FAYETTEVILLE — Redshirt freshman linebacker Chris “Pooh” Paul has gone from being a backup to one of the key voices in the defensive room at Arkansas.

With Drew Sanders declaring for the 2023 NFL Draft and opting out of the AutoZone Liberty Bowl as well as Bumper Pool undergoing hip surgery Paul is now one of the leaders of Arkansas’ defense.

“Yes sir, it’s kind of different out there,” Paul said. “But you know players that were behind them and players in the front seven and things like that, they all took what they learned from the guys that’s in front of them and we all transformed. We just base ourselves on leadership. Everybody has to talk and everybody has to get their point across in order for us to be successful on defense.”

In 12 games this season, Paul has 50 tackles, 31 solo, eight for loss, four sacks, two quarterback hurries, forced a fumble and recovered one. But with Pool and Sanders out of this game, Paul knows his role has grown.

“Oh yeah, definitely,” Paul said. “With me playing a bigger role now with Drew Sanders and Bumper Pool gone and things like that, I feel like I have to put more emphasis on leadership and put more emphasis on things like that. So I’ve been trying to do that throughout the last few practices and things like that.”

Sam Pittman talked about the linebacker situation on Friday noting that true freshman Jordan Crook will join Paul in the starting lineup against Kansas.

“You know I think Mani Powell would be a guy, certainly,” Pittman said. “Brooks Both is a guy as well. (Jackson) Woodard has played special teams all the time, so he’ll have to move up to that three or four linebacker spot. So you’ve got Pooh and Crook and those two guys and with Mani Powell and Woodard those would be probably your four guys there. And of course Kaden Henley’s going to have to step up as well.”

Paul talked about how the younger guys have impressed him in the practices to this point.

“Yeah, like Crook, playing with him in the bowl game, I think that these guys have really been waiting on their opportunity to shine,” Paul said. “They’ve been putting the work in. So I’m very confident in those guys, knowing they’re going to play their best and go out there and give it their all. These past two practices, just seeing Crook fly around, seeing Woody and Mani Powell fly around and letting their voices be heard and things like that, so that made me very confident in them.

“So I feel confident in them, and including even people like Nico Davillier up front, he’s been doing a pretty good job. And in the secondary and things like that. So I just feel confident in everybody that’s on the field. Everybody’s been putting the work in and everybody’s confident in their roles.”

Paul said he feels Davillier, a true freshman from Maumelle, will have a role in the bowl game. Paul knows Kansas is targeting this game to make a statement and have had much few opt outs than the Hogs. In addition, this will be Kansas’ first bowl game in several years.

“Oh definitely,” Paul said. “Like I said, we’re all excited for this game. This is a huge game for us. This game right here is basically really our statement game to end out the season right here, so like I said, everybody’s confident, everybody’s excited. I feel like we’re going to match their energy.”

Paul’s position coach, Michael Scherer, will serve as the defensive coordinator for the bowl game.

“It’s huge to me,” Paul said. “Coach Scherer, he knows the standard and pushes that every day. Just like Coach (Barry) Odom was still here the way and things like that the way he structures everything. He’s out there coaching up everybody. I know it’s a little bit of a change for him having to step up to this role and coach linebackers also the whole defense. But he’s been doing a great job with that. He knows the plays and everything so everyone is comfortable with him calling plays and stuff like that. I like it.”

Paul started the Missouri game to end the regular season so he has that first start out of the way going into the bowl game.

“I think I got very comfortable,” Paul said. “Not just the Missouri game, but games throughout the season when I was getting limited playing time behind Bumper Pool and things like that. Like I always say just watching them maneuver made me confident in myself. I think the Missouri game with me starting in that game and actually having a great game as well that just brought way more confidence to me. I know I can do this, I know my voice can be heard, I know I can check this and that and stuff like that. I feel like my confidence level Missouri game boosted it even more for me and that’s going to translate over to Kansas.”

The Razorbacks will enter the Kansas game missing 18 players from the season. Paul talked about what it’s like not seeing several familiar faces in the locker room.

“We all have great relationships with those guys even though they’re in the portal,” Paul said. “We still talk to them and things like that because, for us, we play football, but it’s about family first with us so we still keep that bond with them. We hope they have the best of luck wherever they end up. That’s still our brothers and things like that. It’s kind of weird not having them in there. Not seeing the same faces you would see everyday, but in the end man we are still proud of them, love them and wish them the best of the luck wherever they do.”

Arkansas and Kansas will kickoff at 4:30 p.m. on Wednesday, Dec. 28, in the AutoZone Liberty Bowl. The game will be televised on ESPN. Both enter the game with 6-6 records.