FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas football coach Bret Bielema said during his national signing day press conference the Razorbacks intend to bolster their recruiting efforts in Texas.
He took a significant step in filling out his coaching staff Thursday.
Clay Jennings, who coached at Texas Christian for the past six seasons and has worked in the state for 10 years, was hired as Arkansas’ defensive backs coach on Thursday. The 40-year-old Christian replaces Taver Johnson, who left for a position at Purdue last week, to complete Arkansas’ reshaped defensive coaching staff.
“He’s a guy who I have gotten to know through the business,” Bielema said before addressing the White County Razorback Club in Searcy on Thursday. “We played against TCU several years ago and I was very impressed with their defense and what they did. I think as soon as I knew Taver was going, I had a very small list of people, but he was a guy who was the No. 1 guy on my list.
“Philosophically, he is very, very similar to what we believe in as far as exact teaching and all that stuff. He’s a great recruiter in the state of Texas.”
Jennings does bring plenty of Texas ties to Arkansas. He was born in Waco, was a defensive lineman at North Texas (1992-95), and has had coaching stops at Sam Houston State (2001-02), Houston (2005-06), Baylor (2007) and TCU (2008-2013).
Jennings has garnered respect as a recruiter along the way. The new addition to Arkansas’ staff said Thursday night he has worked in the state since 2000, when he was the secondary coach at Southern Arkansas.
“I’ve got a pretty good rapport here with the coaches in the Metroplex, as well as the coaches down in the southeast area along with the Houston area as well,” Jennings said. “I was born and raised in Waco Texas and I attended the University of North Texas. I’m pretty well versed with the coaches here and I have a pretty good relationship with those guys. I can’t wait to have an opportunity to get in and continue to nurture those relationships and recruit their kids.”
It’s an area that has been vital to Arkansas’ recruiting efforts throughout the program’s history. It’s also one that the Razorbacks have struggled to tap into since Bielema’s arrival at Arkansas in Dec. 2012.
The Razorbacks signed three players from Texas in its 2013 class (defensive back D.J. Dean, running back Denzell Evans and receiver Melvinson Hartfield). There were two Texas prospects in the 2014 signing class (offensive lineman Jovan Pruitt and place kicker Cole Hedlund).
But Bielema said Jennings should help fill that void.
“He’s so easy to talk to, so smooth in what he’s saying and how he’s coming across,” Bielema said Thursday night. “He’s very deliberate in the way he handles people.”
Arkansas also expects Jennings to help improve its defensive backfield as well.
The Razorbacks struggled in the secondary last season and are replacing defensive coordinator Chris Ash, who left for a position at Ohio State. New defensive coordinator Robb Smith was tabbed as defensive backs coach when he was hired by Bielema earlier this month, but Jennings said he will work with all four positions.
Jennings has had success with cornerbacks, coaching six who went on to play in the NFL. One more — Jason Verrett — was a first-team All-Big 12 and second-team All-America selection while at TCU. Verrett is preparing for the 2013 NFL Draft.
“The one question that I had initially about coming to the University of Arkansas as far as making that move was … I just didn’t want to work with the corners,” Jennings said. “Coach Smith and coach Bielema, they’re showing a great deal in trust in me as far as letting me work with all four. But I know I will be working closely with coach Smith as far as the development and the scheme of what we’re doing defensively.”
Jennings said he has crossed paths with Smith in the coaching profession and called him a “delightful man” and “sharp coach” on Thursday. He also spent a year with Arkansas linebackers coach Randy Shannon at TCU, although Jennings said their relationship goes back much to when he was an assistant at Houston.
“We played the University of Miami, so I met him on the elevator,” Jennings said. “Just had an opportunity to say hello to him every now and again and just keeping in touch. Then he worked here with us at TCU, it was a great opportunity. He brought a tremendous wealth of knowledge and energy to our staff in the very short period of time, so I’m excited about having the opportunity to work with him again.”
He’ll be the third new member of a reshaped defensive staff at Arkansas.
Jennings, Smith and defensive line coach Rory Segrest were hired to replace Johnson, Ash and Charlie Partridge this winter. Jennings said he’s eager for the opportunity to coach and recruit in the Southeastern Conference.
“It’s the pinnacle of college football, especially the SEC West,” Jennings said.