By Otis Kirk

FAYETTEVILLE — Gone are Grant Morgan and Hayden Henry, but Michael Scherer is still impressed with the linebacker room including Bumper Pool and Alabama transfer Drew Sanders.

Pool bypassed the 2022 NFL Draft to return for his senior season with the Hogs while Sanders chose the Razorbacks over Oklahoma and Texas once he decided to transfer. Scherer also has several talented younger linebackers in redshirt sophomore Jackson Woodard, redshirt freshman Pooh Paul and trio of true freshmen in Mani Powell, Jordan Crook and Kaden Henley. The team will hold its first scrimmage today and Scherer is looking at developing depth.

“I think that’s a lot of it, a lot of it is depth,” Scherer said. “In my opinion, we have a lot of talented players, but they’re young. Our biggest challenge behind who we have as starters right now, Bumper and Drew, is maturity. Being able to understand how important some of this stuff is, being able to focus every single play. So, when you talk about the scrimmage, those three freshmen are going to get thrown into the fire. Well, I guess there’s more than three now. Chris Paul is still a freshman. Woodard, I guess he’s a sophomore, but you’ve got Jordan Crook, Mani Powell, and then Kaden Henley is coming along too. Those guys are going to get thrown into the fire on Saturday and see what they’re all about. If I had to guess from the way practice has gone, we’re going to see if those guys are going to help us a lot this year.”

Pool and Sanders are set as starters for the Hogs. Scherer was asked Friday what he does to motivate the pair to make sure they are sharp each day and don’t get complacent?

“They don’t need it, they’re very self-motivated,” Scherer said. “I just think those guys are competing to be the best around. When you become a starter and you have experience like those two, your focus isn’t climbing the top of the depth chart, it’s to climb the top of every chart. There’s a lot of that, both of those have a lot of goals after this year, next year, whatever year it may be. They’re working towards that. I don’t think that’s where their brain is, I think their brain is just on every day getting better. Especially a guy like Bumper, who, let’s be honest, he started one game last year. Great player, he started one game last year. He worked his butt off all year last year, never complained once, and so he’s got that mindset from last year. He showed up every day last year kind of mad at me. I liked it, and it made him a really good player. He’s kept that, and it’ll never leave him after last year.”

Sanders is considered an elite pass rusher, but he has moved off the edge to linebacker with the Hogs.

“Yeah, he’s definitely an elite pass rusher,” Scherer said. “You know, it’s amazing, people don’t recognize how hard it is to do what Drew’s doing right now. Drew went from playing 4i defensive end, outside linebacker, sitting on the edge every play, to being in the middle of the action. There’s a lot going on in there. Your eyes are all in a different place, and to be honest with you, it took Drew about a week and a half until we started watching film and I go ‘Oh, God, this kid is good.’ And so Drew, pass rushing, yeah, he’s very good at that. But the reality of the situation is a lot of his player are going to be off the ball, OK. So, we’re working on him getting better at that. He’s progressed every day. He’s a very, very, very talented player. A lot of my challenge with Drew is getting him to trust and believe how talented he is. Once he does that and lets it loose and once he gets the reps there in the middle and he’s not thinking about what he’s got to do, he can do some special, special things.”

One of the challenges Scherer has faced with Sanders is simply getting him to realize how good he is.

“It’s easy to get frustrated, especially as a linebacker,” Scherer said. “It’s easy to get frustrated when you don’t make every single play. It sounds crazy, OK, but when you don’t make every single play, when you do something wrong and you know it … they’re smart kids, right, so when they do something wrong they know it. It’s easy to get down on yourself and think about that, so the challenge I’ve had to many of the guys — and a lot of that is in the maturity of the young guys, too — is you can’t let one mistake turn into two. A lot of guys, the young guys, they screw up and then they go and line up and they’re still thinking about the mistake they just made. Then one mistake turns into two and then two turns into three, then all of a sudden they’re having awful day and they’re all out of whack mentally.

“With Drew, a lot of it is just getting him to trust that the things he needs to do fundamentally as a linebacker will take care of themselves. He’ll make plays by just doing what he has to do. It’s getting him to not be frustrated at maybe the ball doesn’t come to him every time, so he stays disciplined in what he’s supposed to do. In our defense as a linebacker you do what you’re supposed to do, history says you’re going to be pretty successful. It’s just trying to get him to understand that and not get frustrated when one thing goes wrong. He’s learning, so as anybody who is learning, you’re going to make mistakes. I think the only way to learn in football is to make mistakes. I mean, I think that’s why I’m a football coach because I’ve screwed up so many times and I had to learn how to fix it. I’m just being honest. I had to fix all the mistakes I made in my life, so now I know how to fix mistakes, and I think that’s why I’m OK at this job. Just getting Drew to understands mistakes are going to happen and just keep going on and keep moving.”

