Tom Murphy is a reporter for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. A graduate of Louisiana Tech University, he is a member of the Football Writers Association of America, and voter for the Heisman Trophy and AP Top 25 football poll.
Bielema pops jabs, wisecracks
NWA Media/MICHAEL WOODS --02/06/2013-- 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 in Fayetteville to talk about the new Razorback players.
FAYETTEVILLE Arkansas Coach Bret Bielema spent a portion of his time reviewing footage of the Razorbacks’ signees with media members on national signing day taking good-natured pokes at himself and the signees and generally enjoying himself, which marked a vast departure from his typically dour predecessor Bobby Petrino.
When a mug shot of ace tight end signee Hunter Henry appeared on the screen, Bielema cracked, “Hunter Henry, going for the hairdo of the year award … is a great kid and a part of Arkansas football. His dad [Mark] played here.”
Later, when Greenwood receiver Drew Morgan’s picture appeared on the screen, Bielema said, “also a runner-up for hairdo of the year award.”
As clips played featuring junior-college cornerback Carroll Washington, with his hair flowing out from under his helmet, Bielema said, “I think we’ve officially introduced dreadlocks to Arkansas football, too.”
Commenting on receiver Melvinson Hartfield running a jet sweep, Bielema said, “Once he gets his foot in the ground and gets himself going north and south, there ain’t nobody going to grab him - especially on a highlight film.”
When guard signee Reeve Koehler pancaked a defender and landed on him, Bielema commented, “That guy can find out what 330 pounds of Hawaiian feels like on top of him.”
Speaking at a signing night event at the Town Center in Fayetteville and addressing the fact that Arkansas swung a couple of Kansas State commitments to Arkansas, Bielema cracked, “Maybe I should have someone start my car for me tonight,” according to CBSSports.com’s Dennis Dodd, who attended the event.
Arkansas Coach Bret Bielema’s laid-back demeanor has been evident not only in his public appearances, but also by the coaches he works with every day.
Cornerbacks coach Taver Johnson, the staff’s lone holdover from last season, recognized the change in culture in the corridors of the Broyles Center from when Bobby Petrino was coach.
“I think that the guys understand, ‘Let’s embrace it,” he said. “You know, we want to see our guys all the time. We want to be around them all the time.
They don’t feel like it’s a principal’s office, you know what I mean?
“They feel like this is part of their building, where they can go in any point in time and they won’t be judged.
They won’t be cast away, so to speak. And that’s the key, just to make sure that they understand that we know they’re people.”
Hi to Collins
Top tailback signee Alex Collins, who gained notoriety by signing with Arkansas the day after his mother Andrea McDonald caused a stir by refusing to sign his national letter of intent, has been getting national publicity in the days since, including a story on the front of USA Today’s Friday sports section.
Additionally, several former Razorbacks have wished him well via Twitter.
Wrote basketball star Ronnie Brewer, “Great decision kid.”
Former Hog running back Felix Jones responded, “Welcome to Hog nation.”
Collins wore a camouflage suit and tie to his signing ceremony Thursday, writing on Twitter, “I’m glad this is over a lot of weight off my shoulders happy to be a hog! The camp suit was for the fans !!”
Arkansas defensive coordinator Chris Ash said he would formulate his own opinion on defensive players rather than simply judging them from last year’s film.
“Once we get a chance to work with them on a daily basis, then I’ll get an idea of what they can do and can’t do, what their strengths and weaknesses are,” Ash said.
“I don’t want anybody to get me to prejudge kids based on what they’ve done in the past. The past is not going to determine their future with us.”
Arkansas netted four offensive linemen in its signing class, and the group is starting out at SEC size, with 6-10, 295-pound Dan Skipper; 6-5, 320-pound Denver Kirkland; 6-3, 325-pound Reeve Koehler; and 6-4, 310-pound junior college signee Johnathan McClure.
“You can have a full year [to recruit] and not get as good a class as we just got on the O-line,” said Razorbacks offensive line coach Sam Pittman, who played a big role in landing the big men.
“We needed offensive linemen,” said linebackers coach Randy Shannon, who recruited the highly sought after Kirkland. “That was the biggest thing we felt like we had to come in and do.
Denver is a key for what our offensive success is going to be in the future.”
In discussions with Kirkland’s mother, Shannon said he discovered he knew her uncle and that she knew some of his family in south Florida.
Arkansas coaches said they knew they needed two tailbacks to supplement a short list of returning backs that consisted of two scholarship sophomores - Jonathan Williams and Nate Holmes - plus combo back Kody Walker, who is recovering from a broken leg, and fullback Kiero Small.
By securing Alex Collins and Denzel Evans, the Razorbacks could be on course to their next great backfield group.
Asked about the 6-0, 205-pound Evans on signing day, running backs coach Joel Thomas said, “He’s coming in ready to go to carry the rock. I wouldn’t have recruited him if I didn’t think he could contribute right away. We are not in a position to have a developmental player there right now. We have to get guys that are competitive and want to play today.” Two pair
Arkansas offensive coordinator Jim Chaney will have two Allens and a pair of Mitchells in the crowded quarterback derby.
The race for the starter’s spot is sure to spark debate in the spring.
The contenders include senior Brandon Mitchell, sophomore Brandon Allen, freshmen Austin Allen and Damon Mitchell, sophomore Taylor Reed and transfer A.J. Derby, who has already enrolled in school. The Allens are brothers, but the Mitchells are unrelated.
“We got one quarterback who has proven he can set in the pocket, wing it around and win championships,” he said, referring to Austin Allen. “We got another quarterback who is a piece of clay I’m looking forward to molding. I think [Damon Mitchell] is a super talent with great character.” Recruiting ground
Bret Bielema did not officially announce recruiting territories for his coaches on national signing day, saying those decisions would be reached in the coming days. However, he made it clear certain long-held ground by some coaches would come into play, such as the productive work by Florida natives Randy Shannon and Charlie Partridge in that state.
“It would be a natural for me to keep Coach Shannon and Coach Partridge in Florida,” he said. “They are well-versed in that area.
“Coach [Sam] Pittman is from Oklahoma. Coach [Barry] Lunney is from here and played in the state. He’ll be here in the state. Coach [Joel] Thomas has been in Texas. Coach [Michael] Smith has been in Texas. We’ll work ourselves through that over the next couple of weeks.”
Bielema said the Razorbacks would also get into nontraditional areas, such as Wisconsin, the Chicago area, Cincinnati and New Jersey.
Arkansas running backs coach Joel Thomas’ wife, Ebbie, gave birth to the couple’s second son, Niko Xavier Thomas, on Monday, two days before signing day.
Thomas, a running back at Idaho, and Ebbie, a pole vaulter at Purdue, had their first son, Teyo, when Joel was an assistant at Washington. Ebbie was given permission to travel and she gave birth to Niko in Fayetteville.
“We were able to have our baby here, a little Razorback baby,” Thomas said. “I’m a Vandal, my wife’s a Boilermaker, my oldest is a Husky and he’s a Razorback. We’re all over the place with our family.”
Thomas said recruiting and family-building make for busy days.
“Since Jan. 1, it’s been a really hectic ride, and I don’t complain one bit,” he said.
“There’s days I wake up in a hotel room and wonder, ‘Where am I at?’
“It’s nice to finally be calmed down, now that we’re through with the process ... spend some time with the family. We’ve got a little time off [this] week.
And then get to know my players. They’ve been so supportive and great.”
Sports, Pages 28 on 02/10/2013