The Recruiting Guy:

It pays to play offensive line under Bielema

By: Richard Davenport
Published: Sunday, March 19, 2017
Arkansas head coach Bret Bielema watches from the sideline during the first half of the Belk Bowl NCAA college football game against Virginia Tech in Charlotte, N.C., Thursday, Dec. 29, 2016. (AP Photo/Bob Leverone)
Arkansas head coach Bret Bielema watches from the sideline during the first half of the Belk Bowl NCAA college football game against Virginia Tech in Charlotte, N.C., Thursday, Dec. 29, 2016. (AP Photo/Bob Leverone)

Numerous factors go into a football recruit's college decision. Usually at the top of the list is a school that can prepare them for the NFL.

University of Arkansas, Fayetteville Coach Bret Bielema has a track record of putting players in the NFL that's among the best in the nation. His 39 draft picks in 10 years are second best among coaches with 10 or fewer years experience.

Three of his former Wisconsin offensive linemen, whom he recruited and coached, are the highest paid at their positions in the NFL.

Kevin Zeitler and Rick Wagner recently signed free agent contracts with the Cleveland Browns and Detroit Lions, respectively, reportedly making them the highest paid guard and right tackle in the league.

Zeitler's contract is a reported five years for $60 million while Wagner reportedly will make more than $9 million a year.

Dallas Cowboys center Travis Frederick signed a six-year, $56.4 million contract extension last summer to make him the highest paid center in the NFL.

"First off, I'm very thankful for Coach Bielema for giving me an offer," Zeitler said. "I think out of the four guys that came in our 2008 recruiting class, I was the last one to get an offer."

Zeitler was a consensus three-star prospect out of high school but went on to become the 27th overall pick in the 2012 NFL Draft by the Cincinnati Bengals and started 71 of 72 games.

"He gets the most out of his guys and with the people he puts around him," Zeitler said. "He can get people to where they want to go."

He said most of the Badgers' offensive line recruits weren't four- or five-star prospects.

"Coach Bielema brings in the right guys that have the right body type," Zeitler said. "He has a good eye for potential and what we can develop into."

Arkansas strength and conditioning coach Ben Herbert worked with Bielema at Wisconsin. Zeitler said he reported to Madison at 280 pounds with 14 percent body fat and left weighing 320 pounds with body fat below 20 percent.

"Herb is an absolute beast," Zeitler said. "He knows how to push people the right way, get them stronger, and more importantly than anything he gets their mindset right. He's so intense. He's going to call people out to perform in the weight room when necessary with tons of competition. He really gets guys thinking they can do anything and that really carries over."

Wagner walked on at Wisconsin as a tight end, but he was quickly moved to the offensive line and was awarded a scholarship after his second season. He said it's no coincidence the highest paid offensive linemen in the NFL were recruited and coached by Bielema.

"Wisconsin is known for their O-line," Wagner said. "Their O-line talent and the way they've been coached throughout the years let us get to that level. I really think it came down to their recruiting philosophy and the coaches we had there during our time."

Wagner, Zeitler and Frederick were in-state recruits.

"He didn't want us to leave the state ... that philosophy made us all want to go there," Wagner said of Bielema.

NFL coaches have been vocal about the lack of NFL-ready players from spread offenses. Seattle Seahawks offensive line coach Tom Cable once told a Seattle radio station, "I'm not wanting to offend anybody, but college football, offensively, has gotten to be really, really bad fundamentally."

Wagner believes playing in a pro-style college offense benefited him.

"We're definitely prepared to make that jump into the NFL," Wagner said. "Obviously, the speed of the game and talent is higher, but we have that base, knowledge and experience a lot of schools don't have going into the draft process."

Thanks to Herbert, Wagner came to Wisconsin weighing 255 pounds on his 6-6 frame and left about 320.

"It was a tribute to them putting on good weight and ... basically transforming my body in a few years," Wagner said.

Since arriving in Fayetteville, Bielema has awarded about 15 scholarships to walk-ons. Denver Broncos tight end A.J. Derby and defensive end Mitchell Loewen, who signed as a free agent with New Orleans, were walk-ons while in Fayetteville.

All-Pro Houston Texans defensive lineman J.J. Watt played at Wisconsin under Bielema and is perhaps the most successful walk-on in college football history.

What impressed Wagner the most about Bielema and his staff is how they treated everyone the same.

"I remember some people on the team didn't even know I was a walk-on until a few months into my first season," Wagner said. "I think treating everybody the same ... like if they're a big recruit or local walk-on is really important."

Email Richard Davenport at rdavenport@arkansasonline.com

Sports on 03/19/2017

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