FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas linebacker Martrell Spaight couldn’t make it to campus last spring, so his introduction to the Razorbacks came in fall camp.
He made an impact on a few occasions, earning a reputation for being a hard hitter. In fact, Arkansas coach Bret Bielema and the Razorbacks came up with a term for it, saying players splattered in camp by the transfer had been “Spaighted.”
Spaight admits there was little carryover on the field last fall, though, as he got used to another level of football. In fact, his aggressiveness was a weakness as opponents found ways to carve up Arkansas’ defense on a regular basis.
“I know a couple teams last year tried to use it against me,” Spaight said.
So the senior said he’s using his first spring — coupled with last year’s experiences — as a chance to become a better all-around linebacker. The North Little Rock native, who is working with the first-team defense at weakside linebacker, will have two more opportunities for growth on the practice field this week before Arkansas closes spring drills with the Red-White scrimmage on Saturday.
But Spaight said he feels much more prepared for his starting role as Arkansas adjusts to new coordinator Robb Smith’s schemes.
“I’ll be physical when the time presents itself, but I don’t go out there and try to be physical where it could cost me to miss a play or miss a tackle,” Spaight said after last Thursday’s practice. “So I just go out there and try to play smart.”
Spaight was one of three junior college prospects in Arkansas’ 2013 signing class expected to contribute on defense. But Spaight, cornerback Carroll Washington and safety TQ Coleman didn’t meet those expectations right away.
Spaight played in nine games with two starts. He had 22 tackles and one sack.
Arkansas linebacker coach Randy Shannon said the expectations were too high.
“Everybody expected so much out of those guys,” Shannon said. “They just got here. They had to learn a whole new system. … Those guys have really responded this spring in picking up a lot of things and learning the new defense.”
Shannon has worked closely with Spaight, who is part of a first-team unit that includes strongside linebacker Braylon Mitchell and middle linebacker Brooks Ellis. He said Spaight is “playing a lot faster” and is much improved since last August.
The 6-foot, 228-pound Spaight shared the team lead in tackles during a scrimmage earlier this spring. His performance drew compliments from Bielema afterward.
“Spaight made some plays, really down on the goal line, red zone area and also out on the field,” Bielema said of last week’s scrimmage. “He’s very quick and athletic.
“There’s a great example of you [wish you] had that kid for a redshirt year and you have him for a little bit of time. He’s really making some huge strides right now.”
Spaight said the spring has been key to making it possible.
He was trying to finish junior college courses last spring and wasn’t able to make it to campus early like Washington and Carroll. So Spaight arrived in August and begin learning on the fly, working to digest Arkansas’ plans for linebackers.
“It kind of hinders you not being there during spring time, but the main thing is just coming in and understanding as quick as possible,” Spaight said. “That’s the key. Understanding as quick as possible and just trying to get better every single day.”
He’s much closer to accomplishing it during his second season on campus.
There’s no doubt Arkansas has big plans for the hard-hitting Spaight as he continues to grow before his second season. Spaight knows there’s potential for success in the aggressive defense, too, after working through his first season with the Razorbacks.
“I feel great,” Spaight said. “Being here the second year with the other coaches and Coach Smith’s schemes that he brought in. It’s a great scheme to just go out there and just play football and be physical and run around and make plays.
“I feel real comfortable with the scheme and just try to get better every day.”