LITTLE ROCK — A darned good defensive end, Tenarius Wright is out of position by necessity and his want to play linebacker.
His willingness to move might not have been encouraged except for Arkansas’ dearth of bodies at linebacker. To understand how the vacuum came about, backtrack the linebackers signed during the reign of Bobby Petrino:
2008 — Elton Ford, Jelani Smith, and Wright. Ford played safety, Smith was granted his release early in 2010, and Wright played end for three years.
2009 — Austin Moss. Petrino said Moss had great instincts and that he was “not afraid to pull the trigger and run through when something shows and make great hits.” He said he expected Moss to “compete for some playing time early.” Moss was granted his release in May 2011.
2010 — Chris Smith and Courtney Gaston. Smith is a starter at defensive end. Petrino described Gaston as a big guy with endless potential. “I think he has the ability to read, run downhill, tackle and cover,” Petrino said. Gaston went to junior college to get his grades straightened out and never returned.
2011 — Tyler Gilbert, Brock Haman, and Alonzo Highsmith. Gilbert, who was not expected to start, pleaded guilty to misdemeanor theft of property this year and is no longer on the team. Haman was granted his release after Petrino was fired. Highsmith is a starter.
Wright has the size of an Alabama or LSU linebacker, but three years removed from the position raised questions about his ability to make the transition. It is like asking a longtime pitcher to go to centerfield and chase down everything in the gaps. The great ones have an innate ability to be on the move when ball hits bat.
To make it even more difficult, Wright was not involved in much contact during fall practice. Time after time, we heard how he was getting “mental reps.” There is a difference between thinking about assignments and carrying them out.
Former Arkansas Travelers play-by-play broadcaster Jim Elder used to lay awake at night, going over how he would play each of the 18 holes the following morning. On the golf course, his plan and his tee shots did not jibe.
Against an Alabama team that ran Eddie Lacy and T.J. Yeldon a total of 25 times, Wright did not have an unassisted tackle, according to the post-game stats.
The Crimson Tide’s superb offensive line played a role in the zero for Wright and he is not the reason Alabama scored 52. In fact, there is sympathy for him as a guy who is doing what he can to help his team. If fullback Kiero Small had not suffered a foot injury, he would have been on the field as a linebacker, underlining the shortage at the position.
The problems on defense go much deeper than linebacker. Freshman cornerback Will Hines and fifth-year senior walk-on Kaelon Kelleybrew worked with the first team defense early in the week and freshman running back-punt returner Nate Holmes was at cornerback during the open portion of Tuesday’s practice.
Defensive coordinator Paul Haynes has become the scapegoat for some, but his resume says he knows what he is doing. At Ohio State, he coached defensive backs from 2005-2010 and was the co-defensive coordinator in 2011. During those years, the Buckeyes were 66-11, played in six straight BCS games, and nine of his defensive backs were selected in the NFL draft.
Arkansas’ defense is charged with slowing down Rutgers’ balanced attack on Saturday and giving the offense a chance to win the game. The unbeaten Scarlet Knights will run the ball with Jawan Jamison and throw it with Gary Nova. The 5-foot-8, 200-pound Jamison recorded his fourth straight 100-yard rushing game last week and his 360 on a 41-yard TD run was video-game like.
Harry King is sports columnist for Stephens Media’s Arkansas News Bureau. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter: @harrykingsports.