FAYETTEVILLE — John L. Smith’s disappointment in Arkansas linebacker Terrell Williams was clear Monday.
The Arkansas coach didn’t even want to mention the senior by name.
“I’m very, very upset,” Smith said when asked about Williams. “I don’t even want to talk about that right now. I don’t even want to talk to him right now.”
Smith suspended Williams indefinitely Sunday, hours after the starter was arrested and charged with driving while intoxicated in Fayetteville. It left a sour taste for Arkansas a day after the 19-15 win against Tulsa in Razorback Stadium.
The suspension also leaves the Razorbacks (4-5, 2-3 in Southeastern Conference) even more short-handed at a critical position as it prepares for an important game at No. 12 South Carolina (7-2, 5-2). Smith confirmed Arkansas will work freshman Otha Peters with the first-team defense at middle linebacker this week and he is scheduled to start alongside fellow freshman A.J. Turner at linebacker.
Smith said he’s confident Peters and Turner will perform well. But it didn’t mask his frustration in Williams, who was being counted on as a leader for a defense already playing without injured seniors Alonzo Highsmith and Tenarius Wright.
“If you have that little compassion, respect, love for your teammates, it’s hard for me to show compassion, love for you. If that makes sense,” Smith said in regard to Williams’ hopes of returning. “So right now I don’t even want to talk to him, and we’ll decide. I can’t give you an answer. I’m just extremely upset with him.”
Williams had started six straight games for the Razorbacks, including three in a row at middle linebacker. He was ranked fourth on the team in tackles (52) and had assumed a leadership role for the defense because of the rash of injuries.
“He’s an older guy. He knows better than to do that,” Arkansas quarterback Tyler Wilson said. “But unfortunately we lose him and that’s tough because we all built relationships with him. We need him out there on the field for us.
“We’re going to have some young guys who are going to contribute, step in, just like always. We pride ourselves as a team to have guys that can step up and care and do the job. So it’s another man’s opportunity.”
Peters will be the fourth player to start at middle linebacker this season, joining Wright, Highsmith and Williams. Peters has 14 tackles in seven games, while Turner has collected 30 stops this season. Backups Braylon Mitchell (one tackle) and Jarrett Lake (five) also will earn more work in practice this week.
Smith said the inexperience at the position will leave Arkansas to count on veteran safeties Ross Rasner and Eric Bennett to make sure the Razorbacks are sound at South Carolina. Williams had been in charge of relaying signals from the sideline to the rest of the group after stepping into the starting spot at middle linebacker.
Defensive end Chris Smith also believes Turner and Peters will be up to the task against South Carolina, which is without injured running back Marcus Lattimore.
“They are getting better and better every week,” Smith said. “So I trust those guys to step up. It’s going to be a big game for them, but I feel like they are going to be fine.”
It’s not known if Williams will be permitted to return to the team after becoming the eighth Razorback arrested since March and second in a matter of weeks. Chris Smith was arrested for failing to appear in court regarding an unpaid speeding ticket and was punished by the Arkansas coaching staff, but it did not include a suspension.
John L. Smith dismissed five of the other six arrested players before the season. The list includes receivers Marquel Wade, Maudrecus Humphrey and Kane Whitehurst, linebacker Tyler Gilbert and tight end Andrew Peterson. Tackle Jason Peacock was suspended for the season opener, but remains with the team.
Smith was asked Monday if he thought the rash of arrests since the spring was a result of former coach Bobby Petrino’s departure in April. He said “not at all.”
“They’re you’re guys. Our guys. We love and care about them,” Smith said. “I guess the point that hurts is when they make a mistake that you can’t correct it or we fail to correct it. And consequently, having to divorce, which we’ve had to do.
“As a coach, you look at yourself and say, ‘Gosh you’ve failed.’ And that’s what you do. You look in the mirror and say, ‘We failed that guy. He’s not here. He’s not a part.’ But I’ve learned over the years that, you know, that’s going to be the case. You’re going to have some failures, which you hate to have. That’s just the way it is.”