FAYETTEVILLE — The signing day board in the Miller Room had 22 names on it when Arkansas coach Bret Bielema walked in and sat on stage Wednesday.
It included four offensive linemen who will build the foundation for Arkansas’ ground game. There were eight in-state players who reached long-time dreams of playing for the Hogs. There were athletes from Hawaii and Australia.
But no matter how many details could be dissected from the list of signees, there was nothing that could overshadow No. 23. That’s because it was left blank.
“It’s national signing day,” Bielema said. “You’re going to get surprises good and bad. You’re going to get curveballs thrown at you that you have to adjust to.”
Arkansas was certainly dealing with a surprise – the bad kind – when Bielema unveiled his first signing class Wednesday afternoon. The group’s expected headliner — South Plantation (Fla.) High running back Alex Collins — wasn’t among them as national signing day’s most bizarre story played out in South Florida.
Collins, who had been verbally committed to Miami before opening his recruitment last November, selected Arkansas during a Fox Sports South television show on Monday night. So he was supposed to be No. 23. But he did not attend the signing day ceremony at his school and multiple reports indicated Collins, who is rated as the No. 1 back in the country by 247Sports and No. 3 by Scout.com, had little choice.
His mother, Andrea McDonald refused to sign the national-letter-of-intent, according to ESPN’s Recruiting Nation. Collins’ older brother, Johnny, told the Miami Herald the family hoped he would reconsider and sign with the Hurricanes.
“I would prefer him to go to Miami, too, because it would be a better program for him, a better environment,” Johnny Collins told the Miami Herald. “He could get home faster and it’s more convenient if mom wants to go to a game — instead of having to fly to Arkansas.”
Arkansas is hoping the stalemate could to be close to a resolution soon and it still may go in the Razorbacks’ favor.
A South Florida television station, NBC6, reported that it spoke with Collins on Wednesday night and the running back assured he would sign with the Razorbacks today. A CBSSports.com report also cited a source as saying Collins is expected to sign with Arkansas, but “it’s just going to take some time.”
It would be important news for a class that made a late surge in national recruiting rankings thanks largely to Collins’ addition. Collins fits into Arkansas’ plans of building a power run game reminiscent of Wisconsin under Bielema.
The 5-foot-11, 200-pound Collins ran for 1,276 yards and 14 touchdowns during his senior season at South Plantation High. He didn’t consider Arkansas until Bielema and his staff arrived. Wisconsin recruited Collins for two years and was one of five finalists, joining Arkansas, Miami, Florida State and Florida.
The Arkansas staff couldn’t comment on Collins on Wednesday because he had not signed his national letter of intent. But defensive line coach Charlie Partridge — a South Florida native who led the way in Collins’ recruitment — was asked about signing day surprises and said they aren’t that unusual.
“I think the thing you have to respect is, it’s a family decision,” Partridge said. “I think you have to respect the fact that it’s not an easy decision. That while (Wednesday) is national letter-of-intent day, this is not the deadline.
“You have to respect that this is a life-changing decision for these guys. Respect things and things tend to work out the way you hope they will.”
So Arkansas instead shifted its attention to the current 22-man class — which it put together largely after Bielema took over on Dec. 4 — while it waited Wednesday.
There weren’t loads of big-name prospects like SEC rival Ole Miss, but Bielema said his staff concentrated on their connections to navigate through the shortened recruiting period. They came away with some signing day victories because of it.
The most notable was Miami Booker T. Washington offensive lineman Denver Kirkland’s decision to sign with Arkansas over Florida State. The 6-foot-5, 320-pound Kirkland announced his decision during ESPNU’s signing day broadcast.
Bielema joked that it ended a recruitment that caused offensive line coach Sam Pittman and linebackers coach Randy Shannon to age 10 years. But it was a victory that gives Arkansas a player Bielema believes could play tackle or guard.
“Some of them go that long and he did,” Pittman said of Kirkland’s recruitment. “I don’t think we knew until about 30 minutes before he went on television that we were going to get him. Even then it was I hope we’re getting him.
“He said he was coming, still it was good to see him put that hat on and say he was coming. That was exciting.”
Arkansas also registered another signing-day surprise when dual-threat quarterback Damon Mitchell signed with the Razorbacks. The New Jersey native had been committed to Georgia Tech, but changed his mind after visiting Arkansas’ campus during the final weekend for official visits.
“(Mitchell’s) a super talented kid that is going to become a better player,” offensive coordinator Jim Chaney said. “We’ll see how he develops.”
The Arkansas class also included six junior college signees, seven Arkansas high school players and three prospects from Texas.
247Sports ranked the class – which still included a commitment from Collins – 22nd in the nation. It was rated No. 26 by Rivals.com and No. 34 by Scout.com.
Fayetteville High quarterback Brandon Allen, who signed with teammates Alex Brignoni and Brooks Ellis during a ceremony at their school Wednesday, said the Hogs “will be ready to go” with or without Collins. But he remained optimistic.
“I feel like the class is great already as it is,” Allen said. “Denver Kirkland committing, and Hunter Henry, the top tight end in the nation, and a lot of other great players. But Alex is a one of a kind running back. Once he gets his situation figured out and he gets up here, I feel like the class will be top 25 in the nation.”
Bielema said the Razorbacks can sign up to 25 players and will continue to evaluate options. He said one of their first plans was to keep an eye on SEC teams that had more players committed to them than available scholarships. So more signatures could be faxed in on letters-of-intent in the coming days.
Bielema and the Razorbacks hope Collins’ signature is one of that trickles in soon.
If not, he indicated Arkansas would be able to move on without him.
“There’s things that are going to come up,” Bielema said. “Good coaches, I think, are prepared for different scenarios. Regardless of what happens you can be assured that as a head coach, as a recruiting coach, as position coaches, we’ve always probably been ahead of the game a little bit. … So we’ll adjust to it as we can.”