Kelly commitment a big get for Hogs

By: Dudley E. Dawson
Published: Thursday, February 20, 2020
Clemson defensive lineman Xavier Kelly, right, sacks Florida State back up quarterback James Blackman in the second half of an NCAA college football game in Tallahassee, Fla., Saturday, Oct.27, 2018. (AP Photo/Mark Wallheiser)
Clemson defensive lineman Xavier Kelly, right, sacks Florida State back up quarterback James Blackman in the second half of an NCAA college football game in Tallahassee, Fla., Saturday, Oct.27, 2018. (AP Photo/Mark Wallheiser)

— Arkansas got a very large cherry to put on the top of its 2020 football recruiting class earlier this week when Clemson defensive tackle and graduate transfer Xavier Kelly announced he would play his final college season with the Razorbacks.

Kelly (6-foot-4, 305 pounds), who has played in the last three national championship games for the Tigers, announced Monday night that he would become the 25th and final piece of what has turned into a surprisingly impressive haul for new Arkansas coach Sam Pittman and his staff.

Kelly, a former ESPN 4-star prospect who played in 28 overall games for the Tigers, entered the NCAA transfer portal on Jan. 18 and took only one official visit, a trek to Arkansas a week later.

Kelly, who has family in Arkansas, is not only a literal big get for the Razorbacks, but a figurative one as well, continuing a recent positive narrative from national pundits about a program with a chance to rise from the ashes.

While the class is ranked as a very respectable 30th nationally, it’s even better than that because those rankings (for whatever reasons) don’t include five grad transfers the Razorbacks have landed.

Kelly joins former Florida quarterback Felepie Franks, former Oklahoma linebacker Levi Draper, former Arkansas State safety Jerry Jacobs and former Duke kicker AJ Reed.

The class, which has eight 4-stars per 24/7’s composite rankings when adding in the grad transfer additions, includes a whopping 16 players on defense and eight on offense.

It also includes Reed, a kicker who was named a semifinalist last season for the Lou Groza Award that honors the nation’s top kicker.

The breakdown of the class includes two quarterbacks, three offensive linemen, a tailback, a tight end, a wide receiver, five defensive linemen, six linebackers, one hybrid defensive end/linebacker, four defensive backs and a kicker.

Five of those defensive players — defensive ends Blayne Toll and Julius Coates, defensive backs Jacobs and Myles Slusher and linebacker Kelin Burrle — join Franks already on campus and ready to go through spring practice.

Kelly, Draper and Reed won’t arrive until late May or early June but won’t be coming to watch from the sidelines, so that is arguably nine players that should contribute significantly next season.

Preferred walk-on and former Cabot kicker Rhett Thurman, one of three new kickers Arkansas is expected to have on the roster, is in Fayetteville already as well.

Having all those defenders has to have Arkansas defensive coordinator and former Missouri head coach Barry Odom’s mouth watering.

It’s a long way from a team whose class was ranked 109th when Pittman got the job with only Toll expected to be an early enrollee.

As an aside, I love the fact that Pittman downplayed the meteoric rise on national signing date, knowing full well that class was still just 11th out of the 14 teams in the SEC.

His goal is to compete with the big boys, not just be content to not be known as arguably the league’s worst program the last two seasons.

No doubt the first step will be to win the games that you are supposed to win and at least put up a fight in the ones where you are an underdog.

Pittman and his staff have clearly won December, January and February in my opinion.

One could arguably say that’s three more months of winning than happen in the previous nine.

It’s no wonder why Arkansas hit social media Monday with ads pushing season tickets for a seven-game 2020 home schedule in Fayetteville highlighted by games featuring defending national champion LSU, Alabama, Tennessee and Ole Miss.

It’s still going to be a tough climb for the Razorbacks and their fans, but at least the light at the end of the tunnel doesn’t resemble an oncoming train anymore.

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