A recurring line at Thursday's "Signing Day in the Rock,” the Little Rock Razorback Club’s recruiting wrap party, is that the "best days are ahead " for the Razorbacks. We heard it first from radio announcer and "voice of the Razorbacks" Chuck Barrett, then later from Athletic Director Jeff Long. The crowd of 1,000 or so seemed to agree, because honestly, how could it get any worse?
It stands to reason that a college football team is only as good as the players it recruits. Sure, sometimes the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, going back at least to the "25 Little Pigs" and continuing with Jamaal Anderson developing from a 2-star Wide Receiver prospect to the 8th overall pick as a Defensive End in the 2007 NFL draft.
The 2014 recruiting class is ranked around 30th nationally, which is fairly consistent with where the Hogs and Bielema’s recruits at Wisconsin have been ranked in the past. Unfortunately, our class is rated just 11th best in the SEC, which means the talent gap between some of our athletes and the upper tier of the conference is growing wider. (Link here for more detail on each member of the signing class.)
This class is ranked higher than Coach Bret Bielema's first haul of Hogs last year. But while the 2013 class closed strong with offensive guard Denver Kirkland and running back Alex Collins, the Hogs seemed to fade a little down the final stretch of recruiting this year. Twenty-four young men were signed Wednesday, leaving two scholarships unused. Had those scholarship offers been accepted by defensive ends Solomon Thomas and Demetrius Jackson, this year's Hog futures would have looked much brighter. As it stands now, the two scholarships will be used to court a couple of next year’s January enrollees back to this class unless they find an unsigned player that fits the team needs.
The good news is that Arkansas seems to be getting better where they need it most. The Razorbacks signed four-star players on the offensive and defensive lines (Brian Wallace and Bihjon Jackson, respectively), as well as at quarterback (Rafe Peavey) and wide receiver (JoJo Robinson). The fastest player is a defensive back (Chris Murphy), and receiver Kendrick Edwards ties with a few linemen as the tallest player at 6' 6".
Major recruiting in-roads have been made to the Sunshine State, with five players hailing from South Florida. Most of them come with a mediocre three-star rating, but surely Florida three-stars are superior to some three-star kid from the Big Ten Conference area. Well, except Minnesota, home of our potential future center, Frank Ragnow. Bielema was so impressed by Ragnow’s athletic skills, he showed one of Ragnow's basketball highlights, a one-step dunk over a hapless high school geek.
Speaking of geeks, Bielema said Parade All-American kicker Cole Hedlund "looks like he's in 4th grade." Getting the inside scoop straight from the Head Hog has been the leading incentive for Tusk to Tail to convene at this event for the past five years. The three times led by former head coach Bobby Petrino were interesting and educational.
Although Petrino tended to treat public speaking engagements as if filming a hostage video, he always shed a few insights on what he saw in a particular recruit, such as how quickly the player got up after contact.
The Bret Bielema era has seen the event turn into an outright pep rally, complete with smoke machines and bands that pop out of the damnedest places. Last year, a band played inside the bed of giant prop pick-up truck after lowering the tailgate. This year the boys in Riverbilly were lowered from the ceiling on a makeshift stage behind the video screens. The band initially appeared to be lip syncing to me, but I later realized that this year's Audio/Visual crew could never have pulled that off successfully.
After rolling through a tune about tailgating and calling Hogs, the band kept the groove in the background as nearly the entire coaching staff was introduced, including graduate assistants and administrators such as High School Relations Director Bobby Allen. Once Bielema was introduced, he acknowledged that every member of the staff helped recruit this class, so it wasn't entirely his fault.
OK, I made that last part up. But there was an element of shame in the evening's atmosphere, mostly originating from the move from Verizon Arena to the "Metroplex,” best known as the building that housed Little Rock's first Sam's Club.
The Little Rock Razorback Club claimed Verizon double-booked a three day home show, and it is clear that someone dropped the ball. With very few exceptions, signing day is the first Wednesday of February every single year, so how the Club was unable to reserve the venue before the home show is baffling. But you've got to play the hand you got, so we wound through a maze of offices and meeting spaces to the open arena, partitioned into sections for buffets, beer lines, and banquet tables with a band dangling overhead.
The beef was good for a banquet buffet and the complementary beers were better, keeping the Tusk to Tail happy hour spirit flowing. The Razorback Club's young master of ceremonies may have been overserved as he took the microphone, because he bombed harder than any public speaker I have ever seen. He was on shaky ground right out of the gates, praising his wife's contributions to the event's organization by calling her "the woman I sleep with."
He began a rambling rant about how Razorback fans need to be more like controversial Seahawks defensive back Richard Sherman when the figurative hook came out, yanking him off the stage for Long, who has never faced a crowd he couldn't work.
Long welcomed Bielema to the stage, who looked a little road-weary in his trademark long sleeve windbreaker. The coach had just begun showing the new players’ highlights when the giant video screens went blank. Razorback Club members scrambled to reboot, and soon the screens were warming up to rejoin the presentation. Unfortunately, the video problems persisted, taking the screens down for long periods after every couple of players’ highlights.
While the technical difficulties made it difficult to follow whose highlights were being shown at times, each period of dead air gave Bielema time to shine. In the first break, he hummed the Jeopardy theme and asked if anyone knew any good jokes. Nobody offered any, so he began telling stories of picking up their two small dogs from the kennel and surprising his wife by warming up her car at the airport the night before signing day. Bielema improvised stories and ad-libbed humorous, informative responses to questions from the audience during each timeout, illustrating the charm he used in the living rooms of the very players he was showcasing when the screens worked.
Based on highlights, Wallace and Jackson look ready to contribute next year. Historically, the Razorbacks are best when relying on strong homegrown talent. Some notable examples have been defensive linemen Jake Bequette, Jamaal Anderson, and Dan Hampton. Jackson could be that next great Razorback-since-birth spark plug on the line.
The player’s name receiving the most applause was Peavey. Bielema said he believed his all star game performance was the best by a quarterback in any of the showcase games. Peavey enrolled at the University in January and will begin competing for playing time this spring.
As South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier said after his Gamecocks had just pasted the Hogs at homecoming last fall, Arkansas has to recruit their way out of this losing streak. This class could be the building blocks of the future, primarily in the trenches and at key playmaking positions on offense.
Hopefully these players can grow into a team whose best days are ahead. After breaking multiple records for futility last season, how could it get any worse? Tusk to Tail hopes that question remains theoretical.