FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas linebacker Martrell Spaight didn’t see his teammate.

FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas linebacker Martrell Spaight didn’t see his teammate.


When the senior delivered a big hit on Northern Illinois quarterback Drew Hare last Saturday, he had no idea Brooks Ellis was caught in the line of fire, too. It was only after the collision knocked Ellis out of the game that Spaight figured it out.


"He just looked at me like, ‘Spaight, come on man,’" Spaight said. "I’m like, ‘What happened?’ He said, ‘You hit me.’ I was just like, ‘I did?’"


The injury has been the only hiccup in what has become an important working relationship on Arkansas’ defense this season.


The duo, after going through their share of growing pains last season, have been solid in manning the middle of the defense during the Razorbacks three-game win streak. They’ve been strong against the run, equally effective against the pass and are ranked first and second on the team in tackles after four games.


The two linebackers will play a key role again when Arkansas (3-1, 0-1 in SEC) plays sixth-ranked Texas A&M (4-0, 1-0 in SEC) in Arlington’s AT&T Stadium. The Aggies are averaging 612.5 yards and 52.2 points a game, which rank second in the nation.


But defensive coordinator Robb Smith believes his starting linebackers are up for the challenge as they lead a group trying to defend the dangerous attack.


"I think those two have a really good feel for each other, where the other guy is out on the field," Arkansas defensive coordinator Robb Smith said. "They work well in tandem. … I think we’re making strides at inside linebacker position and we’re going to certainly need it this week as well."


Arkansas has relied primarily on a scheme that has required extra defensive backs to defend spread offenses, leaving Spaight and Ellis as the only linebackers on the field most of the season. But both players have looked much more comfortable in the role after feeling their way through last season.


Ellis, who has returned to practice and is expected to play Saturday after being knocked out of the Northern Illinois game by Spaight, barely played the first eight games of 2013. But Arkansas plugged the true freshman into the starting lineup at middle linebacker for the final four games and he finished with 33 tackles.


He has 24 tackles, 3 ½ for losses and four pass break ups this season. All four break ups came in Arkansas’ 49-28 win at Texas Tech. Coach Bret Bielema said he doesn’t remember a linebacker getting his hands on the ball that much in one game.


Ellis said it’s a product of understanding and following the game plan.


"We definitely know what we were doing," Ellis said last week about the success of the linebackers. "We were just flying around out there and making plays."


Spaight, meanwhile, has become a better all-around player after being well known as a hard hitter. The junior college transfer admitted his aggressiveness was used against him by opponents, but his overall skills as a linebacker have evolved.


Arkansas linebackers coach Randy Shannon said Spaight — who had 22 tackles in nine games in 2013 — has a better feel for the defense and his responsibilities.


"Now he’s adjusted," Shannon said. "He’s doing a great job for us. He’s playing the game. His film study has been unbelievable, what he’s been having to do, and also getting the younger guys to understand the importance of doing the small things."


The linebacker turned in, arguably, the biggest play of the game in the 49-28 win at Texas Tech. He intercepted a pass by quarterback Davis Webb late in the second quarter, setting up a touchdown that helped the Hogs lead 28-21 at halftime.


Ellis said Spaight, who has a team-high 30 tackles, has been "unbelievable" this year.


"In fall camp, you could see it coming," Ellis said. "He’s just so energetic in practice. He’s always flying around in practice, and it shows up on the field on game day."


Ellis knows firsthand now, after being knocked out of the Northern Illinois game.


Spaight said the two have carried a friendly competition onto the field this season, challenging each other to make the most plays on a weekly basis. Spaight inadvertently made sure he won the competition against Northern Illinois after taking out his teammate with the big hit on Hare.


"We’d prefer that he’d Spaight the other team," Smith said.


But Spaight apologized and was relieved to see Ellis on the practice field earlier this week. He wants Ellis to join him on the field against Texas A&M.


"We feel great together," Spaight said. "We go out there on the football field and we just have that connection from last year. It’s easy for us to communicate with each other and everything just goes well with me and him on the field together.


"So it’s great having Brooks out there on the football field with me."