Jim Harris: Razorback Linebacker Challenged to Do His Job

Razorback Linebacker Braylon Mitchell Grows in Game

In case everyone watching didn’t know Braylon Mitchell had blown a coverage assignment downfield late in the first quarter that set up a Samford touchdown, the likeable and courteous Razorback linebacker let everyone know with that “my fault” thump to his chest. Mitchell was hardly the only Arkansas defender in the back seven victimized in a supposed “easy” game that the Hogs’ power running attack had to rescue in the fourth quarter.

But Mitchell and the defense buckled down once the Razorbacks regained the lead for good with 13:38 to play. Mainly, the Hog defense finally began sniffing out Samford’s use of the screen pass and took that bothersome weapon away, leading to a pair of three-and-outs in the fourth quarter while Arkansas pushed out to a 31-21 victory at Little Rock’s War Memorial Stadium.

“They had been making a couple of plays on us early on in the third quarter and we figured that they were going to stick with what had helped them gain yards,” said Mitchell, a fourth-year junior linebacker from Heber Springs. “So we went back to the sidelines, we drew up the formations and everything. Coach (Chris Ash, the defensive coordinator) challenged me to do my job and help the defense make a play.”

That play came up on third-and-four with Samford trying to answer the Razorbacks go-ahead score.

“They lined up trips to the boundary and they threw the screen to No. 11 (Elijah Obajimi), I think. He tried to throw a juke move in and I just stood there and kept my ground and I made the tackle along with my other defensive people that were pursuing over there.”

Mitchell led Arkansas with 11 tackles, but it’s no secret to anyone watching that several of those stops were well downfield after long gains by Samford, beginning late in the first quarter and extending through a trying period for Arkansas in the third quarter. Samford, which nearly matched the Hogs in possession time through three quarters, stepped up with a  75-yard, 13-play scoring after allowing the Hogs consecutive long marches for scores to start the game.

In the third quarter, Arkansas’ offense played more into Sanford’s hands and let the Bulldogs complete what ended up being a 21-3 scoring run with two touchdowns in the period. Jonathan Williams’ fumble on the Arkansas 24 on the Hogs’ second snap of the half gave Samford a short field, and then a short punt two series’ later set up the Bulldogs at midfield for another short scoring drive to surprisingly jump ahead 21-17.

Braylon Mitchell Razorback linebacker

Razorback linebacker Braylon Mitchell

Arkansas immediately answered the Samford go-ahead score with a 74-yard drive of its own, and the Bulldogs would only get two possessions and no first downs the rest of the night.

Arkansas gained 163 yards all on the ground in the fourth quarter, while Samford had 10 total yards. In some ways, Arkansas’ run game and the ball-security displayed in the fourth quarter was the Hogs’ best defense, keeping the ball away for the Bulldogs. But, like the season opener against Louisiana-Lafayette, the Arkansas defense seemed to improve as the game went on as well.

Mitchell agreed. “We were hit with some adversity and I feel like we overcame it,” he said. “We worked on situations like that all week long and all [August] camp long.”

Again, some of Arkansas’ adversity was self-inflicted, even before the game. Starting weakside linebacker Jarrett Lake was suspended for what head coach Bret Bielema said was a disciplinary matter.

“When we found out Lake wasn’t going to play they switched me over from Sam to Will,” Mitchell said. The coaches inserted junior college transfer Martrell Spaight into the strongside linebacker position. Also, starting defensive end Trey Flowers and strong safety Rohan Gaines were sidelined by knee injuries suffered in the ULL game.

Mitchell isn’t sure whether the coaching staff will keep him at weakside linebacker. It calls for more pass coverage of backs downfield, which Samford exploited. Mitchell, who barely had any on-field experience outside of special teams coming into the season, and didn’t take many defensive snaps last week, appeared to be deployed very deep in coverage several times, resulting in the Bulldogs exploiting it with screen passes. It became a learn-on-the-run situation for the junior.

“I feel like I’m knowing more where to be when plays happen,” he said. “They prepare us all week long and teach us our assignment, teach us the right guy to read.

“I haven’t played as much as I’d like to play in the past but things are changing now and it’s looking up for me. I’ve got to give credit to my defensive teammates. They keep me energized and keep me motivated, so when I don’t get as many playing snaps I don’t get down about it. I have those guys telling me just be ready when my number is called.”

For the game, Arkansas’ defense allowed 4.4 yards per snap on 53 offensive plays by Samford, not dominant by any stretch but winnable.

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