The task of replacing Ken Hamlin falls to at least three players

Updated: August 13, 2003, 3:22 AM ET

FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. -- After several years of one-player domination at free safety, the Razorbacks are now looking for a couple of players to step in for Ken Hamlin, leaving for the NFL, and Kenoy Kennedy before him.

Now that the All-Southeastern Conference Hamlin is challenging to start in the Seattle Seahawks' secondary, replacing Arkansas' career leader in tackles is shaping up as a three-way battle among Tony Bua, Lerinezo Robinson and Vickiel Vaughn.

"We have no idea who's first, who's second or who's third," Bua said Tuesday during Arkansas' media day. "That's fine with us and I really don't think we want to know.... We don't look at it as competition. We just look at it like we need to be two and three deep at every position."

Since Hamlin rarely missed a play, his replacement won't have much experience playing free safety. Bua has been an outside linebacker most of his career. Robinson was a special teams stalwart as a freshman, scoring a touchdown on a fumbled kickoff against Ole Miss.

Vaughn, from Plano, Texas, spent most of his freshman season on special teams. He received a lot of work with Jimarr Gallon at free safety during the spring when Bua and Robinson were recovering from surgeries.

Bobby Allen, who coaches free safeties and the cornerbacks, said someone may start, but he would like to have two players ready to play.

"We've got to develop two-deep at that free safety position. I don't care who ends up being the so-called starter," Allen said. "There's going to have to be another guy who can come in at any time and spell because by the time Kenny ran into the LSU game ... he was beat up."

Gallon split time with Bua at outside linebacker last year, so he will play there this fall if Bua is at free safety. However, Gallon could also see time at free safety.

"From what coaches are telling me, we all three could start, but we're just going to try to find some kind of rotation," said Robinson, who made 19 tackles last year.

While no one has an indication how the battle will end, everyone likely will be on the field somewhere.

"We've just got to keep working that out with the best young men on the field," Arkansas coach Houston Nutt said. "We've got some good candidates there."

Whoever plays will be called on to limit the number of big pass plays that plagued Arkansas last year. The Razorbacks were second in the SEC with 19 interceptions, but they were last in pass defense at 234.5 yards a game and they allowed 12 touchdown passes of 20 yards or more.

Bua, a senior from Louisiana, will be a leader no matter where he plays. He made 131 tackles last year, his second straight season with more than 100 tackles, and he earned second-team All-SEC honors.

The 5-foot-11, 218-pound Bua is also one of the toughest players on team. He played the last half of the season with a separated shoulder that required surgery in the offseason. He also had surgery on a hernia, causing him to miss contact during spring drills.

"I don't know how it's going to work out, but I'm going to do my best not to give up big plays," Bua said. "I may not wind up at free safety. I may end up back at outside linebacker, so I'm just going to do whatever the coaches ask me to do to help make this team a better football team."

Bua says he's impressed with Robinson, who combined to rush and pass for 3,100 yards and 24 touchdowns his senior year at Mayflower in 2000.

"Lerinezo Robinson is a great player," Bua said. "He's got more athletic ability than almost anyone else on this football team."

Free safety has become a marquee position at Arkansas with players such as Steve Atwater, Kennedy and Hamlin moving to the NFL as high draft picks.

Hamlin made 381 tackles and nine interceptions in three seasons. Nutt said he would rather watch Hamlin play his senior year as a Razorback, but he understands the lure of a multimillion dollar contract that came with being a second-round draft pick.

"I can't get used to losing these juniors," Nutt said. "I'd be feeling a little bit different if we had Kenny Hamlin back there at free safety."

Bua said trying to replace Hamlin would be a fruitless endeavor.

"You can't replace Ken Hamlin," Bua said. "Ken Hamlin couldn't replace Kenoy Kennedy and Kenoy Kennedy couldn't replace Steve Atwater. Everybody plays the game differently. I'm sure I won't have as many tackles as Ken, but I'm going to do my best not to give up any big plays."

This story is from ESPN.com's automated news wire. Wire index