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Two Hogs and a UCA Bear Make NFL Debuts

Counting former Razorback Jeremiah Ledbetter, Arkansas had three defensive players on NFL field at same time Thursday night
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CANTON, Ohio – For former Arkansas Razorbacks Jeremiah Ledbetter, Grant Morgan and Montaric Brown, plus Central Arkansas Bear Lujuan Winningham, the wait to begin the new NFL season required an extra 40 minutes. 

An influx of rain and lightning rolled in shortly before the annual Hall of Fame Game kickoff between Jacksonville and Las Vegas was supposed to take place, not only delaying the start, but also the beginning of careers for Morgan, Brown and Winningham.

Ledbetter, a product of the Bret Bielema era, came in around the seven minute mark of the first quarter and immediately crashed the entire back side of the offensive line from his defensive tackle position. On the following play, he drew and occupied a double-team to free up former Georgia Bulldog linebacker turned No. 1 draft pick Travon Walker for his first tackle of the season. 

As the quarter ended, Ledbetter looked the part of a solid roster player. He continued to eat space, keep linemen off the second level and get solid push when warranted. 

He was then given the opportunity to play the entire second quarter plus most of the second half, putting plenty of quality film for Jacksonville coaches to review.

The 2016 graduate has added 20 pounds since college and a powerful punch on his bull rush that has made him a force to be reckoned with while firmly entrenching him with an expected role in the defense. 

Brown found playing time on special teams early in the first half before getting plenty of second quarter and second half reps in the secondary. 

Once in, the rookie was thrown at immediately. Brown played it perfectly as he avoided the infamous NFL pass interference call while extending with his left hand to tip the ball enough keep the Raiders from apparently converting a third down.

However, the play was challenged and overturned. 

A few plays later, Brown had a chance to make a 3rd and 1 stop of running back Zamir White, but didn't quite get enough contact to make the tackle. 

On the following play, the Raiders went after him again, but Brown again proved he has the speed to stay with NFL receivers on long routes as he stayed tight and forced the incompletion on a well-thrown deep ball by Jarrett Stidham at the goal line.

Brown then proved his ability to be a sound tackler in the secondary on a quick pass over the middle. 

Morgan and Winningham didn't appear to touch the field in the first half, which is a major red flag for their odds of making the team. Not getting playing time in a throw away game like the Hall of Fame game, especially on special teams, speaks volumes on the reality of ever dressing out for a regular season NFL game. 

The second half of a game like this is a battle for a chance to maybe find a spot on the scout team.

When the third quarter rolled around, with two minutes left, Morgan finally took the field. This meant three Razorbacks were on the field for an NFL defense at the same time.

On his second play, Morgan had a chance to make an impression as he shed his blocker and stepped into the gap where White left him hugging air on his way to a big run.

However, by the time another opportunity presented itself on the next play, Morgan looked like his old self as he swarmed to the ball and helped make the tackle. It was enough to settle him down the rest of the game.

A few seconds later, Morgan, Brown and Winningham were on punt return together for what appeared to be an 89-yard return by Willie Johnson for a Jaguars touchdown. A flag negated the return as Arkansans watching the game held their breath hoping it wasn't one of the Arkansas three.

Fortunately for all three, none were guilty of the holding call.

Morgan also showed his determination after dropping into coverage and running down a receiver out of his zone when others thought he was down by touch, but wasn't.

A lot of the concern about Morgan is whether his speed is enough to keep up in the NFL. That didn't seem to be an issue either in the run game, nor pass coverage. 

Morgan came away with a big sack in the final two minutes and also, after missing on his first tackle, consistently made the play, including scraping and stepping into the correct gap again later to make the tackle. 

Jacksonville Jaguars linebacker Grant Morgan (55) sacks Las Vegas Raiders quarterback Chase Garbers (15) during the second half at Tom Benson Hall of Fame Stadium.

Jacksonville Jaguars linebacker Grant Morgan (55) sacks Las Vegas Raiders quarterback Chase Garbers (15) during the second half at Tom Benson Hall of Fame Stadium.

Perhaps the most important play he made was a tackle on a kick-off return in the fourth quarter because it showed he could be an asset in the third phase of the game.

Fresh off special teams, Winningham got his shot at receiver on offense. The former Bear did his best to put out quality film as he beat his man on his first two routes and demonstrated a strong blocking ability downfield on a running play.

Once quarterback Kyle Sloter finally went Winningham's way, it was an ill-advised throw on the run across his body over the middle that nearly got picked off. 

Winningham finally got a chance to make his first NFL reception on the next play as he came over the middle on third down and took a hard hit while holding onto the ball.

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On the following series, Winningham had a key block that broke a long gain by the running back. He then drew a pass interference on a deep sideline route that set up Jacksonville's only touchdown.

There is zero doubt that Ledbetter and Brown make the team barring a total meltdown. It's concerning that Morgan and Winningham found their way to the field when they did because of what that means for where coaches view players prior to the game.

However, Morgan eased some concerns and showed enough to where if he gets cut, it could be more about numbers at linebacker than him, which means he could get picked up on a practice squad or as a depth guy somewhere else. 

As for Winningham, his size, the fact he out-performed multiple receivers who made themselves easy targets for early cuts, and that he showed he's willing to dig in and do the dirty work in the run game greatly increases his chance at avoiding early cuts.

If he can continue to stack good performances when given the opportunity, Winningham is a legitimate dark horse candidate to squeeze into a roster spot as a 7th receiver should the team opt to keep that many.

Of course, fans don't get to see what goes on in practice. What's happening there has to match what's happening on the field, but if it does, there's hope.

Because Jacksonville gets the extra preseason game this year, barring something unexpected, all four players with Arkansas ties should play next week against Cleveland. Three days later, the team will have to make its first five official cuts.

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