LITTLE ROCK — Our last four cars have been purchased from the same dealership for a reason.
Leaving the showroom, we are confident that if something goes wrong, these guys are going to do us right. However that feeling is communicated, Bret Bielema and his assistants do it with football players.
Some members of Bielema’s first recruiting class at Arkansas grew up calling the Hogs, but many are converts, trusting enough in men they have known for a while to follow them to Madison, Wis., or Knoxville, Tenn., or Fayetteville, Ark. To them, the coach was more important than the campus.
A look at Arkansas’ signees speaks volumes about salesmanship and relationships:
• Bielema said in December that Wisconsin didn’t take many junior college players, but that when the Badgers were hurting for a safety, they scoured the country and found Tiquention Coleman at Georgia Military College. When Bielema was hired at Arkansas, he promised himself he would not pursue any previously contacted players unless they took the initiative. Coleman did that, sending Bielema a “pretty detailed message.” Bielema gave him a couple of days to think about it before getting back in touch and Coleman enrolled at Arkansas in January.
• Committed to Tennessee in June, offensive lineman Dan Skipper began to explore his options after Derek Dooley was fired in November. Bielema hired offensive coordinator Jim Chaney and offensive line coach Sam Pittman off the Tennessee staff in December. In late January, Skipper committed to Arkansas.
• Recruited by Kansas State as a defensive back, wide receiver Melvinson Hartfield was headed for Manhattan. Bielema hired KSU wide receiver coach Michael Smith in mid-January, Hartfield visited Fayetteville a short time later, and is a Razorback.
• Running back Denzell Evans committed to Houston, but coach Joel Thomas had talked with Evans about playing at Washington. Bielema hired Thomas in December and Evans jumped at an offer from Arkansas.
• Once committed to Georgia Tech, quarterback Damon Mitchell decided in October to visit Madison. When the folks who extended that invitation moved South, contact with Mitchell continued, and he signed on with Arkansas this week.
Cultivated and nurtured through the years, the Florida connections of Bielema, linebacker coach Randy Shannon, and others paid huge dividends. Our beat writer did some digging to determine that lineman Michael Aguirre in 2005 had been the only Razorback football signee out of South Florida in the past 10 years.
When highly touted running back Alex Collins signed on Thursday, he was the fourth this year from the fertile area. In years past, Arkansas coaches would be fortunate to get to speak to those players and the best salesmen can’t make a pitch if they don’t get in the door.
Even though Arkansas recruiters finished fast and the group is an upgrade from the commitments secured by the previous staff, the Razorbacks’ class ranks lower than the those signed by the other six teams in the Western Division of the SEC.
Apparently, recruiting services do not give much weight to progress of players while in junior college and the perception of Arkansas’ class might be a tad lower than it should be since five of the 23 are JC transfers. When those players signed in December, Bielema pulled no punches, saying the players “fit some immediate needs that we have just from watching film.” In other words, he and his assistants didn’t have to see the on-campus players in practice to know the defense needs help.
In turn, we should get an early read on this class since eight will start or play minutes the equivalent of a starter. The must-play group includes two defensive backs, two linebackers, and an offensive lineman from junior college, plus freshman tight end Hunter Henry, Collins, and punter Sam Irwin-Hill.
There are reasons to be enthused about this group. Given a full year on the job, this staff should do even better in 2014.
Harry King is sports columnist for Stephens Media’s Arkansas News Bureau. His email address is email@example.com.