FAYETTEVILLE — Myke Tavarres couldn’t temper his feelings when he found out who was going to be Arkansas’ linebackers coach.
The junior college prospect had just signed with the Razorbacks, becoming part of Bret Bielema’s first class. So he already was eager to enroll in classes, get on campus and start working out with his new team. The desire only intensified when the Razorbacks announced former Miami coach Randy Shannon had been hired.
“I kind of like freaked out like a little girl,” Tavarres said last week. “I was like, 'Oh my God, Shannon! He coached Ray Lewis. Yes!" I was so excited.”
Bielema has been lauded for assembling an impressive coaching staff for his first season with the Razorbacks. There’s no doubt Shannon carries the most clout — and has generated the biggest buzz — when he was announced in late December.
The former Miami Hurricanes linebacker, assistant coach and head coach has brought a wealth of experience (three national championships) and an impressive who’s who list of pupils (Lewis, Jonathan Vilma and D.J. Williams) to an Arkansas defense that rested near the bottom of the Southeastern Conference last season.
Shannon, who worked as an assistant at Texas Christian last year, has specifically taken on the challenge of constructing Arkansas linebacking corps. It’s no secret the position is one of Arkansas’ biggest question marks after a season plagued by serious depth issues because of injuries and other problems.
But Shannon said he’s excited about the challenge of molding his new group.
“I tell all the guys, we’re all in this together,” Shannon said last week. “You can’t make this a deal where it’s a business and everybody is uptight. You have to be loose. You have to try to understand what we’re trying to get done. Have fun.
“If you don’t like your job, you’re not going to do your job very well if you don’t like it. So my biggest thing is keeping the guys loose, having fun, but learn.”
Bielema said after the first week of practice it was clear the linebacker position had the most room for growth. He and the rest of the staff have confidence in Shannon’s abilities to improve the group, which includes Tavarres and returning linebackers like Otha Peters, A.J. Turner, Jarrett Lake, Daunte Carr and Robert Atiga.
“A lot of people think he's here because of his past sand being the head coach at the University of Miami and a D-coordinator and all that,” Arkansas defensive coordinator Chris Ash said last week. “That stuff's great, but I wanted Randy Shannon because he's a great teacher. His principles and beliefs on how to coach and teach linebackers fit with what we wanted with our scheme.
“That's why he's here, and he's done a great job with those guys. He's a great coach, great teacher, great mentor for those young linebackers at that position.”
Shannon has been experimenting with combinations at linebacker through two weeks of practices, putting numerous players in various positions. Minor injuries to Turner (broken wrist) and Peters (sore hip) have created some new looks as well.
Atiga and Carr logged snaps at middle linebacker during last Saturday’s 74-play scrimmage. Tavarres and Lake have garnered praise for their early work at the outside positions. Austin Jones, Jerry Mitchell, Braylon Mitchell and Price Holmes have also worked in the rotation at linebacker spring.
Tavarres said working with Shannon has “been a pleasure” for everyone.
“He loves to joke around, but then he's so serious with practice,” Tavarres said last week. “Just working with him one-on-one, I've gotten a lot better. Then how he works with the team, the linebackers, it's amazing to see him work and I'm really blessed I've got the chance to work with him.”
There has been plenty of shuffling. But it’s a calculated move.
Shannon told a story about his most decorated pupil at Miami to prove the point last week. Lewis — who recently retired after an illustrious career with the Baltimore Ravens — started out playing weakside linebacker for the Hurricanes.
“I'm like, ‘Man, this guy's not very good,’” Shannon said. “And a guy got hurt at the middle linebacker position. We put (Lewis) at middle linebacker, the next week he was a starter and he started ever since. That's how his history went.
“You're trying to find the chemistry of guys to work together and also find what best fits them. Sometimes you never know who's going to play what position. But when somebody clicks and they do well, then you know that's the position for them.”
Shannon and the defensive staff have nine more practices this spring to evaluate what linebackers fit best in what positions. Bielema said he expects junior college transfer Martrell Speights and incoming freshman Brooks Ellis to factor into the depth chart as well when they arrive on campus later this summer.
Arkansas has a long way to go to become a prominent linebacking corps like the ones Shannon was used to seeing during his long career with the Hurricanes.
But Peters is confident the Razorbacks will improve with Shannon leading them.
“I couldn’t ask for a better coach,” Peters said. “He lets us play. He coaches, but he also lets us have fun and do what we do.”