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After a rousing finish to the 2015 season, what’s the current state of the Arkansas Razorback football program? Head coach Bret Bielema and new offensive line coach Kurt Anderson provided nearly an hour’s worth of insight into this question at a recent press conference. Here are five takeaways you need to know:
Bielema loves himself some seniority. Or, in this case, junior-ity. He said if the season began today his quarterback depth chart would go as follows:
*Classification come fall 2016, not spring 2016
Bielema said his ranking is based on the players’ experience within the program, adding “what they do with it this spring is going to add a lot of influence on how fast certain people can move up or down the depth chart.”
No matter who ultimately ends up with the starting job, expect plenty controversy to swirl around the decision. Current fourth-stringer Ricky Town, after all, has a high school pedigree making him Arkansas’ highest ranked quarterback since Ryan Mallett. This off-season promises intense competition between the quarterbacks, and much speculation regarding a potential transfer will hound whoever finishes last.
Three Razorback underclassmen have declared as early entrants to the 2016 NFL Draft. In the aftermath of the announcements, two of them — Hunter Henry and Alex Collins — got the red carpet treatment from the program’s marketing department and coaches. Both produced letters to fans which were showcased on arkansasrazorbacks.com alongside snazzy profile photos or plugs from recruiting analysts.
Bielema gushed about both in the press conference. He discussed the process of speaking with Henry and his parents, going over pre-draft assessments and then added: “I think he has a very, very good chance of being the first tight end selected in the draft. An incredible career, an incredible impact on our program. I think back to he was my first recruiting call. I think that was one well spent.”
Bielema emphasized a similar process involving Collins and his family. “I think he was very, very torn, but his grade came out as a favorable grade to come out and prove his worth as well,” he said. “I’m very, very excited for Alex and his next chapter.”
The third Hog to declare early, offensive lineman Denver Kirkland, did not receive the same level of praise. The marketing department published a standard press release recapping his career and included a few sentences from Kirkland thanking the fans, program and Fayetteville community.
But nothing more.
Compared to praise for Collins and Henry, Bielema was relatively curt about Kirkland: “Denver informed me via text that was sent to me on Wednesday. He told me on Monday he was going in the direction to make that next step. I wish him the best of luck as well as he moves forward.”
Perhaps this difference reflects Kirkland’s lower key personality, or that he simply played a less high profile position, or that he didn’t quite fulfill expectations for All-American caliber junior season. Perhaps he just didn’t give the coaches as much of a heads up as they would have preferred. Regardless, he projects as a second or third round pick, so it’s hard to blame him for the decision.
Arkansas’ new offensive line coach is mostly a Midwest guy, so before the hiring his direct encounters with Razorback football were limited to two games — one as a Michigan Wolverine player, one as an assistant coach for the Eastern Michigan Eagles.
But in his five years at Eastern Michigan, Kurt Anderson said he learned more about the Razorback program from his athletic director Derrick Gragg. Gragg served six years as a University of Arkansas athletic administrator under Frank Broyles. He joined Arkansas in 2000 as an associate athletic director and was promoted to senior associate athletic director in 2003 before becoming deputy athletic director.
Anderson’s initial video introduction to many Hog fans came from a clip of the not-small man lightly sashaying to the beat of Drake’s “Hotline Bling” while overseeing a practice of his former team, the Buffalo Bills.
Anderson certainly projects himself as a fun-loving players’ coach, and he did not disappoint in that regard when meeting Arkansas media for the first time. He capped the session by recounting a trip years ago in which he sped down what he thought was a desolate New Mexico highway. “I was like ‘I’m in the middle of the desert. There’s no way someone’s gonna pull me over.’ But then, a police car “emerged from out of the tumbleweeds or something.”
The day after the interview, Anderson literally split his pants while getting out of a private jet to visit Arkansas commitment Jake Heinrich. “I think they were jammed packed into that little private plane,” Heinrich told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette’s Richard Davenport. “Sounds like he got a little too acrobatic… The pants weren’t cooperating.”
Anderson stopped at a store before driving to Heinrich’s home. “He ended up buying sweatpants, which Heinrich approved,” Davenport wrote.
(It should be noted former offensive line coach Sam Pittman isn’t exactly a dour schoolmarm himself. He has his own swaggering style, once referring to himself on camera as ‘King Kong Bundy.’)
Bielema hired Anderson for more reasons than charisma, but make no mistake about it: a big personality which potentially connects with big egos on the recruiting trail is an asset the program will leverage between now and National Signing Day on February 3.
Bielema will not realize his ultimate goal of an SEC Championship and College Football Playoff appearance without signing more four and five-star players. There’s no getting around this reality when competing with perennial champion Alabama and ascendant recruiting powers in Florida, Tennessee and Ole Miss. Bielema and his staff must capitalize on the program’s building momentum to pull in higher ranking recruiting classes or not only will Arkansas lack the firepower to consistently beat the big boys, but it will suffer from a perception of stagnation which will hurt in future classes.
These next few weeks are pivotal to Bielema’s future success. According to his projections, Arkansas will look to secure signatures from about eight or nine highly regarded players who are currently uncommitted or committed elsewhere. Arkansas will host more four and five-star recruits than usual in coming weekends, and there is no doubt Anderson’s NFL pedigree and role coaching the League’s top rushing offense will be showcased to some of them.
Of course, other top SEC programs boast plenty former NFL coaches too. And other SEC programs boast more All Americans, current NFL players, national titles and better proximity to home. For some recruits, the ultimate difference maker may end up being the personalities of Bielema and his coaches.
What other SEC head coach, for instance, would jump at the chance of a behind-the-scenes documentary to chronicle his love of cooking big cookies and making eggnog?
If the boisterous, family-friendly yet occasionally combative mojo of Bielema, Anderson et al appeals to enough blue-chip recruits, expect Arkansas to sign its most highly ranked recruiting class in decades come February 3.
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