BY DUDLEY E. DAWSON
While Arkansas loves its young linebackers, it was imperative that the Razorback staff added in some experienced transfer defenders to fortify those spots.
They did just that in the form of Cincinnati’s Jaheim Thomas (6-4, 240) and South Florida’s Antonio Grier (6-1, 230), who combined for 162 tackles in their last two full seasons.
It will actually be Thomas’ second straight year to open the season in Arkansas as the Razorbacks topped the Bearcats 31-24 at Reynolds Razorback Stadium.
Thomas, who has two years of eligibility left, had 7 tackles in that game, 5 of them solo stops and joined in on a tackle for lost yardage against Arkansas.
“It was a great atmosphere,” Thomas said. “It was a big crowd. It was good ball also. Being able to play in that atmosphere and make plays, I feel like that attracted me to come here.”
Thomas, a former prep star at Cincinnati’s Princeton High, had 70 tackles for the Bearcats last season, the third-best number on defense.
He played in four games while redshirting as a true freshman during the covid season and played in 12 contests with 23 tackles in 2021, including participating in his team’s College Football Playoff semifinal loss to Alabama.
But with Cincinnati head coach Luke Fickell leaving for Wisconsin, Thomas decided to explore his options and found an energy match in new Arkansas co-defensive coordinator Travis Williams.
“Really just being around Coach T-Will and getting down here, being around the defensive staff and seeing how they roll,” Thomas said. “How they operate and knowing the scheme that I’d be playing in. And knowing the energy they bring. That’s really something that sealed the deal for me, unlike a lot of other schools. So just being around that.
“…He brings a lot of energy. He always has a smile on his face and always welcomes us in with great energy. Just having him as the defensive coordinator and the linebacker coach, I think that brings a lot of energy and a lot of physicality also.”
Thomas a four-star prospect who chose hometown Cincinnati over LSU, Alabama, Georgia, Tennessee, Notre Dame, Florioda State and others out of high school, has impressed Williams.
“Really good skillset, smart, can change direction and he brings length to the room,” Williams said. “He can cover out of the backfield. He’s doing a really good job for us.”
Thomas is more of a quiet leader than a vocal one per Williams.
“Quiet,” Williams said during his press conference. “You see him in the back right now. He’s not saying anything. He don’t say anything in the meetings. He’ll ask questions, but quiet and very detailed. A pro. Takes notes. He’ll come talk to you one-on-one and ask questions. He’s one of those guys that just loves ball and is always taking notes down and getting the fine details of everything.”
Thomas has dived into note-taking even more since arriving in Fayetteville.
“I’ve always taken a lot of notes, but I feel like I picked it up coming here because I transferred in May,” Thomas said. “I had to learn a defense a whole lot quicker. I had to get accustomed to everything a whole lot quicker so just being able to take notes on both positions, that has helped me. And also studying a lot watching a whole lot of film, that has helped me a bunch.”
He joins Grier, Arkansas linebacker returnees in Chris “Pooh” Paul, Jordan Crooks, Mani Powell and Brooks Both and freshmen Carson Dean and Brad Spencer to form a potentially deep group.
“A skillset I feel like I bring to the room is always running to the ball,” Thomas said. “Always being able to do a lot of different things and being a versatile linebacker, being able to come off the edge, playing in the box and in coverage. That’s what I feel like I bring to the room.”
Paul appreciates the way Thomas and Grier, who had 92 tackles two seasons ago before getting injured last season, entered the linebacker room.
“It’s been like a collaboration, not so much a competition,” Paul said. “Everybody’s been working together. It’s been fun. Everybody’s been soaking up game from each other. I think it’s made us closer overall.”
Thomas’ transfer to Arkansas coincided with that of former Bearcats basketball player Jeremiah Davenport joining the Razorback basketball squad.
“Yeah, I’ve been knowing him since high school,” Thomas said. “We grew up around each other. He played basketball, so I also played basketball with him.
“He’s a great athlete. Like I said, I’ve been knowing him for a long time, so just having a familiar face while he entered the portal with me, that helps a lot.”
Photo by Craven Whitlow