Tom Murphy is a reporter for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. A graduate of Louisiana Tech University, he is a member of the Football Writers Association of America, and voter for the Heisman Trophy and AP Top 25 football poll. Murphy was the 2017 Arkansas Sportswriter of the Year.
NATIONAL SIGNING DAY: New coach Pittman happy with haul, says best yet to come
Arkansas coach Sam Pittman answers questions during a news conference Monday, Dec. 9, 2019, in Fayetteville.
FAYETTEVILLE -- University of Arkansas Coach Sam Pittman likes the look of his first full signing class, which was completed with 12 additions Wednesday on national signing day.
Yet Pittman indicated this first class, attracted by he and his staff in less than two months, is merely a prelude for big Razorback hauls to come.
"We ended up having a good class, and I want to thank our assistant coaches who put together the class," Pittman said. "The credit goes solely to our assistant coaches."
The Razorbacks' haul -- filled mostly with three-star talent and highlighted by four-star signees in dual-threat quarterback Malik Hornsby and offensive lineman Marcus Henderson of Memphis on Wednesday -- surged to No. 30 in the 247Sports.com composite rankings.
That's not bad considering where Arkansas football was when the new staff arrived. Arkansas' class -- on the heels of back-to-back 2-10 seasons and the firing of coach Chad Morris with two games remaining -- was ranked 118th when Pittman took over in December.
Pittman anticipates stronger classes from now on.
"I mean, we're the University of Arkansas," he said. "We should be up there with the elite programs in the country in recruiting. I don't know what we are right now, but we're not up there with the elite guys.
"We expected to do every bit of what we did, and we expected to do better to be honest with you. We're going to do better. This one, we just didn't quite have as much time as we wanted, but we'll do better."
Arkansas' class ranked 11th in the SEC -- ahead of No. 39 Ole Miss, No. 50 Missouri and No. 53 Vanderbilt -- but well below the seven SEC teams in the top 10: No. 1 Georgia, No. 2 Alabama, No. 4 LSU, No. 6 Texas A&M, No. 7 Auburn, No. 8 Florida and No. 10 Tennessee.
Hornsby, Henderson and offensive lineman Jalen St. John of St. Louis were huge pickups for the Hogs on Wednesday. St. John, a Missouri pledge in early December, opened up his recruitment after the Tigers fired head coach Barry Odom, who swiftly joined Pittman as Arkansas' defensive coordinator. Arkansas won a battle with Florida State to sign him.
"The thing I like most about this group is they want to be part of Arkansas," Pittman said. "Now, you're going to say, 'Well, we know that.' But by 7:47 this morning, we had all [of today's signees] scholarships signed. And I think that shows you that they want to be here, that they're all excited about being here."
The 21-man group includes four four-star prospects, according to 247sports composite rankings, with safety Myles Slusher and wideout Darin Turner from the early signing period joining Henderson and Hornsby.
Turner is the highest-rated signee by ESPN, ranked No. 118 in the ESPN 300. Henderson is No. 155 in those rankings, Slusher of Broken Arrow, Okla., is No. 203 and Hornsby is No. 228.
Pittman and his staff wrapped up their first class with a wide-ranging group from 10 different states, led by four each from Arkansas and Georgia.
Linebacker JT Towers of Joe T. Robinson in Little Rock joined early signees and defensive linemen Jashaud Stewart of Jonesboro, Blayne Toll of Hazen and Catrell Wallace of Bryant as in-state signees.
The Razorbacks went hard on defense, with 13 of the group on that side of the ball.
Pittman and his staff targeted five positions of most critical need: quarterback, tight end and all three levels on defense.
"When I say needs, I'm not talking about talent, I'm talking about numbers," Pittman said. "On our board, our numbers were low -- what we consider low -- on the defensive side of the board, at tight end and quarterback, so we went up there and tried to address those needs."
Hornsby's announcement was made on ESPNU on Wednesday afternoon. He chose the Razorbacks over offers from many other schools, including Baylor, Alabama, Auburn, Georgia, Mississippi State, North Carolina, Oregon, Tennessee, Texas A&M and others.
"Malik, he's the guy that we wanted," Pittman said. "He's the guy we went after."
Offensive coordinator Kendal Briles had a long-standing relationship with Hornsby and his family from Missouri City (Texas) Fort Bend Marshall.
"Kendal did a great job of recruiting him and has for a long time," Pittman said. "But there's a guy who can throw it and run it, and certainly would be ideal for the type of offense that Kendal is planning on running."
Hornsby and graduate transfer Feleipe Franks, the 6-6 former starter at Florida, join a quarterback room that was down to three scholarship players in junior Jack Lindsey, sophomore John Stephen Jones and freshman KJ Jefferson, who each had one start in the final three games of last season.
Hornsby announced he would "for the next three or four years be attending the University of Arkansas" on the televised ceremony.
"I chose Arkansas because me and coach Briles have a good relationship," Hornsby said on ESPNU. "I've been knowing him for four years. Coach Pittman is a good guy. Coach [Justin] is a good guy, and coach Sam Carter is a good guy, and I believe I can come in and make a difference."
Hornsby said he hoped to come in and start, and if not to "learn the system and hopefully get a national championship."
Pittman said adding Hornsby and Franks is big.
"Feleipe Franks has proven he can do it in this league and do it at a high level," he said. "It's a huge deal for us. I'm not saying he's going to win the starting spot, but it's a big deal to get him. It will allow some of these young guys, KJ and all of them, to compete and get a little bit more time to get game ready."
The linebacker group was specifically targeted, and it led to a group of five signees at those spots.
Pittman said he got excited when he talked to Odom and linebackers coach Rion Rhoades about the linebackers Arkansas was trying to land.
"Rion Rhoades proved that you don't have to have experience at the D-I level to be an elite recruiter," Pittman said. "He went out there and we really addressed that linebacker and that D-line position.
"Our defensive board, I think we had 13 guys, 14 guys committed early. So I think that guys want to come in and play for coach Odom and those guys."
Pittman said spring practice will begin March 16, with the Red-White game scheduled for April 25.
Sports on 02/06/2020
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