State of the Hogs: Stepp one of the backbones to Arkansas' recruiting

By: Clay Henry
Published: Friday, March 8, 2019
Arkansas receivers coach Justin Stepp talks to players during a game against Missouri on Friday, Nov. 23, 2018, in Columbia, Mo.
Photo by Ben Goff
Arkansas receivers coach Justin Stepp talks to players during a game against Missouri on Friday, Nov. 23, 2018, in Columbia, Mo.

Trey Knox reminded Justin Stepp a few weeks back that they had passed a milestone date.

Stepp recruited and now coaches Knox for the Arkansas football team.

What could it be? It wasn’t a birthday. It wasn’t a holiday.

“He told me it was the day of his official visit here last year,” Stepp said. “That’s the kind of guy he is, doesn’t forget anything and he’s just so smart.”

Stepp is in his second year as wide receivers coach for the Razorbacks. Those who have followed the recruiting successes by Chad Morris and his staff over the last year will quickly tell you Stepp is more than a standout coach. He’s a wonderful recruiter.

Morris tells his coaches they must be relentless in recruiting. That fits Stepp. You don’t recruit four of the nation’s top wide receivers in one class as he did in the 2019 UA haul without attacking that aspect of the job with vigor.

Some describe college coaching as more recruiting than coaching these days. It isn’t a 50-50 equation. Stepp said there can be no slight in either area, but he is quick to point out that the time allotted to recruiting generally dwarfs what is spent on coaching.

“The NCAA only allows 20 hours on the field with our players,” he said. “You better be recruiting a lot more than that, and that goes all year long. The time devoted to recruiting is endless. It’s legit, nonstop.

“You can barely enjoy signing day because we are already on 2020s.”

Stepp said he studied the way his mentors went about dividing time between coaching and recruiting. Those mentors were Billy Napier, Brad Scott and Morris during their time at Clemson.

“Brad told me that you can’t be naïve enough to think a kid won’t say no,” he said. “And, to be relentless even when he does. The other thing he always said, ‘Be genuine.’

“Coach Morris always says, ‘If you aren’t talking to a recruit, someone else is.’ Just text them about something - a movie they ought to see, their girlfriend. Be unique, different.”

Stepp doesn’t have to convince his wife that vacations need to include time to text, write or follow up with recruits. Brooke Stepp was once in the business, both as director of recruiting at SMU and at Arkansas, with her husband on the Morris staff.

“I try to make time for her and Courtland,” Stepp said of his wife and son. “But she gets it. I’ll say a dinner is going to be recruiting free, just with her, and the phone goes off. She always says, ‘Answer it. It’s OK.’ She asks me what to pray for in recruiting. She gets it.

“I love the beach. We go there for vacation time in the summer. But my quiet time on the beach every morning starts with writing recruiting letters. TQ Jackson committed to me when I was on the beach.

“I can remember several times Trey called me at dinner. Brooke says, ‘Answer that,’ and we might end up on FaceTime with Brooke talking to him for a bit.”

Recruiting can be heartbreaking because you never know when the relationship leads to a commitment and then a national letter of intent.

“You work so hard and then you might not get them even when you worked harder than everyone else,” Stepp said. “I told Brooke, this isn’t fair. I went to every basketball game a kid played, then someone else comes in and offers and they got him and he doesn’t come here. But, you just keep working.”

There might have been a few days when Stepp thought Knox making it to Fayetteville full time was a reach.

“When I tried to get Trey to visit – and Shamar Nash, too – they put me off two times each,” Stepp said. “You just have to keep trying.”

Both are at Arkansas now as early arrivals in the 2019 class. Both are making plays in spring drills, turning heads and earning wows from coaches as they describe practices to the media each day.

Stepp thought it was a long shot to sign Knox after the four-star finally agreed to a visit and came to the Ozarks.

Knox came on a Sunday for an unofficial visit. That was early in the process.

Interestingly, there are a lot of Sunday visits in the offseason at Arkansas. Sadly, that has not always been the case with previous staffs. They often took that day off.

Told that, Stepp said, “Every Sunday is a junior day with Coach Morris.”

The Sunday with Knox paid huge dividends, but no one knew it at the time.

“I still remember talking with Coach Morris as we watched Trey leave the building that Sunday,” Stepp said. “He was already being recruited by Ohio State, Florida, Clemson and Auburn and there would be a lot more. Trey is hard to read, real quiet, what I’d call cerebral. And, I couldn’t tell if he enjoyed it or not. I just told Coach, ‘That’s the last time we see that sucker.’”

Turned out, Knox enjoyed the time on campus and wanted to come back for an official visit.

“Yes, the official, that was really something, a true disaster,” Stepp said. “It started off with Trey getting stranded in the Chicago airport by weather. He sat there for hours and didn’t get here until 11 that night.

“So he missed everything we had planned for the recruits to see that night. Like I said, just a disaster. But we got him. His mom and I got close. His mom still calls me three times a week.”

Knox was a two-way player in high school, just as much a star at middle linebacker.

“A lot of schools did see him as a linebacker,” Stepp said. “Some didn’t think he ran good enough to play wide receiver. I knew he ran good enough and we have been pleasantly surprised with his speed this spring.

“What he has that’s off the chart is his smarts. He picks things up fast.”

And, there are not many 6-5, 218-pound wide receivers with such a long wingspan. His hands are soft and his length allows him to get to passes well above the reach of cornerbacks.

