FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas linebacker Otha Peters made an important decision during the offseason to help prepare for 2014.
After a frustrating sophomore season, he ditched his number.
“Five, I felt like, was a curse,” Peters said last week. “I was hurt two years in a row in No. 5. Then, my dad was No. 22 in high school. So I might as well let it carry on.”
It’s just a jersey, but don’t tell Peters. The new identity has helped his psyche as he tries to make an impact with Arkansas’ new-look defense this spring.
Peters is healthy, happy and ready to compete for playing time after struggling to find the field in 2013. The junior is working with the second-team defense at middle linebacker this spring behind sophomore Brooks Ellis. And, in many ways, it’s Arkansas linebackers coach Randy Shannon’s first chance to really evaluate him.
Injuries have slowed Peters since the staff arrived.
“I’m knocking on wood because this is the first time Otha has been healthy since he’s been at Arkansas,” Shannon said. “His first year as a true freshman he was banged up. I got here last spring and he was banged up. Two-a-days he got injured. Then all of a sudden when the season was over another injury. So he’s been through a lot.”
Peters played in seven games last season, but finished with just nine tackles. It was a far cry from what Arkansas was hoping from the Louisiana native, who showed signs of being a key contributor after collecting 32 tackles as a true freshman.
The Razorbacks could’ve used his help at the position, too. It’s no secret Arkansas’ linebackers struggled during the 3-9 performance. Peters said it was difficult to endure knowing there was little he could do to help on the field.
“It was real hard for me, Peters said. “It kind of got the best of me sometimes, but I knew that I couldn’t play like I wanted to play. I was injured. My arm was broke, my leg was messed up and I would’ve been out there making a fool out of myself.
“Even if I wanted to, I knew I couldn’t do it.”
Peters placed some of the blame on himself, though, believing poor nutrition has been part of his health problems. It’s one of the areas he aimed to correct in the offseason, saying he has ditched fast food for healthier meals.
He’s also trying to mold himself into an improved player this spring, too. Peters admitted a good portion of his production as a true freshman was simply “see ball, go get ball.” But he feels much more comfortable as he prepares for his junior year.
“I improved in taking on blocks and getting rid of blocks better,” Peters said. “In high school I was always bigger than everybody and I could just push them around and bully them around. But out here, these boys are 300-plus pounds. So it’s not always about bullying. It’s about being aggressive, use your hands and get off blocks.”
Peters finished among Arkansas’ top tacklers in the first spring scrimmage last Saturday, tallying seven stops with the second-team defense. Arkansas has worked with a starting unit of Ellis, Braylon Mitchell and Martrell Spaight so far this spring, but Shannon said there’s no doubt the Razorbacks need Peters to produce.
“He’s a tough guy,” Shannon said. “Tough middle linebacker that wants to do well, wants to play the game. Loves to play the game at all times and we’re excited about what he’s doing. The more he’s improving the better we’re going to be as a defense.”
Of course, Shannon said the Razorbacks are being careful with Peters as well.
Arkansas does not want to see the linebacker suffer another setback as they push through the spring. So Shannon said it’s his job — along with coach Bret Bielema and trainer Matt Summers — to make sure Peters isn’t pressed too much.
Peters said the plan is working so far. Perhaps the new number ended the “curse” as he carves out a role in Arkansas’ defensive plans for next season.
“It feels real good not to be injured and not to be hesitant,” Peters said. “Running, tackling. I feel real good about how I’m treating my body and I just hope it holds up.”