FAYETTEVILLE — Tenarius Wright was supposed to anchor Arkansas’ defense.
The senior moved from defensive end to middle linebacker last spring, sliding into a position manned by Jerry Franklin most of his career. It was a spot Wright played in high school and one Arkansas believed he could excel at after getting practice repetitions under his belt. It’s a spot the Razorbacks needed him, too, with little depth or experience at linebacker outside of senior Alonzo Highsmith.
It became clear the move hadn’t work last week, though, when Arkansas revealed Wright returned to defensive end. It’s a change Wright addressed Wednesday.
“It’s no reason to hold my head down at all,” Wright said.
Wright’s struggles are just part of the problems plaguing a defense that ranks 99th in the nation (458.8 yards a game). Coach John L. Smith said the issue hasn’t simply been his performance, either, indicating the senior has been dealing with neck stingers that have hindered his ability to produce at the position.
Either way, the Razorbacks don’t plan to sulk about the change of plans.
Their goal, instead, is to get Wright back to form at his previous position.
“We can get some use out of him, some mileage out of him and get him back where he’s used to playing and then maybe take some of the banging off of him,” Smith said. “Hopefully we can get him in the game and get him playing a lot more.”
The senior didn’t contribute much during Arkansas’ 35-26 loss to Rutgers last Saturday, watching starters Trey Flowers and Chris Smith work at the position. But Wright believes there’s much more planned for him Saturday, when Arkansas (1-3, 0-1 in SEC) tries to snap its three-game losing streak against the Aggies (2-1, 0-1).
There’s no doubt Arkansas needs the team captain. The senior is one of Arkansas’ most experienced players and has 20 tackles for losses and 9 sacks in his career.
So defensive coordinator Paul Haynes believes Wright can be valuable in a hybrid position, getting chances to play defensive end and linebacker. But it’s pretty clear his first duties, at this point in the season, will come at defensive end.
“That’s his natural position,” Haynes said. “So I’m sure he feels comfortable there. … He’s a versatile guy that can still play linebacker for us at times, but also can play down at that defensive end spot.
“Depending on what kind of offense we see, our package that we want that week you may see Tank moved around a lot the rest of the year.”
Wright ranks fourth on the team in tackles this season (25), but Smith said the collisions have taken a toll on his performance. It dated back to preseason camp, when Wright was sidelined for two weeks and limited longer because of a stinger.
“Tank has had some problems with his neck, in particular some stingers and numbness and things like that,” Smith said. “A lot of that has come, we believe, through backing him off of the ball and collisions are maybe much more violent than let’s say his collisions would be on the ball playing on the line of scrimmage.
“So our thinking is with that to try and keep him healthy, let’s put him back at the defensive end spot where he’s made his name and played most of his career, and see if that doesn’t help.”
Wright was asked if the missed time in preseason camp had an impact on his performance at linebacker. He didn’t think it “hurt” him, but acknowledged it eliminated some valuable practice time at the position.
“I had some trouble out in space,” Wright said. “That just comes with the position and comes with practicing. For me, myself, it was basically take every day as an opportunity to get better. … It was brand new.”
Wright’s performance the rest of the way could be key in Arkansas turning things around. The Razorbacks haven’t gotten the pass rush they’d hoped from new starters Chris Smith and Trey Flowers to this point. Wright will get a chance to help.
Meanwhile, Highsmith is now teaming with Terrell Williams at linebacker. The seniors are being backed up by freshmen Otha Peters and A.J. Turner.
It’s a far cry from what anyone expected in preseason practice, when Arkansas planned on Wright settling into the middle linebacker position.
But Wright said he’s taking it all in stride. He just wants to help Arkansas take a step forward defensively and end its three-game slide.
“My first season playing linebacker was this year so just going back to what I was doing the past three or four years is no problem at all,” Wright said.