FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas offensive line coach Sam Pittman revealed Wednesday he received some sage advice from one of his peers a long time ago.
If you can’t do a cartwheel when a prospect makes a verbal commitment, your program is recruiting the wrong type of player.
Pittman admitted he wasn’t turning cartwheels when the Razorbacks put together their 2014 signing class. But it was because of his physical limitations, not the offensive linemen Arkansas signed Wednesday.
“You know I can’t do a cartwheel,” Pittman said. “But in my mind I was doing them. And a back flip.”
Arkansas coach Bret Bielema unveiled the Razorbacks’ 24-man class during a press conference Wednesday afternoon. The group didn’t wow with its star power like last season, when Alex Collins eventually signed with the Hogs. In fact, the Razorbacks finished 11th among 14 Southeastern Conference teams, according to conference rankings from Rivals.com, Scout.com, 247Sports and ESPN.com.
But one of the subtle strengths was Arkansas’ work in the trenches. Bielema has said since his arrival he planned to rebuild the Razorbacks from the inside out and ESPN.com Recruiting Nation senior writer Jeremy Crabtree believes the 2014 signing class is another sign Arkansas is accomplishing its mission.
The Razorbacks signed four linemen Wednesday: St. Louis Christian Brothers College High’s Brian Wallace, Iowa Western Community College’s Sebastian Tretola, Chanhassen (Minn.) High’s Frank Ragnow and Dallas Bishop Dunne High’s Jovan Pruitt. All four are regarded as three- or four-star prospects on a five-star scale.
Arkansas will put them together with last year’s offensive line class, which includes freshmen all-Americans Denver Kirkland and Dan Skipper.
“I certainly think that Arkansas is developing, quickly, one of the best young offensive line groups, not just in the SEC, but maybe in the entire country,” Crabtree said. “If you look at the guys, Denver Kirkland, Skipper, the others guys they have and mix them with high quality recruits like Brian Wallace or Frank Ragnow … People forget about Javon Pruitt because he committed so early in the process and then Sebastian Tretola. There’s some good young talent coming in there.
“I know coach Pittman has to be excited because, if you watched Arkansas this season you knew they needed help up front.”
The offensive line was one of several areas the Razorbacks targeted as they tried to recover from last season’s 3-9 performance. Arkansas also was seeking wide receivers (the Hogs signed four), linebackers (three) and defensive backs (five).
Bielema indicated it wasn’t easy recruiting after the struggles the program has endured the past two seasons. But he said Arkansas targeted players who “embraced everything that it means to come here right now.”
“We’re a team that’s on the rise in the SEC and want to be able to make a big transition from a year ago to where we’re going this year,” Bielema said. “If they want to be a part of that, that jumped out to you right away. Some kids, if they started talking about they didn’t want to be part of a rebuilding project or doing something, boom, it’s an easy thing to dismiss yourself from.
“It was a nice way to kind of filter out guys that maybe weren’t in it for the long haul that didn’t want to be a part of something they built. If they were looking for the ready-made, this probably wasn’t the right answer.”
The highest-rated member of the group is El Dorado defensive tackle Bijhon Jackson. Arkansas also got a highly-regarded quarterback in Bolivar (Mo.) High’s Rafe Peavey, who already is enrolled in classes and will go through spring practice. There was the signing day addition of speedy wide receiver JoJo Robinson, too, a Miami native rated as a four-star prospect.
Then came the offensive linemen. Arkansas offensive coordinator Jim Chaney credited Pittman with his work in securing the four-man group.
“Once again, I think Sam is the best offensive line recruiter in the country,” Chaney said. “He gets his hands on those kids, develops great relationships with them and you inevitably end up in a few years with a damn good offensive line.
“He’s exceptional at what he does.”
And Crabtree said it’s a must for what Arkansas is trying to accomplish.
“If you want to run Coach Bielema’s style and system, ball control, grind it out, control the clock, you’ve got to have the big guys up front,” Crabtree said. “Certainly they know that and this year’s group personifies that.”
Pittman, who had to wait anxiously to find out Kirkland had chosen Arkansas over Miami last year, didn’t endure any signing day drama with his group Wednesday.
All four had made their decisions before the week began.
But Pittman said it didn’t mean there weren’t tense moments. He waited patiently before finding out Wallace had chosen the Hogs at the U.S. Army All-America game earlier this winter. He also celebrated when Ragnow — who will play center at Arkansas — informed the Arkansas coaches he was signing with them last week.
“It would be hard to be more pleased with the guys we’ve got in our class,” Pittman said. “They’re good kids and very talented. Certainly we weren’t the only ones in America that wanted them. … They love the game, that’s what I like about them. I really feel like we’re going to see some nice things out of that group.”
Of course, Pittman couldn’t predict when they would get on the field.
He wasn’t sure Kirkland and Skipper were prepared for starting roles last winter, but the duo ended up starting every conference game. He said the new crop will get an opportunity when they arrive on campus.
“Obviously if they’re better than what we have, sure it’s realistic,” Pittman said.