FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas has a younger group of linebackers, but Travis Williams is impressed with the ones he has to work with.
The pair who started the AutoZone Liberty Bowl, Chris “Pooh” Paul and Jordan Crook, are back and while young both have made big strides in the preseason, Williams coaches the linebackers in addition to serving as defensive coordinator. He likes the mix at linebacker.
“The guys, you see, first of all, you can tell the guys like each other,” Williams said. “Bringing high school guys in and guys out of the portal with guys that were already here and trying to put it all together. First of all, the guys like each other. Effort is really what we’ve been kind of honing in on, and trying to fly to the ball. The great thing is they’re trying to do exactly what we’re asking them to do. We tell them there’s going to be stuff we have to correct every day, but control what you can control. It’s fun to coach those guys.”
Paul, 6-1, 233, is a redshirt sophomore while Crook, 6-0, 220, is a sophomore. In 2022 with two starts, Paul finished with 62 tackles, including 38 solo, eight for loss, four sacks, a forced fumble, one recovered and three quarterback hurries. Crook only had the one start against Kansas. He finished 2022 with 12 tackles, eight solo, 0.5 for loss and one quarterback hurry.
“It’s a new defense for all of those guys,” Williams said. “What’s always exciting is to see the growth and football IQ and learning what we’re doing and different concepts. All of those guys have a good football IQ. All of those guys love to come to work and come out to practice. It’s been good. Pooh is very detailed. He takes pride in his performance. Same thing with Crook.”
Paul recently missed some time due to an injury. That allowed Crook more time to step up and show what he can do. Williams said Crook certainly didn’t disappoint.
“Just a true leader,” Williams said. “He’s a warrior. I love the kid. In the workouts when they’re racing or doing sprints he’s always trying to be first. He wants to lead. He has that mike linebacker mentality that you want on your team. We see all of those guys… like Crook is a starter for us. Pooh is a starter for us. Antonio (Grier Jr.) is a starter. Jaheim (Thomas) is a starter. Those guys are going to play, even the freshmen. We need all of them. Crook is a really, really good leader and a really good person. I’m glad he’s on our team.”
Paul likes what Williams brings to the program as he is his position coach in addition to being the coordinator.
“Coach T-Will, he’s a high-energy guy,” Paul said. “He brings energy to the room. Just working with him, he wants the best out of us and he demands it out of us and that’s what we want to give to him. As a defense, he’s just a great guy overall outside of football. He’s big on family and he’s big on his faith. He’s just really a great guy overall and someone you want to look up to as a role model.”
Crook is also pleased to have Williams coaching him and in charge of the defense.
“I think the benefit of having the linebacker coach as your DC is he wants his guys to make plays,” Crook said. “I feel like with him being our linebacker coach, that is obviously going to help us out and he’s going to put us in position to make a lot of plays. Outside of football like Pooh said, he’s a family oriented guy. He’s good for this program, great actually. We’ve enjoyed him. I think he’s enjoyed us and we’re having fun.”
Crook feels getting the start against Kansas in the bowl game when Drew Sanders opted out was a big boost for him.
“Just coming off the bowl game, starting, that was definitely a confidence booster,” Crook said. “Definitely a confidence booster coming into this spring and summer. I just feel like it put me in a good position and honestly I’ve been taking every opportunity every day and just coming in and trying to approach it like a pro. Like my coaches have been telling me, not give up any opportunities, have fun and just control what I can control and take it from there.”
While he’s a true sophomore, Crook is still being asked to provide some leadership in the room along with Paul and others.
“Well, with me being a sophomore it’s kind of new but that’s kind of the role I just took on,” Paul said. “But I enjoy it. They look up to me in a way, all the young guys. So it’s kind of weird. But as far as the younger guys go, those guys have just been sponges. I enjoy it. They look up to me in a way, even though I’m a young guy. So it’s kind of weird. As far as the younger guys go, those guys have just been sponges. All I can do is tell them what I went through last year. Just basically the ins and outs of it and how to approach it every day. As far as the young guys go, they’ve been very attentive. It’s been good being a leader to them.”
Williams is known for an aggressive, attacking defense, and that is something pleasing to Paul.
“Coach T-Will likes to start fast,” Paul said. “He doesn’t like for us to sit back and they throw the first punch. No, we go out there and we go after them. We want to welcome any type of physicality. Speed, anything. We want to welcome all that to us.
“So starting fast, that’s really just a bottom line thing. Staying on top of our game and playing Razorback defense.”
Crook echoed many of those same statements about Williams aggressive style of defense.
“I think it’s an aggressive type of play style,” Paul said. “Get after it quick, fast, you know.”
With the aggressive style of defense will come more blitzing requirements for the linebackers.
“Definitely,” Paul said. “Just playing loose. He always tells us, be a ballplayer, don’t be a robot. Just having that killer instinct. Going out there and playing our brand of football with confidence and poise.”
Crook also obviously likes the blitzing aspect of the defense.
“Just holding everybody accountable, I think that’s the biggest thing,” Crook said. “I think that when we hold everybody accountable, you’re going to get results. With (Coach Williams) demands it every day. So you know, him demanding that every day is just going to make us better overall, no doubt.”
Arkansas will hold its second preseason scrimmage on Saturday. It is closed to the media and public.