FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas was dealing with some signing day drama Wednesday with running back Alex Collins. But new running backs coach Joel Thomas said it’s definitely not the first time the unexpected has happened for him in recruiting.
In fact, Thomas used a familiar name to Arkansas fans as an example Wednesday.
Thomas said he recruited former Razorbacks Jerico Nelson as a running back when he was at Purdue in 2008. Nelson, in fact, was a Purdue commitment at one point. But Thomas realized that changed when he and another Boilermakers staff member slipped down to New Orleans to make an in-home visit with Nelson and his family.
“We were doing a home visit and he forgot to tell us he was taking his trip up here,” Thomas said in reference to Arkansas. “That one we took a little personal.”
Nelson, of course, signed with the Razorbacks as part of former coach Bobby Petrino’s first class. He played linebacker at Arkansas, starting most of his career.
Nelson is currently with the New Orleans Saints and Thomas said he ran into his former verbal commitment while interning with the organization last summer.
“I caught him in the cafeteria and I’m like, ‘Are you ever going to tell me where you’re going to go?’” Thomas said. “He looked at me like I was a ghost. I go, ‘Don’t worry man. I get it. You made the right decision for yourself.
“That happens in recruiting sometimes. I get it.”
Thomas can’t comment on Collins because the prospect has not signed his letter-of-intent. But he’s obviously hoping for a better outcome with the elite back.
Either way, Thomas said the best way to avoid most recruiting surprises is by developing solid relationships with prospects.
“When you have a whole year to recruit somebody you have that relationship and that’s what you always hope to fall back on,” Thomas said. “That’s what this process is about. It’s the relationship you have with the prospect and that connection.”
Texas has been a vital recruiting area for Arkansas throughout the program’s existence. The Razorbacks signed three players from the state Wednesday in receiver Melvinson Hartfield, running back Denzell Evans and conerback D.J. Dean.
It’s a low number for a program that had 17 Texas natives on its 2012 roster. But Bielema said the new staff understands the value of the state.
“One of our biggest priorities moving forward will be to establish Arkansas football in the state of Texas,” Bielema said. “In North Texas and East Texas in particular.”
On the road again
Arkansas tight end coach Barry Lunney Jr. was back on the road as a college recruiter for the first time since 2004 the past month. The former Bentonville High offensive coordinator said he didn’t carry any anxiousness with him.
“It was kind of like, to a certain degree, like riding a bicycle,” Lunney Jr. said. “I hadn’t been on the bike in a long time. But coach said it up here earlier (Wednesday), recruiting is - once you evaluate and get beyond that - then recruiting becomes about relationships. It just does. … When I got back out on the road, there was no anxiousness or anxiety at all because one of the things I was able to do was go in this state where I’ve got those relationships. As I’ve been out and met a lot of guys and talked to a lot of guys, I know a lot of them. I have ties with a lot of them.”
Arkansas signed eight players from the state, including the Fayetteville trio of Austin Allen, Brooks Ellis and Alex Brignoni. Most of them were committed to the program before the new staff arrived, but Lunney Jr. said working the state will be his primary responsibility on the recruiting trail with the Hogs.
“For me to go into some of these schools, it’s just reaffirmed that I do know some of these guys,” Lunney Jr. said. “They do know me and there was a level of connection there that was immediate. I’m going to continue to work on that.”
The Razorbacks haven’t spent much time recruiting in South Florida, pulling just one prospect out of the area since 2002. But the emphasis has changed with South Florida natives Charlie Partridge and Randy Shannon on staff.
Arkansas signed three players from the area Wednesday and are waiting for Collins’ final decision. Partridge – who has recruited the area for years - was asked Wednesday what type of reception he’s received in an Arkansas shirt.
“A lot of people, quite honestly, had the response almost to the effect of it’s good to see Arkansas in here,” Partridge said. “A lot of people believe that’s the power of the SEC. There has been recent success on the field. We should be a team that’s able to go down there and recruit with anybody that’s down there.
“I think we’ve proven in a few weeks that we have an opportunity to do that.”
Thomas’ mind hasn’t just been on finishing Arkansas’ class this week.
His wife, Ebbie, gave birth to the couple’s second son Monday afternoon. The day got even better when Collins announced that night he had made a verbal commitment to the Razorbacks, although his status remains unresolved now.
Thomas was asked how he juggled the birth of his second child with the final stretch in recruiting. He said the rest of the staff was supportive.
“This is what we do. It’s football. It’s recruiting,” Thomas said. “My wife has been off the charts. A champ. … She has been incredible with this process as far as coming from Seattle to out here before the birth. That’s my No. 1 recruit right there.”