“Guys like Trey really help the quarterback,” Stepp said. “He’s got that big catch radius. That’s what we go after, and speed.

“You look at the four in this class, we’ve got length. Trey is 6-5, Treylon Burks is 6-4 and TQ Jackson is 6-3 ½.”

Jackson is listed at 6-4 on the UA’s signing day releases. That’s up quite a bit from what some of the recruiting sites list. Jackson is in the middle of a growth spurt.

“When we saw TQ in March last year, he was 6-1,” Stepp said. “He’s grown almost three inches and he might be still getting bigger.

“You have to have that length, especially in this league. There are no corners under 6-0. Some are 6-2 with long arms. Greedy Williams at LSU could tie his shoes standing up.”

Stepp was on the Clemson staff in 2009-11, first as a video assistant, then a graduate assistant.

“I was there when Coach Morris came in and they started signing No. 1 draft picks (at wide receiver), guys like DeAndre Hopkins, Sammy Watkins and Mike Williams,” Stepp said. “These are long guys and that’s what we are looking for in this system.”

The system, Stepp said, will show case great wide receivers.

“You’ve seen that happen at Clemson and SMU,” he said. “Courtland Sutton and Trey Quinn did it at SMU.

“It’s a system for quarterbacks and wide receivers. Because of the way we operate the run game system, we are going to get one-on-one matchups for the wide receivers and tight ends. You can’t cover everyone. We are going to get one-one-one matchups on the boundary.”

It produces one-on-one matchups across the field, although that might be the case anyway. The SEC is a man-to-man league.

“It was amazing this last year,” Stepp said. “Vanderbilt was the only team that played even a little bit of zone.”

Obviously, the Arkansas coaches recruited to need with an advertisement that playing time was available this past season. No one doubted that as the Hogs slumped to 2-10.

With four hits as far as big-time gets at wide receiver, does that change going forward?

“If you are going after the right guys, they don’t care who is there,” Stepp said. “They think they are good enough to play. We’ve seen that.”

Competition helps everyone. Stepp thinks it has pushed the returning players. And, there was at least one in that group who fits the size model. Koilan Jackson (6-2, 211) has length and huge hands. Jackson is rounding into form after ACL surgery 18 months ago.

“Physically, Koilan is now 100 percent,” Stepp said. “He is still getting comfortable with the offense. He’s worked unbelievably hard. I still remember coming in from practice last fall when our defensive coaches would tell us, ‘Koilan is killing it with our scout team.’

“We are going to need Koilan. We want to carry a roster of 11 scholarship wide receivers. We’ll look to sign three again next year, and if a difference maker is there late, we might even take four again. I do know that receivers want to play in this offense.”

And, Stepp will find them. He’s all over the country in recruiting. He said last year’s 2-10 record pushes him every day.

“That’s what I got out of 2-10, go harder in recruiting,” he said. “Every time we’d get a set back, I’d say, ‘Go recruit.’

“I know that was hard on everyone. It was an extremely difficult year. But we are going to get it fixed. We fixed it at SMU. Those first years at SMU were like dog years.”

The recruiting work ethic starts at the top, and it covers every inch of the Smith Center.

“Coach Morris says it’s way beyond our building,” he said. “It’s about first impressions. So even the parking lot greeters are important. It takes consistency, too.”

That’s what Stepp has learned from Morris starting from their days together at Clemson.

“It’s consistency, every day with Coach Morris,” Stepp said. “He is going to treat everyone right. You coach them, hard, then love on them.

“Really, every day no matter what kind of day it is on the field – and that doesn’t mean if you or your player has a good taste in your mouth or a bad taste, when it’s over, you put your arm around your player and tell them you love them. Coach Morris is the same with his staff. He is all about accountability, and he works us hard, but we know he loves us.”

The family atmosphere trumps everything.

“It sure does,” Stepp said. “That’s what Coach Morris is about. Our wives know they can come to the office and eat lunch with us. That’s the way it was at Clemson, SMU and now here.

“It’s about family when we recruit, relationships. Coach Morris said that’s one thing you can never fake. The families of the recruits either see it or they don’t. If it’s not about family, they know it.”

Stepp grew up in Pelion, S.C., just south of the Columbia metro area. Pelion has a population of 553.

“We have one blinking red light, not a real stop light,” Stepp said. “It’s tiny. We have two school houses, one for K-6, another for 7-12.”

But there is something different in Pelion. Nowhere are there as many sets of twins.

“I’m an identical twin,” Stepp said. “My brother, Josh, is an assistant coach at Georgia State. You can’t tell us apart. On the phone, he sounds identical.

“We had 16 sets of twins in school when Josh and I grew up in Pelion. That was crazy. I’ve never heard of any place that small with a number like that.”

Justin said there were the usual tricks, including one day in fourth grade when they tried to fool their teachers by switching classrooms.

“They figured us out in 45 minutes,” he said. “We never switched dates, but there were times when he didn’t want to talk to a girl and I’d get on the phone for a little bit. They didn’t figure it out.”

Justin has heard some funny stories on the recruiting trail. He said, “I’d roll into a school in Georgia, where Josh might cover, and someone will say, ‘Weren’t you here yesterday?’ I tell them that was my brother.

“I can tell you that if he walked into my meeting room, my guys would think it was me and they’d get to work. Well, Trey might know because he’s been around both of us.”

That’s probably the cerebral aspect coming to the front.

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