Matt Jones is the online sports editor for the Arkansas-Democrat-Gazette and Northwest Arkansas Newspapers.
Hogs look to boost Florida recruiting
Arkansas's Alex Collins runs during a Sept. 21, 2013 game against Rutgers at High Points Solutions Stadium in Pisctaway, N.J.
FAYETTEVILLE Arkansas travels to Florida this weekend looking not only for its first Southeastern Conference win under first-year coach Bret Bielema, but also mining for talent to help down the road.
The Razorbacks have uncharacteristically solid recruiting ties in Florida for a program nearly 1,000 miles from any of the state's borders. Bielema, defensive line coach Charlie Partridge and linebackers coach Randy Shannon are all well-versed in recruiting the Sunshine State.
Arkansas flexed its recruiting muscle there earlier this year, getting commitments from a pair of the state's top recruits, running back Alex Collins and offensive lineman Denver Kirkland, less than two months after Bielema took the job. Both players played significant time against Texas A&M last weekend, with Kirkland earning his first start and Collins rushing for more than 100 yards for the fourth time in his fifth career game.
"Any chance you have to go play in your home state, I think there's a personal side to getting ready for this game," said Partridge, a native of South Florida. "We've just go to keep their emotions under control with Denver getting his first start and Alex doing what he's doing. I think all the Florida guys are very excited to go back home and play in that state."
Shannon perhaps has the strongest ties to the state from his days as a player, assistant and head coach at Miami. The Miami native spent his first 20 seasons as a coach with either the Hurricanes or Dolphins.
As a player at Miami, Shannon played Florida annually.
"Those days when I played Florida, that was in the '80s, so I'm kind of excited about playing (them)," Shannon said. "Some of the coaches I know on the staff and a couple of players that I've recruited before are at Florida. So it'll be good to go back down and play those guys and really just get after football because football in the state is big. But also playing in the Swamp is huge. A night game, it makes it a little bit more rowdy fans and crowded. These are exciting times. I've been there before."
Bielema said his ties to the state came from his time as a graduate assistant at Iowa, and assistant coaching stops with Kansas State and Wisconsin. The Badgers recruited the state strongly during his time as the program's head coach, with 12 players from Florida on the Wisconsin roster his final season.
Partridge and defensive coordinator Chris Ash joined Bielema in Fayetteville, as did a handful of administrative personnel.
"I've got two coaches who were born in the state of Florida, grew up down there; one was the head coach at Miami who draws a lot of interest," Bielema said. "Because of the relationships we've built, even going back to my time as an assistant in 1993, I think we've signed more than 60 players from Palm Beach, Broward or Dade (counties). I've got former players now who are coaches there or have kin giving us players. To go down there and beat one of the big three would be a big, big deal just because it gives Arkansas a little bit of relevance in the SEC.
"It's a big weekend for us in our recruiting wars and all that goes on there."