By Robbie Neiswanger
Arkansas News Bureau • email@example.com
FAYETTEVILLE —Identifying a dependable middle linebacker has been a challenging task for Arkansas defensive coordinator Chris Ash.
Nearly every linebacker on Arkansas’ roster has gotten a shot at the position since spring practice. Daunte Carr was the first-team guy after spring drills. Austin Jones started the opener. Jarrett Lake even moved from the weak side to man the position.
None of them have worked out in the middle of Arkansas’ defense.
"It’s been a struggle," Ash said. "You look at your linebacking corps, you look at your safeties, your defensive tackles, right down the heart of your defense and you have a few characteristics you’d like your mike linebacker to have.
"Honestly, we’ve struggled to have that type of a player on this football team."
Ash and the rest of the Razorbacks are hopeful their long search is over, though, after freshman Brooks Ellis earned his first start against Auburn last Saturday.
Ellis became the fourth Arkansas player to start at middle linebacker this season —the eighth to man the spot for at least one game the past two years — and handled his first test. Ellis collected six tackles, showed some of the instincts and athleticism needed to play the position, and earned rave reviews for the way he confidently handled the responsibilities as quarterback of the Arkansas defense.
So Ellis will earn his second start when the Razorbacks (3-6, 0-5 in SEC) play at Ole Miss (5-3, 2-3 in SEC) on Saturday. And if things go as planned, it could be the beginning of a long and productive starting streak for Ellis and the defense.
"We’ve obviously run a lot of guys through there since last spring trying to find out who that guy is," Ash said. "I think we found it with Brooks Ellis. At least right now to this point coming out of the first game that he played. We’re excited about what he can do in the future for this program and build a defense around him."
Ellis’ emergence isn’t a shock. Arkansas coach Bret Bielema pegged the former Fayetteville High star as a player that could make an immediate impact last summer.
It took some time for the prediction to become a reality, though. Ellis earned some work in a reserve role earlier this season, but primarily played on special teams while collecting three tackles through eight games.
The reason: Bielema said the Razorbacks wanted to make sure Ellis truly was ready for a starting role before plugging him into the lineup. He thought rushing Ellis onto the field could’ve caused long-lasting issues if it didn’t go well.
But Bielema has long believed the 6-foot-2, 230-pound Ellis had the tools to succeed.
"You’ve got to have a guy that’s got intelligence," Bielema said. "You’ve got to have a guy who’s got a little football savvy. You’ve got to have a guy that erases mistakes. It’s a demanding position. It’s not for everybody."
Arkansas decided to make the move after the Alabama loss. The Razorbacks had two weeks to prepare for Auburn, giving Ellis a chance to settle into the job before facing Gus Malzahn’s high-powered and complicated offense.
Ellis said he was eager to take on the role.
"I feel like I could handle the responsibility and that’s what I’m going to try to do," Ellis said. "It’s fun being the leader and making sure everybody’s in the right spot."
By all accounts, Ellis did his job against Auburn.
Ash and Bielema said Arkansas did a better job of getting lined up and sorted out before the snap against a no-huddle offense. They credited Ellis — who was in charge of relaying the defensive calls to teammates — for the improvement. Bielema said Ellis also helped the defense make adjustments before the snap after reading and recognizing formations in the Auburn backfield.
Ellis wasn’t flawless, but the experience will help in the long run.
"He grew up out there on the field," Arkansas linebacker Braylon Mitchell said. "He’s had to grow up faster than a lot of freshmen, but he went out there and made plays."
Arkansas linebackers coach Randy Shannon, who coached his share of star linebackers during his career at Miami, said he wasn’t surprised.
Shannon said Ellis has the "attitude and mentality" required to play the position, comparing him to one of his former Miami greats.
"He reminds me a lot of Dan Morgan," Shannon said. "His mentality and the way he plays the game. He’s kind of a take control guy, which is what you’re looking for."
Ellis said those traits just come natural. It showed in high school, when he helped lead Fayetteville to consecutive state championships in 2011 and 2012.
Ellis was named the state’s defensive player of the year after each season and joined high school teammates Austin Allen and Alex Brignoni at Arkansas. Allen and Brignoni are redshirting, but Ellis is getting his chance after settling in.
"I think the transition from high school to college was, college life in general, that slowed me down a little bit," Ellis said. "Finally I got used to everything, and now I am where I am."
Arkansas will need an improved performance from Ellis and the defense if it hopes to end the six-game losing streak Saturday.
Linebacker play has been one of the reasons for Arkansas’ defensive struggles throughout the skid. The Razorbacks have surrendered 30 or more points in five straight games for just the second time in school history (2007).
Most of the problems won’t be fixed overnight for a defense that has endured plenty of struggles the past few seasons. But Arkansas enters the Ole Miss game confident it has found the player to build its defense around.
"The future is bright for that young man," Ash said.