Tusk to Tail: Is this the year the Hogs get some Sugar?

Coach Bret Bielema is having a good week.  On Saturday the head Hog got a raise and contract extension, averaging $4.25 million a year through 2020.

Wednesday he signed a Top 25 class of recruits that includes seven four-star rated athletes, the most since Petrino’s 2009 class. That class was comprised of several eventual flops and flameouts, adding testament to the inexact science of college recruiting.

On Thursday, the big guy came to the capital city for “Signing Day in the Rock,” the annual program of highlight reels and propaganda to promote the future faces of the Razorbacks. Bielema’s introduction garnered more applause than new Gov. Asa Hutchinson, because winning football games is every bit as important as one’s stance on the private option when tallying popularity ratings.

We were back at the Statehouse Convention Center this year, which certainly contributed a more formal vibe. Bielema’s first Little Rock signing day appearance was at Verizon Arena two years ago. Before the coach was introduced that year, a gigantic prop pickup truck tailgate opened to reveal a band singing about drinking beer and calling the Hogs amidst a barrage of flashpots and smoke machines.

Last year’s audio/visual catastrophe at the former Sam’s Club building know as the Metroplex began with the band being lowered from the ceiling on a portable mini-stage, a spectacle that quite possibly trapped the drummer in the rafters for the night once it was raised for Coach B.

Things were different at the Statehouse. Thursday’s shindig had no bands and no buffet, cutting quickly to the Bielemania. Tusk to Tail represented 11 of the thousand fans at the sold out event who paid at least $65 each, with VIP tables of 10 costing $1,500 each.  Common sense might suggest more efficient use of funds, and you could certainly get a better meal than the banquet fare prepared for 1,000 guests.  But Coach B urges us to be uncommon. Where else can you hang out with politicians, the athletic director, and head coach to watch videos of teenage boys?

The Voice of the Razorbacks Chuck Barrett kicked things off by introducing each member of the coaching staff, from graduate assistants to coordinators. Several grad assistants, including former Arkansas defensive lineman Alfred Davis, range from “big and tall” to downright portly.  Life on the recruiting trail likely presents nutrition challenges, but I could not help wondering if Bielema had a soft spot for his out of shape peers trying to enter the coaching ranks.

Defensive Coordinator Robb Smith’s introduction ignited the crowd, who remained standing as Coach B. took the stage. Bielema jumped right into game film, sprinkling personal anecdotes from getting to know these young men throughout the highlights.

The videos began with new offensive lineman Josh Allen, one of five in this class from Florida, and one of seven students to enroll in January. One of Coach’s first stories recalled when 6’-6" freak of nature Jamario Bell from Junction City, one of 10 signees from Arkansas, dug out video of his first dunk. From seventh grade.

While rebuilding from the literal and figurative wreckage Petrino and John L. Smith left behind, Bielema has begun in the trenches, a point of emphasis that carries into this class. Nine linemen (4 offensive, 5 defensive) and three tight ends comprise about half of the newcomers. The defenders are needed to offset the loss of Trey Flowers and Darius Philon to the NFL draft. Adding depth to our mammoth O-line will hopefully prevent future 4th quarter collapses that plagued this year’s squad.

The tight ends are considered the best group at that position by those who evaluate such things. Will Gragg received a lot of attention, at least partially in recognition of his brother Chris, who played the position at Arkansas before continuing a successful career with the Buffalo Bills. Fayetteville’s C.J. O’Grady and Austin Cantrell from nearby Roland, Okla., are also among the nation’s best, increasing fan’s expectations for a position that Coach B. already loves to utilize.

The hottest commodity in just about any signing class is the quarterback, and 2015 was no exception. Charleston quarterback Ty Storey’s name elicited more applause than any other player. Storey is another early enrollee, and though Bielema has redshirted each of his previous freshman signal callers, many expect Storey to rapidly climb the depth chart to be senior QB Brandon Allen’s heir apparent. 

In addition to the multiple tight ends, Arkansas added a trio of receivers in hopes of finding a stable vertical threat alongside senior Keon Hatcher. Nashville’s La’Michael Pettway was once committed to Ole Miss before changing his pledge to the home-state Hogs. He is joined by diminutive speedster Deon Stewart and Dominique Reed, a junior college stud by way of Camden. 

It has been rumored that Reed needs to improve his work in the classroom, but he could be the downfield weapon the Hogs have been lacking since Jarius Wright and Cobi Hamilton. Tusk to Tail hopes Reed’s career mirrors the success enjoyed by All-SEC linebacker Martrell Spaight, an Arkansan who attended the same junior college en route to playing on the hill.

Several linebackers and defensive backs in this class, though less heralded than some of their classmates, appear to be the kind of “uncommon” athletes that thrive under Coach B. Linebacker Derrick Graham is from Gainesville, Fla., but “didn’t like the smell of it,” Bielema said.

After the coach who recruited him in Fayetteville took a job with Graham’s hometown Florida Gators, he was pressured to follow. Yet Graham’s commitment to Arkansas never wavered. Fellow linebacker Kendrick Jackson flipped his commitment to Arkansas from Arizona late in the process, and looks like a playmaker. Coach B called Jackson one of his favorites from this class.

Some recruits may see playing time earlier than others, including Long Beach, Calif., punter Blake Johnson, the leading candidate to replace outgoing senior Sam Irwin-Hill. Johnson  routinely kicked the ball more than 60 yards in his highlights, as well as outrunning the opposing defense following a botched snap.

“We like to run fake punts here at Arkansas,” said Bielema. “We had an Australian guy (Hill) get one (into the endzone). This guy sure as shit can get one in.”

Bielema has been successfully rebuilding the Razorbacks, but his predecessor Petrino had a similar trajectory at this point in his Arkansas career. Both missed a bowl game in the first season before garnering a 7th win in a lower-tier bowl game the following year. The Hogs went to the BCS Sugar Bowl in Petrino’s third season.

Repeating that kind of success would be difficult. Following Signing Day in the Rock, however, it seems certain that these 24 young men are an integral part of the future.