FAYETTEVILLE —Gaining weight was the emphasis for Arkansas linebacker Jarrett Lake’s first two seasons with the Razorbacks.
He was an undersized player coming out of Jenks (Okla.) High. He needed more weight and strength to compete at the position in the Southeastern Conference. The constant attention has helped Lake put on 15 or 20 pounds, but he’s still small for the linebacker position at 6-foot-3 and 220 pounds.
Arkansas isn’t harping on Lake’s weight anymore, though. In fact, the Razorbacks are finding value in Lake’s speed and athleticism at its "star" position.
"These past couple years I’ve struggled gaining weight," Lake said earlier this preseason. "So once they said they’d put me on the edge to just sit out there and make plays, I was like, ‘Let’s go.’ I’m glad to just be able to get out there and play."
Lake — who spent his first season as a little-used reserve with the linebackers appears close to wrapping up a starting position with the 2012 opener a week away.
While the focal point of the linebacking corps this preseason has been the health status of Alonzo Highsmith and Tenarius Wright, Lake has quietly emerged as a dependable player during Arkansas’ preseason practices. In fact, there’s a good chance he’ll line up alongside Wright and Highsmith against Jacksonville State.
"Jarrett’s done a nice job of learning the system," Arkansas linebackers coach Taver Johnson said. "He’s really done a nice job of taking to that outside position, and he’s started showing up and making plays. Confidence is unbelievable for a young man.
"When anyone gets confidence in what they’re doing, you see some results."
Johnson said Arkansas has helped Lake by backing off its push to put more weight on Lake to play an inside position. He’s a better fit on the outside and in the linebacker/safety hybrid spot, which is similar to the role Jerico Nelson played.
Lake stepped into the starting unit in the middle of preseason camp and has "settled into that star position," according to defensive coordinator Paul Haynes.
"We battled so long with him with his weight," Haynes said. "Get up here, get down there, and now he feels comfortable he doesn’t have to worry about that.
"I think he can real productive for us at that star position."
Lake has played in 18 games since joining the Razorbacks in 2010, but has compiled most of his 16 tackles on special teams. Arkansas has been looking for solutions at linebacker this preseason and Lake said he’s ready to help outside.
"I really do like outside linebacker," Lake said. "Most of the time I’m on the receiver. That’s the reason they have me out there, so I can be physical and stop plays from coming to the edge. I force it back to my help, which is inside."
The best part? Lake said he’s not asked about his weight any more.
He’s happy those concerns appear to be a thing of the past.
Now, Johnson said Arkansas wants Lake to concentrate on something else as he moves closer to a starting job with the Razorbacks.
"Now we have to work on consistency," Johnson said. "That’s the biggest thing when you’re a young guy and you haven’t played a lot. One good play is OK, you know, that’s good. If you back it up with two or three average plays and a bad play, then our production and everything else defensively can go down.
"So we have to work on his consistency right now and once we get that down I think he’ll see even more improvement."
Best of the Bunch: Alonzo Highsmith – The senior hasn’t been on the field much since the end of the 2011 season because of injuries, but Highsmith remains vital to the defense. The team’s leading returning tackler, who also returned a fumble for a touchdown against LSU, may be rusty when the season begins because of the missed practice time. But Highsmith is an All-SEC caliber performer if he can stay healthy.
Watch Out For: Otha Peters – Arkansas knew Peters would help when he chose the Razorbacks last winter. He hasn’t disappointed. Peters, in fact, has earned first-team repetitions throughout most of preseason practice because of injuries to Highsmith and Tenarius Wright. The work should prove valuable because Arkansas expects an immediate impact from Peters whether he starts or plays in a reserve role.
Biggest Strength: Arkansas won’t be hurting for leadership at the position with two team captains in Wright and Highsmith manning starting spots. The two returning starters (Wright, a former defensive end, is making his debut as a starter at linebacker) know what it takes to succeed on the field and will be asked to guide a team with plenty of inexperience elsewhere in its back seven.
Biggest Question: How well will Highsmith and Wright work together? The Razorbacks opened preseason camp expecting the duo to be key to their defensive success. Injuries have provided few opportunities to see them together. Highsmith missed the spring while Wright moved to linebacker. Both were sidelined the first two weeks of the preseason. So the acclimation process will take place on game day.
Projected Starters: WLB – Alonzo Highsmith, Sr.; MLB – Tenarius Wright, Sr.; SLB – Jarrett Lake, Jr.
Other Contributors: Terrell Williams, Sr.; Otha Peters, Fr.; Matt Marshall, Sr.; AJ Turner, Fr.; Braylon Mitchell, So.; Austin Jones, Jr.; Daunte Carr, So.
That Figures: 50 – Career starts for former Arkansas linebacker Jerry Franklin, who manned the middle of the field for four years. By comparison, Arkansas has 15 starts at linebacker combined from its 2012 group of linebackers Highsmith (13) and Terrell Williams (2) are the only Hogs with starts at linebacker.
Quotable: "We do a whole lot of stuff with walk-throughs. We do a whole lot of stuff with meetings. They’re not just sitting on the sideline doing nothing. There’s a lot of things we do that they get out there and get reps for us. That’s why it’s not a concern to me." — Defensive coordinator Paul Haynes on why he believes the practice time missed by Highsmith and Wright won’t be a problem early this season.