Tom Murphy has covered the Razorbacks for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette since 2007. He has more than 25 years experience covering college athletics in Louisiana, Alabama and Arkansas.
Arkansas makes its push
University of Arkansas head football coach Bret Bielema talks about the 22 players who committed to the Razorbacks as he conducts a press conference Wednesday afternoon.
FAYETTEVILLE Arkansas’ 22-player national signing day haul provided a clear indication where the Razorbacks are headed under Coach Bret Bielema.
Arkansas targeted and signed high-caliber offensive linemen and went after top rated running backs to begin reshaping its roster toward stronger run-game personnel and a more balanced offense. The Razorbacks also loaded up with linebackers and defensive backs to help restock positions of need on that side of the ball.
“The thing that I’m excited about is that it fits our needs in certain positions,” Bielema said. “There are kids in this class that have five stars and there are kids in this class that have two stars. What I’ve learned is everybody … gets one paper and that everybody signs one scholarship.
“We are going to bring them in here and work them. We are going to grind them. We are going to turn them into the young men that they can be. We are going to turn them into the football players that they can be.”
Bielema and his staff scored well in Arkansas with eight in-state signees, including three from Fayetteville High School - quarterback Austin Allen, safety Alex Brignoni and safety Brooks Ellis.
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The Razorbacks also showed their recruiting chops in Florida were bonafide, landing top safety De’Andre Coley and talent in the trenches in defensive tackle Ke’Tyrus Marks and offensive guard Denver Kirkland. The Razorbacks also received an oral commitment from Alex Collins, who is regarded as the nation’s top running back by 247Sports.com, but Collins postponed his signing day news conference Wednesday.
The 22-man class was ranked as high as No. 22 by 247Sports.com, No. 31 by Rivals.com and No. 34 by Scout.com, and the Razorbacks have three spots left to fill in the coming days. The Razorbacks’ class ranked ninth among SEC schools according to 247Sports.com, and it was ranked 12th by Rivals.com and Scout.com.
The new Razorbacks staff emerged pleased, considering how late they got started.
“In three weeks we put together a class, and that’s hard to do,” linebackers coach Randy Shannon said. “In three weeks, to put together the class that we did, I thought was wonderful.”
The class features 11 defensive players, 10 offensive players and junior college punter Sam Irwin-Hill, who can kick with either foot.
“This class that Coach put together here today? I think it’s absolutely amazing,” offensive coordinator Jim Chaney said. “It truly is. We got in here, I don’t know when, about the middle of December, and we hit the ground running and haven’t stopped since.”
Cornerbacks Coach Taver Johnson, the lone returnee on the staff, echoed Bielema’s position that prior recruiting relationships helped the staff put together a quality class.
“I think when they came in and they really got around our staff, they really got around Coach Bielema, they got around our players, they could feel that something special is getting ready to happen,” Johnson said.
Along with Collins’ delay, there was more signing day intrigue as Kirkland chose the Hogs live on ESPNU. Analysts generally expected him to end up at Florida State after Miami pulled its scholarship offer last week.
“He called me about 30 minutes before he was going to go on TV and he said he was coming, but still it was good to see him put that hat on and say he was coming,” said offensive line coach Sam Pittman, who teamed with Shannon as the lead recruiters on Kirkland.
Arkansas also secured quarterback Damon Mitchell, a 6-2, 200, from Egg Harbor City, N.J., on signing day.
Tight end Hunter Henry, rated the No. 1 tight end prospect in the country by Tom Lemming of CBS Sports.com, and Kirkland, rated the No. 5 guard in America by Scout.com, are Arkansas’ highest-rated signees with Collins on hold.
“Whoa, it’s big,” Chaney said of landing Kirkland on signing day. “My history here in this conference, it’s difficult to find kids that you think might play tackle. It’s as hard as any position out there. Finding a tackle is hard. They’re invaluable.”
The Razorbacks convinced some players to flip their commitments late in the process, closed strongly in Florida and landed a late instate player in Osceola safety Korliss Marshall, who they think is a diamond in the rough.
“I think they’ve done well closing here at the end getting some guys away from other schools,” said Lemming, who rated Arkansas’ class at No. 27 without Collins. “I’m really interested in seeing how this staff will recruit when they have a full year to go through the process.”
The class stretched from coast to coast, with signees from New Jersey to Oregon, and beyond. Offensive lineman Reeve Koehler played at the highly regarded Saint Louis School in Honolulu, and Irwin-Hill of City College of San Francisco is from Australia.
The Razorbacks’ group of offensive linemen has a chance to make its mark, much like Bielema’s lines at Wisconsin.
Kirkland, 6-5, 320, isjoined by Koehler, 6-3, 325, Dan Skipper, 6-10, 295, and junior-college signee Johnathan McClure, 6-4, 310, as newcomers on that unit.
“It was important to get the big guys so we could pound the football at you if we wanted to, but they needed to be athletic enough where we can get the ball outside and pass protect and those things,” Pittman said. “I think they fit the bill for both of those.”
Bielema and his staff made the final three-week push to put together most of Arkansas’ class, which came after most of the Hogs coaches had worked at assembling classes at their previous jobs.
“They’re laying the groundwork to bringing in a Wisconsin-style offense: A powerful running game behind big linemen,” Lemming said. “They’ll recruit nationally and bringin their skill talent from the South.”
Arkansas’ bounty of instate players also featured receiver Drew Morgan of Greenwood and defensive end Tevin Beanum of Forrest City. Linebacker Martrell Spaight of North Little Rock, who signed in January, will come in with the class in the summer rather than with Arkansas’ other junior college signees - Tiquention Coleman, Johnathan McClure, Myke Tavarres and Carroll Washington - who are already enrolled in classes.
Sports, Pages 19 on 02/07/2013