FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas linebackers coach Taver Johnson saw a void early during spring practices, and it was one the Razorbacks needed to fill in the worst way.
Arkansas was in need of playmakers at linebacker following the graduation of four-year starter Jerry Franklin and an injury to starter Alonzo Highsmith that would force him to miss the rest of the spring.
The Razorbacks turned to veteran Tenarius Wright, and his transition from defensive end to middle linebacker could very well hold the key to the success of No. 10 Arkansas this season.
"Tank was the first guy, without a doubt," Johnson said. "He still has the defensive line in his heart, which is fine. He loved that, but I think he definitely has embraced his new role."
Wright hadn’t played linebacker since his senior year of high school in Tennessee, but he had been one of the Razorbacks’ top pass-rushing threats over the last three seasons. He was ninth in the Southeastern Conference in sacks two seasons ago with six, including a game-ending sack in a double-overtime win at Mississippi State.
Last season, Wright’s five quarterback hurries tied for the team lead even though he missed five games with an injury.
Wright enters this season as a relative unknown at his new position. He’s traded the singular focus of rushing the quarterback for backpedaling into pass coverage.
It’s not a job that usually holds the ultimate payoff of a sack, but it’s one Wright feels right at home doing.
"It’s just a natural thing for me," Wright said. "I played linebacker ever since I was in pee-wee ball. Coming out of high school and being recruited at linebacker, I still think I was a linebacker at heart when I was playing defensive end. Now that I’m back at linebacker, I still have that in my heart."
The Razorbacks were fifth in the SEC in sacks last season with 29, but they enter this season without top rushing threat Jake Bequette, who was selected in the third round of the NFL draft by the New England Patriots.
First-year defensive coordinator Paul Haynes said Wright’s move became a possibility because of the growth and talent of defensive ends Chris Smith, Trey Flowers and Colton Miles-Nash, along with the line’s depth overall.
Wright isn’t the only veteran who’s been moved to linebacker to try and add depth. Fullback Kiero Small has split time this preseason between offense and defense as the Razorbacks look to improve a defense that was ninth overall in the SEC last season.
"There’s no reason for those guys to be on the sideline when we are short at one position like linebacker, which everybody knows," Haynes said. "We’re just trying to find a way to get our best 11 on the field."
Wright said he worked all summer on preparing for his transition, particularly on improving his strength to cover opposing tight ends and receivers across the middle of the field. Now he expects that work to pay off, and for his linebacker traits to return.
"I trust my instincts, and they have gotten stronger now that I know where my help is on defense," Wright said. "Now I can really just let loose and run free."
Wright understands there will be an adjustment period for his return to linebacker, but he’s been aided by Highsmith. The outside linebacker led the Razorbacks with 12.5 tackles for losses last season and is fully recovered from the torn pectoral muscle that kept him out of the spring.
Highsmith also returned a fumble 47 yards for a touchdown at LSU last season, and he likes what he’s seen from Wright so far.
"We’ve spent a lot of time in the film room together," Highsmith said. "Us getting familiar with is over with, I think, and it’s not going to get anything but better as time goes on."