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Cohesive senior group leads Arkansas defense

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Wednesday, Jan. 4, 2012, at 6:03 p.m.
  • Updated Friday, Jan. 6, 2012, at 2:44 p.m.

WHAT DO YOU THINK?

What happens in the Cotton Bowl?


ARLINGTON, Texas — The meetings, arranged through phone calls and texts, switch locations frequently.

But the location isn't the most important thing for the players at the heart of the Arkansas defense.

In this case, it's the company.

"We might come to my house, we might come to somebody else's house," Arkansas defensive end Tenarius Wright said. "And when we do, we just take that time to figure out what's going on in each other's lives. It might be good, it might be bad... but we've always felt like once you understand the problems that your friends are going through, you understand them a little better."

Friday's Cotton Bowl will be the last time out, together, for five Razorbacks who have brought the program back to national prominence — senior linebacker Jerry Franklin, senior defensive end Jake Bequette, senior safety Tramain Thomas, senior safety/linebacker Jerico Nelson and Wright, who redshirted in 2008 while the others were playing their freshman seasons.

"That bond is crazy, we've been here for four years so we're all like best friends," said Franklin, who leads the team with 93 tackles. "Most of our time is spent on football, sure, but when we're not playing football we're together, too."

Bequette, Franklin, Thomas and Nelson are four-year starters. Thomas leads the team in interceptions and Bequette leads the team in sacks. Franklin and Bequette are also two-year captains.

"We've really grown close to each other over that time," Bequette said. "Through the ups and downs, we've always been there for each other."

Those ups and downs included a 5-7 season in 2008, coach Bobby Petrino's first year. And sometimes the learning curve proved to be steep.

"To be together as freshman, to start so fast, I guess we all got fussed at together by the coaches at the same time," Nelson said. "And then, as sophomores, juniors and seniors we all started to get better... we stuck together. We all had the same motivating factors."

Petrino thinks the group not only jump-started his tenure, but laid the groundwork for future Razorbacks to be successful.

"We took our lumps that first year and we kept practicing hard, kept practicing with a good attitude and we took all that into the offseason," Petrino said. "At first it was just like... how could we survive? Then it was, how could we get better, how can we improve? Now (the seniors) are the ones who get the younger players to understand what it takes."

The young Razorbacks improved quickly, going 8-5 and picking up a Liberty Bowl win over East Carolina in the 2009 season. Last year, Arkansas was 10-3, won the SEC West and lost to Ohio State in the Sugar Bowl. The Razorbacks are 10- 2 headed into Friday's game, with the only losses coming to BCS title opponents Alabama and LSU.

"It's to the point where we don't have to think about what the other guys are doing on the field... we just know," Thomas said. "This last month has been emotional for sure, ever since we found out we were going to play our last game together in the Cotton Bowl."

Reach Tony Adame at 316-268-6284 or tadame@wichitaeagle.com.

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