Razorback receiver Mike Woods / Photo: ArkansasRazorbacks.com
In the world of college football, Christmas now comes early each year thanks to the NCAA early signing period for football, which opens Wednesday.
As has been the case for decades, the traditional signing period — or now “late” signing period — remains in February.
However, most of the elite programs will all but be done with recruiting for 2021 during the early period and begin concentrating on their 2022 recruiting class which will begin sign next December.
With a little bit more than a year on the job at Arkansas, Razorback head coach Sam Pittman’s not yet cooking at an elite level with the Razorbacks’ recruiting, but with the help of a strong staff, the Hogs are working toward that goal.
The Razorbacks plan to sign at least 20 players who have made public commitments to Arkansas during the early signing period and have a transfer in former Oklahoma Sooner wide receiver Jaquayln Crawford (5-10, 172), who is already in the fold but will count toward the 2021 signing class.
Arkansas might or might not have some silent commitments that could sign this week or in February.
While having an early signing period in December is probably a good thing for the recruits and programs alike, it hasn’t necessarily worked in Arkansas’ favor since it began in 2017 because of the turnover at the top of the program.
Bret Bielema was fired in 2017, and Chad Morris had to hit the ground running to get a few players on board for that first early period. In 2018, the Razorbacks had a surprisingly good signing class for a program that went 2-10.
However, Morris had been fired prior to Thanksgiving of 2019, and Pittman had only been on the job a matter of days last year when the early signing period occurred.
I’d argue that Pittman and even Morris recruited well under this circumstances, but that type of churn at the top of the program, no doubt, has had its effect on Arkansas’ depth, which really began to show late this season.
I chalk Arkansas’ 27-24 loss to LSU on Nov. 21 up to the players out because of Covid-19, but depth overall seemed to hold the Hogs back in the 50-48 loss to Missouri on Dec. 5 as the defense appeared to wilt in the fourth quarter. Some of that was due to the loss of field general Grant Morgan at linebacker, but not all of it.
Last Saturday’s 52-3 loss to No. 1 Alabama was because of a talent gap that’s seemingly grown wider and wider the longer Nick Saban has held the captain’s seat for the Crimson Tide.
What stands out to me about this season is that the Razorbacks were at their best in early to late-October. From there we saw a slow deterioration in the Hogs’ level of play, partly from the talent of the opponents but more so from the Hogs’ dwindling depth, especially on the defensive side of the football.
The Razorbacks need more talented athletes up front on both sides of the ball. Pittman knows this, but finding and recruiting great big men is a chore for rebuilding programs like Arkansas’.
Recruiting enough talented big men to be truly nationally competitive has been the challenge for every Razorback football coach dating back to Frank Broyles, but the issue became even larger once the Hogs joined the SEC.
The state’s population works against the program in producing the quantity of athletic big men it takes to carry a football team year in and year out.
I’ll never forget Houston Nutt’s assessment of his first team after its 45-31 loss to Michigan and some quarterback named Tom Brady in the 1999 Florida Citrus Bowl. It was that the Razorbacks needed to get bigger and stronger in the trenches to be truly nationally competitive.
While the game has evolved in the intervening two decades, teams with the most athletic big men still rule the game. We saw that up close last Saturday against Alabama.
Pittman knows this better than most. Here’s what he said following the Hogs’ loss to the Crimson Tide concerning the squad’s size and the new issues this Covid-infected season has brought.
“There are several different places that obviously we need some help,” Pittman said. “I love the kids we have on the team. We’ve got to get bigger. At about every position, we could use some plug-and-play guys. We’re not a totally go-out-and-get-a-junior-college squad. We’re not a transfer squad. I think you build a program through high school recruiting and that’s what we’re going to do, and we’ll plug- in a few transfers.”
“We have to get bigger. We’ve lost two kids in practice to concussions and things of that nature that have been unfortunate. But our depth, from Covid and from injuries and things of that nature. You know guys, y’all don’t have any idea what going through Covid and opt-out are about. I mean none. You basically put your team together on Friday because the tests come back on Thursday. And so there’s a lot that goes into all that stuff. So I think we’ll have a deeper team (in future seasons).
“Hopefully if the vaccine gets out and things and our depth will be better and kids aren’t afraid of the virus. And at that point the virus, opting out would be a thing of the past. I think our depth is probably better than it looks, simply because of the virus and opting out. So but we do need some young kids to come in here and help us. Obviously we feel like we’ve got a good class.
“I think that’s probably the message that you give to every single class, no matter where you’re at, because if you don’t give them hope that they have a possibility to play, you know, then you’re probably not recruiting them as high as they want to be. We certainly need guys to come in here and help us.”
Razorback receiver Mike Woods also spoke about recruiting last Saturday, adding that what the Hogs started this season is just the beginning of the program Pittman and they are working to establish at Arkansas.
“I’ve already talked to a couple of recruits, myself,” Woods said. “I just (direct message) them and tell them this is just a foundation. This is just a foundation year. We ain’t going down from here. It’s only up. You better come ready to work. I tell every single one of them, you better come ready to work because we’re not playing games next year. We’ve got to get some wins, that’s what it is.”
Arkansas’ Commitment List
Marco Avant, LB, 6-3, 212, Jonesboro
Cole Carson, OL, 6-6, 290, Bogata (Texas) Rivercrest
Lucas Coley, QB, 6-2, 205, San Antonio (Texas) Cornerstone Christian
AJ Green, RB, 5-11, 190, Tulsa (Okla.) Union
Javion Hunt, RB, 6-0, 205, Oklahoma City (Okla.) Carl Albert
Ketron Jackson, WR, 6-2, 185, Royse City (Texas)
Jayden Johnson, S, 6-2, 193, Cedartown (Ga.)
Jermaine Hamilton-Jordan, S, 6-1, 195, Kansas City (Mo.) Lincoln College Prep
Cameron Little, K, 6-2, 170, Moore (Okla.) Southmoore
Chase Lowery, CB, 6-0, 180, Frisco (Texas)
Devon Manuel, OL, 6-8, 300, Arnaudville (La.) Beau Chene
Erin Outley, TE, 6-4, 248, Little Rock Parkview
Keuan Parker, CB, 6-0, 173, Tulsa (Okla.) Booker T. Washington
Christopher Paul, LB, 6-1, 235, Cordele (Ga.) Crisp County
Landon Rogers, QB, 6-5, 215, Little Rock Parkview
Raheim Sanders, ATH, 6-2, 210, Rockdale (Fla.)
Bryce Stephens, WR, 6-0, 165, Oklahoma City (Okla.) John Marshall
Terry Wells, OL, 6-5, 306, Wynne
Jaedon Wilson, WR, 6-3, 172, DeSoto (Texas)
Solomon Wright, DL, 6-1, 275, Vian (Okla.)
Jaquayln Crawford, WR, 5-10, 172, Rockdale, Texas. (Oklahoma transfer)