Crook has been very impressive in Arkansas’ first seven practices. The Hogs knew they had something special when they landed him out of Duncanville (Texas) High School.

“I knew Jordan was a special player in high school,” Scherer said. “He’s got here and has done what I expected and then some. He has extremely bright football IQ. He takes the game extremely serious. His maturity is beyond his years, for sure. He’s going to play a lot of football for us this year. We’re going to need Jordan Crook in a lot of different situations, and he’s ready for it. But again, with him it’s the maturity. It’s breaking bad habits from high school, knowing I’ve got to do what I’ve got to do on every single play. He’s such a playmaker that he’ll see the ball and go get the ball. Sometimes that’s awesome, and sometimes that will backfire on you. So there’s things that we’re working with him, but he’s very far along. He’s going to help us out a lot this year. You’ll see Jordan Crook a lot this year, no doubt about it.”

Powell committed to Arkansas when he was still living in Ohio, but then moved to Fayetteville to play his senior season. A knee injury cut the season short, but Powell is now healthy and looking good in practice.

“First off, he’s an awesome kid,” Scherer said. “It’s hard to not say many good things about Mani because of his background and where he came from and all the stuff he’s been through in his life, then extended to the ACL injury too. But Mani has come back this fall and gotten better every single day, and like exponentially better. You’re talking about a kid who is 6-3, 240 pounds, and the nutritionist is telling him he needs more body fat. He likes to eat a lot of candy, too. I wish I had that problem. I don’t have that problem. So, one thing that we all have to sit back and realize is that Mani Powell has been through seven practices now in his college career. And he’s had to sit out most of last year. With the strides he’s made in seven practices, I have a lot of confidence that he’s going to be a really good player. And he’s continuing to work to help us out on defense, and he’s going to be a heck of a special teams player this year. He’s one of the strongest kids I’ve ever seen in my life.”

Even though he was still recovering from a knee injury Powell enrolled at midterm. Scherer talked about how much that helped Powell.

“A lot,” Scherer said. “A whole lot because he’s sitting there everyday listening to everything. When you’re injured and you’re just sitting there, you can kind of get your mind away from things. But we made sure he sat – I didn’t sit him in front of everybody, but if you came in our meeting room, Mani Powell answers every single question that I ask. Every single one. And so all spring, he was answering every question in the room. So Mani could sit there and answer them. At some point when you’re injured and not practicing, that’s all you can do. So everybody sat there everyday, and still do this to this day, and listened to Mani answer every single question. Last year, that guy was Chris Paul. The more they talk it, the more they understand it. So Mani, even though he wasn’t involved in those 15 practices, between what Jamil was able to do with him in the weight room and what he was able to see in meeting rooms has helped propel him along for sure.”

Woodard came to Arkansas from Little Rock Christian. Pittman awarded him a scholarship and Woodard continues to improve.

“Yeah, he’s progressed a lot,” Scherer said. “He’s a kid who puts his head down and just goes to work, doesn’t complain. He’s made a lot of changes to his body coming from high school to now. One of the big challenges we had with him was I remember on his visit when we first got here, he was 180 pounds. We were looking at Jackson Woodard like ‘Oh, man.’ Then he comes in, and he’s 230 pounds, probably five to six months later. Well, that’s awesome because a linebacker is supposed to be 230 pounds, right? But your body is not used to carrying that. So he had to learn how to carry it. Then he got up to 235 pounds and has learned how to carry it. Then me and him had a conversation and said, ‘Hey, I think you might be able to move better if you lose a little bit of weight. Get somewhere more natural for you.’

“I want to say he’s about 228-ish, in between there and 230 right now, which is a really good weight for him. And he’s moving better than he ever has. He’s a tough kid, getting his weight where it needs to be and his movement skills and everything he’s done in the weight room. He’s put himself in a position to really play for us and to really be one of the guys we count on. In this league, it’s going to take a lot of guys. With the talent in our room this year, I think there’s multiple different things that multiple different guys can do. We’re going to use everybody to the best of their ability, and for us that’s going to require a lot of thinking and a lot of pressure on our guys, but they can do it.”

Henley came from Shiloh Christian and was a very active linebacker for the Saints.

“Kaden’s actually done a really good job,” Scherer said. “Kaden was here in the spring, which helped him out a lot, also. Got 15 practices in, in the spring. But Kaden’s coming along a lot. Kaden’s a very smart kid, and so the challenge with him is he knows what he’s doing, and now it’s getting him to do it fast and not think about it. When you’re smart, you start to think a lot. So, it’s getting him to play fast and not think. Now, with that he’s come along a lot. I think he’s going to help us. He’s got his role for us on special teams. All those young kids, I think we need them this year to help us in some sort of way. And Kaden’s one of those. We’ve got between Mani, Kaden and Jordan, those kids are all very talented freshmen, and I think you’ll see all three of them this year in some way.”

Arkansas scrimmages this morning and then will return to the practice fields on Monday.