Commentary:

Why Little Rock is low on football talent

By: Bo Mattingly
Published: Thursday, July 6, 2017
McClellan running back Andre Campbell is tackled by Pulaski Academy safety Hayden Henry during a game Friday, Oct. 28, 2016, in Little Rock.
Photo by Matt Johnson
McClellan running back Andre Campbell is tackled by Pulaski Academy safety Hayden Henry during a game Friday, Oct. 28, 2016, in Little Rock.

— Remember when the core of some of Arkansas’ best football teams was filled with players from central Arkansas?

It wasn’t that long ago, either.

Remember the 10-win, SEC West Champion 2006 team? Among the standouts from that group were Darren McFadden, Jamaal Anderson, Marcus Harrison, Keith Jackson Jr., Jonathan Luigs and Antwain Robinson — all from Little Rock. That’s a Heisman Trophy finalist, an eventual Rimington Trophy winner and an entire starting defensive line hailing from the state capital.

Now, think about this: After the transfer of running back Juan Day, there’s just one scholarship player on Arkansas’ current roster from Little Rock — sophomore T.J. Hammonds. The Hogs add Little Rock natives Koilan Jackson, David Porter and Hayden Henry in the fall.

As shocking as that number is, what might surprise you even more is that this isn’t a result of misevaluation by the Arkansas coaching staff. Little Rock just isn’t producing the same talent it once did.

From 2012-2017, Little Rock produced 13 players that signed with Power 5 schools. That’s an average of two a year. The biggest metro area in the state is only producing two P5-caliber football prospects a year.

So what’s happened? Where did all the good players go?

If you ask Arkansas Hawks chairman Bill Ingram, the best athletes in Little Rock have given up the gridiron to hit the hardwood.

“You probably can go to every AAU team in central Arkansas and pull the seventh, eighth, ninth, 10th man off of that basketball team and put them on the football field, and they’d be great athletes, and probably better than anything they’ve got out there right now,” Ingram said recently on Sports Talk.

“The problem is basketball is glorified,” he said. “Everybody wants to play basketball because football isn’t glorified. The facilities are bad. I don’t think at times the coaching is really good from the standpoint of taking interest with a kid like they do in basketball.”

I respect Ingram’s take because he knows who the athletes are in central Arkansas, but I wanted a different perspective and knew just who to call.

Arkansas native and Little Rock Parkview product Keith Jackson, whose son, Koilan, played at Joe T. Robinson and will be a freshman wide receiver for the Razorbacks in 2017, said he agrees with Ingram.

“There are definitely some guys who are mid-major and lower basketball players that probably could make a bigger impact on the football field,” Jackson said. “But, you know, there’s a lot of glory in playing basketball — you don’t wear a helmet, you don’t get hit as hard.”

Jackson said the days of playing both are long gone.

“The old tweeners used to play basketball and football until they figured it out,” said Jackson, the former color analyst on the Razorbacks' football radio broadcast. “You think of Jamaal Anderson, who was a basketball and football player. But now, they lock in on basketball and they’re going to be the next LeBron James. And they end up really not going anywhere. You think of those guys, and they could have been a pretty good defensive end or tight end, but they didn’t take the opportunity to do it.”

The stats back up Ingram’s and Jackson’s take. If you look at the 2016-18 basketball classes in the state, Arkansas is going to be sending nearly four players a year to Power 5 schools. When you compare that number to the two Power 5 football players the city is producing, it’s mind-blowing.

So what’s the fix? Jackson said Little Rock needs to make playing football “sexy” again.

“It’s just not the same facilities as everyone has, so nobody wants to play football,” he said. “Basketball, you just have a court, you throw out a ball, and people will come in and cheer for you. Football, you’ve got training, the field — it’s just not here in Little Rock right now.”

Remember when Bret Bielema was hired at Arkansas as coach and dropped the line, “We came here to win the SEC, and that’s what we’re going to do?"

For that to happen, Jackson said, the state of Arkansas needs to start producing better football talent once more.

“Everybody wants to win the conference and play in the SEC Championship game,” Jackson said. “Your state has to start producing more athletes to help you get there. And that has to happen not only in Little Rock, but it has to happen in some other areas.

“Some of the basketball coaches are going to have to start letting some of these kids go and say, ‘You need to go play a little football.’”

If the Razorbacks are ever going to win the SEC, they’re going to need football in Little Rock to be fun again.

This article originally appeared in Hawgs Illustrated

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