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.
Recruiting a prerequisite for new football assistants
Arkansas defense coordinator Travis Williams (left) speaks Monday, Dec. 19, 2022, with coach Sam Pittman during practice inside the Walker Pavilion on the university campus in Fayetteville.
FAYETTEVILLE — A reporter sensed a theme of youth when asking fourth-year Arkansas Coach Sam Pittman on Wednesday about his new defensive staff hires in coordinator Travis Williams, co-coordinator Marcus Woodson and secondary coach Deron Wilson.
Pittman made a crack, asking the reporter if he had seen Woodson, who was sitting in the back of the room, grinning.
While the ages of three new hires — Williams is 39, Woodson 41 and Wilson 32 — who will be grouped with defensive line coach Deke Adams, 51, does skew relatively young, Pittman brought up his own theme, namely their personalities and how that impacts recruiting.
“When I interviewed Travis Williams, and I think I said this before so I won’t belabor the point, I knew he was the guy,” Pittman said. “I knew he was.
“What are some of the major concerns you have in football right now? One of them is the portal. So you’re going to have kids going into the portal, and you’re either going to beg an average player to stay, or you’re going to say, ‘OK, we’re going to go out and have the capabilities of upgrading our team and replacing him.’
“That’s one of the reasons. Travis is obviously a very aggressive defensive guy. But right now, the portal makes you — and I’ve always been this way, but even more so now — you’d better hire recruiters. And recruiters are usually good people. So I did that with him.”
Then came Woodson, who had helped lead a defensive resurgence at Florida State while working with the Seminoles’ secondary. Woodson had worked with Williams at Auburn and Pittman extended the title of co-coordinator to help in the recruitment of the Mississippi native to the staff.
“Marcus Woodson, I thought he was the best defensive backs coach in America,” Pittman said. “I think what they did at Florida State proved that. But he’s a better man. … They’re recruiting machines, now.”
Florida State ranked fourth in the nation in fewest passing yards allowed per game (165.4) and 22nd in pass efficiency defense last year.
Pittman said Woodson was on the phone with up to six recruits during the coaches’ Walton Arena appearance at the men’s basketball team’s win over Texas A&M on Tuesday night.
Pittman explained how he anticipates Williams and Woodson will work together in defensive team meetings.
“When they meet together, I’m assuming his voice will be heard quite a little bit,” Pittman said of Woodson. “But Travis Williams is our coordinator and Marcus certainly deserved the co-defensive coordinator title because of his experience and what he’s going to bring to us.
“And to be honest with you, there’s no way I could hire him just as a secondary coach because he’s earned that right to be a coordinator.”
Woodson called Williams a “brother,” from their days at Auburn.
“However I can help in terms of the big picture, when he asks for my input, I’m gonna give it to him, but my sole focus is primarily the back seven and how we do things to get the back end cleaned up and make this whole thing go in terms of the big picture,” Woodson said.
“But he’s the defensive coordinator. I’m gonna be right by his side and helping him in any type of way he needs my help.”
Wilson was a defensive analyst for cornerbacks at Florida last season. Having worked in Texas, Florida and his home state of Louisiana, and having played at Southern Miss, where he overlapped for three seasons with Adams, Wilson has imprints in fertile recruiting territory where the Razorbacks want to be a player.
“Deron Wilson is the same deal,” Pittman said. “He’s got Louisiana ties and we need to get involved in that state a little bit more, so that helped us there.”
Arkansas came out of the signing periods with nine scholarship cornerbacks and six safeties, so it stands to reason some of their nine available scholarships will be used in the defensive backfield. Which sits well with Woodson.
“When it comes to defensive backs, we’re going to recruit the best ones available in the country, regardless of location,” Woodson said. “I feel like any kid that’s an SEC-caliber player that can help us get better, we’ll have a chance to go into that state and compete. Anywhere in the southeast.”
Woodson said the allotment of remaining scholarships would go at Pittman’s discretion.
“When it comes to Coach Wilson and myself, we’re going to be prepared with the guys that can help us win in the secondary that are available,” he said. “At the end of the day, I’d add all nine to the secondary if he allows that, and we’re going to have the guys in position where we can do it, but what’s best for the team is up for him to decide.
“If that’s nine DBs, if that’s one DB or if that’s two, whatever Coach Williams and Coach Pittman decide, that’s the route that we’re going to take.”
The new assistants have already played a role in bringing in portal talent with former Baylor safety Al Walcott, former Baylor cornerback Lorando “Snaxx” Johnson and former Missouri defensive end Trajan Jeffcoat all signing financial aid deals with Arkansas in January. Prior to that, former Pitt defensive end John Morgan and former South Florida linebacker Antonio Grier pledged to the Hogs.
Woodson was asked about the two Baylor transfers on Wednesday.
“Obviously they were really good players for Baylor,” he said. “We reached out to them and touched bases, and over the phone we knew that they were the right fit. But once we got them here on a visit, we knew that they were the right fit, absolutely.
“They saw that Arkansas and us as a staff was the right fit for them and what they wanted next, and Coach Pittman gave us the blessing to be able to sign them and saw that they were the right fit as well as individuals.
“We knew we had needs in the secondary. We needed to bring some guys in that could make us more competitive with some guys that have started in the past. And they’ve been great additions to the room.”
Woodson related the story of a recent conversation he had with Walcott.
“He’s very outspoken, and he called me the other night just out of the blue and said ‘Coach, Snaxx and I want you to know how happy we are just to be Razorbacks.’” Woodson said. “They realized it’s the right fit and they made the right choice. … I’m excited to have both of them in the room.”
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