FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. — Nearly 11 months have passed since Dre Greenlaw has played any significant minutes for the Arkansas football team. The team’s best linebacker in 2016 broke his foot midway through last season in a game against Alabama. He made a go of a comeback in the Belk Bowl in late December, but re-aggravated the injury. Greenlaw hasn’t done much since.
All the while, Arkansas’ linebackers struggled. Brooks Ellis was left as the only full-time capable linebacker. The unit drew the most ire of frustrated fans who were angry at Arkansas’ 75th-ranked defense. Greenlaw could only watch as his team, his defense, gave up 30, 56, 38, 42 and 28 points while he was out of commission. He took it hard.
When Thursday arrives, the waiting stops. Greenlaw is back, he said fully healthy, as the anchor point in the middle of Arkansas’ new 3-4 defense. And he is ready to vent, fully aware the hangover last year’s ending to the season created.
“It’s been a while since I’ve played in a game, at least a full game,” Greenlaw said. “I think we’re ready to go out and prove to everybody that we can play. I think a lot of people are doubting us, the only ones believing in us are the ones in the room. We’re going to go out there and we’re going to play like some savage Hogs.
Greenlaw only played in five full games, plus parts of two others (he was hurt in the first quarter against Alabama in the team’s sixth game of the year) and he still finished in the top-10 on the team with 42 tackles.
Arkansas was already about finished with running a 4-3 before Greenlaw was hurt. They were constantly in the nickel. Every so often the defense would need to revert to three linebackers. Then-defensive coordinator Robb Smith and linebackers coach Vernon Hargreaves had difficulty coming up with playable bodies next to Ellis, the senior four-year starter.
Greenlaw’s return alleviates that. The previous season may have been a struggle, but it was more a trial-by-fire for players like Dwayne Eugene and De’Jon Harris. Those two saw a majority of the snaps in Greenlaw’s stead. Not coincidentally, those two are now starters next to Greenlaw in the Razorbacks’ four-linebacker set. Harris, a sophomore, is lined up to next Greenlaw on the inside.
“It’s not necessarily Brooks beside me, but it feels like it,” Greenlaw said. “Once you get that connection, you just get rolling and we start playing.”
Hargreaves is going to carefully observe Greenlaw’s return. His foot is healthy, but Greenlaw also isn’t exactly in playing shape. The linebacker said he was, but his coach wasn’t quite ready to go that far.
On top of that, Hargreaves is wary about playing any one guy too much. He saw what that created last year with a player like Ellis. Ellis began the year as a potential All-SEC player, but by the end, he had become a scapegoat for Arkansas’ troubles. He was playing practically every single snap, though, sometimes as the lone linebacker on the field.
Hargreaves isn’t about to put Greenlaw in that sort of spot.
“If he’s playing well, then obviously I’m not looking to take him out,” Hargreaves said. “Now, do I want to let the other guys get in the game if I need to? Yeah. But I also know about playing guys too, too much. I’m not going to flip-flop him too much, but hopefully I can at least get him a break this year.”
The good news for Greenlaw, Hargreaves and Arkansas fans is that Florida A&M is about a perfect opportunity for testing grounds. The Razorbacks won’t lose the game, barring a miracle of epic proportions, and likely will have it well in-hand by halftime. That would allow Greenlaw to test his foot, get some game repetitions, then get off the field. By the time SEC play comes around, the hope is that it will be like Greenlaw never left.
“My foot’s great. Everything is great,” Greenlaw said. “Really, it’s just going out there and playing. That’s really just what it boils down to.”
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