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October 1, 2012
Hawgs holding class together despite struggles
Dallas Jackson is the National Columnist for Rivals.com. Email him your comments or story ideas to DallasJ@Yahoo-Inc.com and follow him on Twitter.
In the midst of the worst four-game stretch in program history, the message from Arkansas coaches to recruits has remained consistent. And despite the incredibly disappointing on-field results, it may be that continuity that holds the key to keeping the class of 2013 together.
Trey Biddy has covered the Razorbacks for HawgSports.com for the last decade, and he says that staying the course is the only option at this point.
"Since (former coach Bobby) Petrino was fired, it has been clear that kids would hear, 'don't commit to the head coach, commit to the school,' " Biddy said. "With how this season has started, the message stays the same."
It has to stay the same, in part because interim head coach John L. Smith stands no chance of returning for next season. Some are speculating he may not survive next week.
As bad as things have been under Smith, the program is still recruiting at the same level it has during the Rivals.com era. And despite what may be the worst September of any preseason Top 10 team in the history of college football, it may not be enough to destroy the class.
How about that for silver lining?
The 16-member class that Arkansas currently has committed ranks No. 13 in the SEC and has an average star-per-player ranking of 3.00. The Razorbacks' cumulative average since the inception of Rivals.com is 2.96.
Over the span of the last 11 classes that have been rated by Rivals.com, only once has the program been finished higher than ninth in the SEC. That was in 2009 the program produced the No. 7 class in the conference with a 3.26 star-per-player ranking.
National recruiting analyst Mike Farrell said that the start to the season has been an embarrassment, but that there may be time to rebound.
"This is a legendarily bad start to a season, and what is the best case scenario here? Sneak into a bowl? I doubt it," he said. "The program can still sell a new football building, it can still sell the SEC, and it can still sell its recent success. It also has a built-in scapegoat for this year, and so the recruiting could stay the course if they can sell some excitement about a new coach.
"I am sure for some of the kids the damage may already be done."
But there has yet to be a player change his commitment from the class, and several have been outspoken in support of the Razorbacks.
"It is tough times, but I am fully committed to that team," Brinoni said. "Nothing is going to change that."
Ellis, a 6-foot-2, 215-pound three-star linebacker, said that it has been hard to watch the team falter, but he remains loyal to the local team.
"I am still good," he said. "I am 100 percent committed."
Other players, such as Edmond (Okla.) Sante Fe linebacker Khari Harding, have started looking around.
Khari said in a text message to Rivals.com that he was still committed to Arkansas and that he was not sure that his official visit to Stillwater was going to land him an Oklahoma State offer.
Farrell believes that the out-of-state players are likely to be the first to flee if the season gets worse or if they have similar options on the table.
"There isn't much loyalty these days," he said. "Some kids grow up wanting to go to Arkansas and those kids are usually from in-state, and they will stick it out. But I wouldn't imagine that the entire class is filled with those kids."
Biddy said that the class could start to see fluctuation, but change at Arkansas has been pretty regular.
"Arkansas has always filled up and then re-evaluated midseason," he said. "There will be some kids that pull away and some that may not be as heavily recruited coming up.
"The top kids, like Hunter Henry, will be a priority, but he has said that he wasn't changing his commitment and he wants to stay in the state."
Henry is the lone four-star player currently on the commitment list for Arkansas, and the 6-foot-6 tight end from Little Rock (Ark.) Pulaski Academy hasn't hinted that he was not going to honor his commitment, at least not to his head coach Kevin Kelley.
"Hunter has told me he is committed to the University and the state," Kelley said. "I don't want to speak for him too much because he may want to look around, but right now he sounds like he is solid."
Kelley said that the program is going to need to make an aggressive move at the season's end to keep positive momentum.
"Right now it is tough," he said. "You can't fire the coach because you won't get someone to take the job at this point in the season. Whoever was available to you in April when this all happened is still available now, but those will not be full-time, acceptable hires.
"John L. was brought into this situation on a 10-month contract, and everyone knew that. It will be on the athletic administration to spend the money to get the right guy."
Biddy has updated multiple coaching search boards on HawgSports.com and said that athletic director Jeff Long has his work cut out for him.
"Right now there are no great options," Biddy said. "There isn't a natural fit.
"This interim situation went about as bad as it could go, and a lot of people have let go of the rope. There will be a lot of turnover and probably only a few assistants will stay on, but the right hire has to be made."
Both Strong and Franklin have ties to the Southeast and, according to Farrell, both are well respected recruiters who could energize the recruits and the fan base.
"If Arkansas is able to land Charlie or Franklin, it would be an exciting hire," Farrell said. "They will likely need to pay both guys and give them longer contracts with how everything is playing out down there, but those guys can get it done in recruiting."
Kelley took an opposite approach to what he thinks could be successful at Arkansas. While Strong and Franklin are defensive-minded coaches, Kelley thinks the high-octane offense Petrino was running is easier to plug players into.
"Arkansas is simply not going to recruit against Alabama and LSU for the animals they get on defense," he said. "That is a simple truth that those programs will be rock solid on defense, and [Arkansas] will need to score more. Going after (Baylor head coach) Art Briles, or (West Virginia coach) Dana Holgorsen, or even (Boise State's) Chris Petersen would make more sense here."
Biddy knows that the situation will play itself out in time, but the longer the team performs at this level the harder it will be to successfully solve the problem.
"People are furious," he said. "The bright side is that this would appear to the bottom of the barrel."
More silver lining, perhaps.