Arkansas makes an upfront effort
Arkansas football coach Bret Bielema talks with the media before a private Signing Day in the Rock event Thursday evening in Little Rock.
The emergence of offensive linemen Denver Kirkland and Dan Skipper last fall in their first season at Arkansas could have worked against Coach Bret Bielema and his staff, but it didn’t.
“You’ve got your recruiters saying, ‘You don’t want to go there because they had two freshmen starting there and are great players,’ ” Bielema told reporters Thursday evening before Arkansas’ Signing Day in the Rock event at Clear Channel Metroplex in Little Rock. “You have to balance it a little bit.”
Apparently the Razorbacks staff managed to do that as Arkansas landed four offensive linemen among their 24-man 2014 signing class that was announced Wednesday.
The Razorbacks signed high school linemen Jovan Pruitt, Frank Ragnow and Brian Wallace Jr. as well as junior college transfer Sebastian Tretola.
“We think they’re all very talented guys,” Arkansas offensive line coach and recruiting coordinator Sam Pittman said. “They love football, and to play [on the offensive line] you have to have that mind-set. You have to love to compete.”
NATIONAL SIGNING DAY 2014
Kirkland, 6-5, 345 pounds, and Skipper, 6-10, 317, were two of the most highly touted prospects in Bielema’s first signing class at Arkansas. The freshmen started at the guard positions for the final eight games and helped classmate Alex Collins become the second freshman in school history and the 10th true freshman in SEC history to rush for at least 1,000 yards. Collins finished the season with 1,026 yards on 190 carries and 4 touchdowns.
Arkansas coaches believe the latest class could make a similar impact.
Tretola, 6-4 ½ , 315, redshirted at Nevada in 2011 and started four games in2012 before transferring to Iowa Western Community College. He was a first-team All-Midwest Football Conference selection in 2013 and chose Arkansas over Oklahoma, Florida, TCU, South Florida and others.
“He’s 330 pounds and will knock your head off,” offensive coordinator Jim Chaney said. “He’s more of a grown man, ready to go out and do it right now.”
Ragnow, 6-6, 291, was rated as a three-star prospect by Rivals.com coming out of Victoria (Minn.) Chanhassen. He chose Arkansas over defending national champion Florida State, Ohio State, Minnesota, Nebraska, Miami and others.
“He’s everything that we can ask for,” Bielema said. “He’s a great student, 6-6, 290. I saw him play basketball, and he was running the floor like a point guard. He’s just incredible.”
Chaney said the Razorbacks will likely try Ragnow at center, where Travis Swanson started 50 consecutive games in 2010-2013.
Wallace, 6-6, 304, was rated as a four-star prospect by Rivals.com coming out of St. Louis Christian Brothers and played in the U.S. Army All-America Game. He was ranked by Rivals as the No. 9 offensive tackle in the nation and chose the Razorbacks over such teams as Alabama, Missouri, Iowa, Ohio State and Nebraska.
“I think Brian Wallace is as good of an offensive tackle as there is in the country,” Chaney said.
Pruitt, 6-6, 295, was one of two Razorback signees from Texas. The Dallas Bishop Dunne product was a three star prospect according to Rivals.com and chose Arkansas over Oklahoma, Baylor, TCU and Mississippi. He is expected to play multiple positions on the offensive line, Chaney said.
Arkansas will have to replace two starters, Swanson and tackle David Hurd, off last season’s team. Pittman said the Razorbacks will move Skipper to left tackle, where the coach said he belongs.
“We’re getting a little more talented, a little more athletic,” Pittman said. “We’ve got some guys working hard on campus right now, but we need to be dominant and we’re not. Not yet. I think we have the potential to get that way, through the hard work that they’re doing right now. They’ll know the offense a little better.
“I like the toughness of the group.”
Even though the Razorbacks finished 3-9 overall and 0-8 in the SEC last year, Bielema believes the success of several freshmen - including Kirkland, Skipper, Collins and tight end Hunter Henry - helped in recruiting this year.
“I knew the impact that Denver Kirkland and Dan Skipper made,” Bielema said. “They looked different than everybody else. They’re bigger, they’re longer and a little more athletic.
“We wanted to sign a number of guys. To sign four guys of the caliber that we did speaks volumes to where we’re at.”
Sports, Pages 17 on 02/07/2014