. Grier, going back once more, patiently creeps around the edge of offensive tackles before blasting to the pocket. Some of that could certainly be Grier using his height to his advantage behind a wall of linemen.
Outside the tangibles of the game, Grier has also been the captain of his defense during time in south Florida. A guy that has known nothing but team first mentality and leadership is not what an opposing offense wants to see. With his experience coming into a youth loaded room, expect Grier to take hold as the vocal leader. From a physical standpoint, he can probably take an eighteen wheeler on head. From the leadership standpoint, he’ll have the defense thinking they can too.
Noted as one of the most impressive recruits reeled in by former coach Luke Fickell, Jaheim Thomas was a force early in his career. Listed as a 247 Sports Composite four-star out of the Cincinnati area he held a cornucopia of offers. Teams such as Alabama, Ohio State, LSU, and Georgia lined up for his services. It became clear that Thomas was content staying close to home which created a two horse race. Ultimately, Cincinnati did the impossible and beat out the Buckeyes for a prized recruit. Oddly enough it was current Notre Dame head man Marcus Freeman who was his lead recruiter.
After redshirting his freshman season, Thomas instantly became a contributor in 2021. Appearing in all 12 games would result in 23 tackles and half a headache for an opposing quarterback. Then came the breakout season that was 2022. Jumping from 23 tackles to 70, he would finish third on the team. Starting the season with seven stops in Fayetteville, coach Pittman already had a taste of how punishing Thomas played.
Once coach Luke Fickell took off to Wisconsin, Thomas took to the transfer portal. With impressive high school tape and now a breakout season in college to boot, teams were falling over themselves for the late portal addition. The now 6-3 and 240 pound linebacker wanted a shot at the SEC as Arkansas became his home. With three years of eligibility left at his disposal, Thomas could be a force for the Hogs instantaneously.
Prime Potential Off the Edge
Going all the way back to high school there was a reason he propelled up to four-star territory. Thomas was unfair for any team trying to deal with him rushing the passer. Lined up off either side, he was often the piece that broke through on an overload blitz. Combining his size and jump off the ball, tackles could rarely slide to pick him up. While his bend to get around bigger tackles has improved over time it’s not something he’s had to worry about a ton to this point. At the high school and some points at the collegiate level, Thomas has barreled into backfields untouched the majority of the time.
The story changes a little when presented with a tackle head on. On passing downs, Thomas presents quick feet and a twitch that can keep pass blockers guessing. When engaged in a block he has long enough arms to keep distance. Mentioned regarding Rose in the previous article, keeping an engaged blocker off his pads is important. As Thomas continues to build on adequate play recognition that distance can allow for easier block sheds. He will need to get stronger for the same success to occur in the SEC.
Thomas did add a couple moves to his pass rush arsenal which helped while at Cincinnati. Even so, there were still times where he struggled to find his way around experienced offensive linemen. Looking at the Arkansas game in particular, Thomas’ pressure was deterred due to a lack of success off the edge. The patience that was produced in the process did allow for more tackles on the bright side.
Underrated Coverage Linebacker
Likely to be inserted into the same role played at Cincinnati for the most part, it will be a priority that his coverage remains a strong suit. Being dropped into coverage more often in high school Thomas showcased a primary ability to read and stay on receivers. Resulting in multiple picks his senior year, Thomas rarely played zone. Oftentimes he was tabbed with staying on players running routes out of the backfield. He was also impressive in his ability to match up with tight ends.
Shifting to time at Cincy, zone became his primary coverage. There has been growing pains as expected as Thomas can be overly patient. Once reads begin to come more quickly he will be in business. The fact of the matter is, he has all the physical tools to make for a great coverage linebacker such as Antonio Grier. The primary difference comes in experience. Possessing great length, speed, and change of direction, Thomas just needs more reps.
Now that Thomas has spent time under the direction of strength coach Ben Sowders, I expect a different mentality for him at Arkansas. With so much potential to become a featured SEC edge, maybe that’s what has been missing. While Thomas contains some ferocity, more of an edge might be what he needs to be dominant in year one. Considering the thoughts of him by Arkansas’ coaches, he may get in the running for a starting job as Fall camp continues.
How Strong is This Arkansas Linebacker Room?
If the room can stay healthy, the linebacker group has the potential to be the deepest Arkansas has seen. Looking back, there always seemed to be a walk-on or two littered about the room. Gold was struck with Grant Morgan, but we can stop there. Starting at the bottom of the room there’s a chance that Arkansas could go three deep at the position. A heaping force that’s finally healthy by the name of Mani Powell is a big reason why. Playing the same role of Pooh Paul he has just as much size and potential, he just needs game experience.
The 2023 recruiting class resulted in three linebackers stepping on campus. Straight from the mouth of Sam Pittman, he has been very pleased with how all three have established themselves. Looking at Carson Dean in particular, one can see many of the same aspects in his game that made Drew Sanders tick. A player who will likely see game action against Western Carolina, he could be an instant plug in the three deep. It wouldn’t hurt to have Sanford and Spence garner some reps as well.
Looking at the two deep, that’s where a lot of Razorback fans hesitantly smile. All signs are pointing to Grier and Pooh Paul being 1A and 1B from a starting standpoint. What falls behind them two more quality athletes and team players. Jordan Crook may have more questions from an experience standpoint, but the film shows all the physical tools. Right there along with Thomas, they’ll have games early on to settle in. By season’s end, I would be willing to bet the group is viewed near the top of the SEC. Coach Travis Williams will have the position group tied to his heart ready for battle.