By Jason Pattyson

FAYETTEVILLE — It took a visit with then defensive coordinator Travis Williams at the University of Central Florida last December to find the fit. Arkansas was the drip that tied it all together for Antiono Grier Jr. when Sam Pittman hired Williams as the Razorback’s defensive coordinator last January.

Grier has settled into Fayetteville nicely after arriving on campus in January. The team has made it feel like home, and he’s pleased about the decision. The smooth transition and the camaraderie in the linebacker room have made Grier feel a part of the Razorback family.

“The team brought me in as a transfer and not treating me as an outsider. Treating me like family, to be honest,” Grier said. “I’m so close to some of these guys around here. Talk to them every day, and they help me out. Trying to figure out my way throughout campus or school or whatever it may be. I’m having fun and grateful to be here.”

Fast forward to last Saturday, late in the first quarter, with just over a minute remaining. It was Grier’s first play as a Razorback when he jumped up and snagged a pass over the middle by Michael Alaimo, and he returned it 25 yards for a second pick-six of his career.

“My keys on the play I was really just showing out in the box,” Grier said. “Apex. Kind of just got opened up. My D-end got upfield because it was a pass. He got a great rush. The D-line, my two nose guards, were getting a good push on their O-line. I kind of just scooted in the gap and just jumped.”

His first came from a game against Tulsa in 2018, and returned it 69 yards for the score.

Fellow Linebacker Chris “Pooh” Paul was on the sidelines when Grier made the play, and he was excited about the defense and for him on the play.

“If I gave y’all my honest reaction, I was really caught off guard when he caught it,” Paul said. “As soon as he jumped and caught it, I just instantly started running down the sideline with him like a proud parent or something. So, I’m just chasing him down the sideline the whole time. It was just an electric atmosphere and a great experience.”

Pooh expanded a little more on why he was a little surprised by the play, not the reaction by Grier.

“It was just a great, instinctive play. He put himself in perfect position,” Paul said. “I didn’t know that he was going to just run up and vertical jump and intercept the ball. So when he did catch it, all I could do was jump up and, like I said, just start running down the sidelines wit him. Soon as he caught it, I dropped my helmet, jumped up with him, and ran down the sidelines with him until he ran in the end zone. I knew he could catch. He catches all the passes in indy and stuff like that. He’s got great hands, so I knew he would catch it if he got his hands on the ball, but it just caught me off guard in that aspect.”

Head coach Sam Pittman was asked about the pick-six in the post-game press conference after the win Saturday.

“Pretty good way to start, isn’t it? He’s still not; I don’t think he’s 100%, to be honest with you. But we needed him to play with Pooh being out, too, in the first half. So, I think Grier will end up being better against the run and things of that nature.”

Later in the fourth quarter, Arkansas stood firm on a goal-line stand that kept Kent State out of the endzone. The cohesiveness Paul, Grier, and the defense showed was a unit starting to gel. The players exhibited the togetherness of a group that had played together for years despite only competing on the practice field for a few months. Players from the Fraternity Omega Psi on the defense gathered to celebrate with a hand gesture after the big stop.

“Shoot, first of all, it was a great play by Pooh on the goal line. They were really trying to run the ball down our throat,” Grier said. “First, from my point of view, I was just setting the edge, coming off the edge, and all I just hear is “CLOWWW!” That’s Pooh Paul coming down and hitting him and making a great play. I was more than excited for him because Coach T-Will, we practice that drill so much. We do it in Indy, and just to see that translate from practice to the game, it was great to watch it. It was a great play. Just having the guys out there, it’s just, you know what I’m saying, I can’t even explain it, to be honest with you. It’s a great experience, once in a lifetime, to have three dogs on the field like that. It’s amazing. The brotherhood we share is also amazing.”

 As the great Vince Lombardi is quoted, “You’ve got to care for one another,” and this defensive unit does. Paul expanded on their love for each other in a press conference on Tuesday.

“As far as like the celebration standpoint, it just shows that the love we have for each other runs deeper than just ball and things of that nature,” Paul said. “Like he (Grier) said, we have great relationships off the field, so it pushes us to go harder on the field. Us doing the celebration wasn’t just doing it to look it cool. It was for us to show the genuine love and the excitement we have for each other.”

The defense has allowed one touchdown and scored two, both by the Linebackers, through two games this season. The Razorbacks face the Cougars of BYU on Saturday night for the first night game of the 2023 season. Kickoff is set for 6:30 p.m. on ESPN2.