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May 31, 2012

Arkansas trying to keep up despite uncertainty

When Bobby Petrino's motorcycle skidded off a highway two months ago, Arkansas' recruiting fortunes could have been wrecked, too.

It hasn't quite worked out that way.

Arkansas has received six verbal commitments since Petrino was fired April 10 amid the scandal that the passenger on his motorcycle was a mistress he had hired as a student-athlete development coordinator for the football program. Four of those commitments have come in the last two weeks.

"The program itself over the last couple of years has really built a good brand," Rivals.com national recruiting analyst Mike Farrell said. "I think that brand is selling itself. It would help if Petrino were still the coach and none of that scandal had occurred, but winning in the SEC is very attractive to recruits in state or out of state. They've been one of the best programs in the SEC the last couple of years. And that's what kids remember."

Arkansas remains well behind the pace of many SEC rivals, but the Razorbacks have made quite a rebound. At the time of Petrino's crash, the only two 2013 prospects committed to Arkansas were Manvel (Texas) wide receiver Austin Bennett and Katy (Texas) Cinco Ranch running back Jamel James. Both withdrew their commitments after Petrino got fired.

The uncertain coaching situation could have scared away prospects. Arkansas hired former Michigan State head coach John L. Smith as Petrino's interim replacement for the 2012 season, but there's no guarantee he'll return in 2013. North Carolina struggled to recruit under similar circumstances last year after the July firing of Butch Davis.

"When it first happened, there was some concern because obviously it's a lot more difficult to get commitments when you don't know who's going to be your head coach, your position coach, your recruiting coach and all that stuff," Arkansas recruiting coordinator Tim Horton said. "Surprisingly, it's gone very well."

The rally started April 25 when Denham Springs (La.) running back Kaleb Blanchard committed. Patterson (La.) tight end Deondre Skinner followed suit less than three weeks later. Arkansas' recruiting efforts really gained momentum May 21 when quarterback Austin Allen, safety Alex Brignoni and linebacker Brooks Ellis all committed on the same day.

"That was kind of our goal, committing to kind of get the ball rolling," Ellis said.

In some respects, those three commitments shouldn't have come as much of a surprise. Allen, Brignoni and Ellis all are local prospects from Fayetteville (Ark.) High. Allen is the son of Arkansas secondary coach Bobby Allen and the younger brother of Arkansas quarterback Brandon Allen.

The Razorbacks got an additional boost Saturday with the commitment of Plantation (Fla.) American Heritage quarterback Tyler Cogswell. Brignoni, Cogswell and Skinner all received offers from Arkansas after Petrino's exit.

Cogswell admitted he was initially worried about the Petrino situation. After talking it over with his father, he decided to commit to Arkansas, anyway.

"It really wasn't a big concern to me," Cogswell said. "I thought that it could really happen anywhere anyone goes."

Other schools may not face similarly sordid circumstances, but Cogswell's point is that plenty of programs could switch coaches at the end of the year. The situation is just more apparent at Arkansas.

That Arkansas was able to land a commitment all the way from south Florida less than two months after its coach was forced out underscores just how much recruiting clout the Razorbacks have gained over the past couple of years.

OUTPERFORMING ITS RANKING
Arkansas has gone 21-5 over the last two seasons and was ranked fifth in each of the two major polls last season, but the Razorbacks have succeeded on the field without signing elite recruiting classes. Here's a look at where each Arkansas recruiting class ranked nationally and within the SEC each of the last seven years. (The SEC rankings don't include Missouri and Texas A&M, which join the league this fall.)
YearSEC rankNat'l rank
20069th27th
20079th31st
20089th36th
20097th16th
201010th49th
20119th24th
201210th34th
The Razorbacks posted a combined 21-5 record the past two years and finished the 2011 season fifth in each of the two major polls. Arkansas' only losses last season were to Alabama and LSU, the two participants in the BCS championship game.

Arkansas recently began construction on a $40 million football facility that should be ready by the start of the 2013 season. The school is adding a $4.6 million Jumbotron this season that will be the third-largest in college football, behind Texas and Miami. Arkansas' spring game drew more than 45,000 fans.

"As bad as some people want to make it look and sound, there really are some great things happening at the University of Arkansas," Horton said.

All those factors could allow Arkansas to avoid the fate that befell North Carolina in the last recruiting cycle. The Tar Heels played the 2011 season with Everett Withers as an interim coach before hiring Larry Fedora away from Southern Miss in December. North Carolina's 2012 recruiting class ranked seventh in the ACC and 44th nationally, as the Tar Heels signed just two of the Tar Heel State's top 15 prospects.

It's worth noting that Arkansas recently has performed much better on the field than on the recruiting trail. Arkansas has finished ninth or lower in the SEC recruiting rankings six of the past seven years. Arkansas' 2012 class ranked 10th out of 12 SEC teams and 34th nationwide.

That said, the uncertain coaching situation does put Arkansas at a disadvantage against its SEC West rivals.

Arkansas doesn't have a verbal commitment from anyone in the 2013 Rivals250. For comparison's sake, seven of the nation's top 110 recruits have committed to Alabama and seven Rivals250 prospects have pledged to Texas A&M. LSU has commitments from six recruits in the top 200. Three of the nation's top 42 juniors have committed to Auburn.

"I don't know if they're going to be able to land really the elite guys when they have no idea who their coach is going to be," Rivals.com Midlands recruiting analyst Brian Perroni said.

That could force Arkansas to focus more on players in the surrounding area.

"We always have to take care of the borders of Arkansas first," Horton said. "Then, for us, we need to do well in Texas, particularly Dallas. We have to do well in Tennessee, particularly Memphis; Kansas City. Some of the larger metropolitan places that are within a five-hour radius of our campus. This may cause us to stay a little closer to home than maybe we have the last couple of years, and I don't know if that's a bad thing, to be honest."

The No. 1 player in the state of Arkansas and No. 53 prospect in the nation is North Little Rock running back Altee Tenpenny, who committed to Alabama in January. The state's No. 2 prospect is Little Rock Pulaski Academy tight end Hunter Henry, an uncommitted Rivals250 recruit and the son of former Arkansas offensive lineman Mark Henry.

Henry has been paying attention to the recent events at Arkansas.

"It was a tough situation there for a while," Henry told HawgSports.com this week. "[My father and I] both were proud of the university for just the pride and everything that they showed, and that they don't tolerate that kind of stuff. That was impressive to us. I'm looking forward to seeing what coach John L. Smith is going to do, but that's what we're looking at right now.''

Naturally, some of Arkansas' committed prospects also continue to monitor the coaching situation.

For instance, Skinner considered Arkansas one of his top schools in part because of the way Petrino's offense utilized the tight end. D.J. Williams won the John Mackey Award while playing for Petrino in 2010. Even though Petrino's not around anymore, Skinner still committed to Arkansas because he believed Smith would continue to make the tight end a focal point in the Razorbacks' offense.

Skinner says he's confident Smith will remain in charge of the program beyond this year. If Arkansas opted not to keep Smith, Skinner hopes the Razorbacks would choose someone who didn't plan on dramatically altering the Razorbacks' current offensive scheme.

"If another coach came in that [primarily] ran the ball where he was, yeah, that would change my decision," Skinner said.

Ellis also would like the current staff to remain in place, but it's not going to affect his choice one way or another.

"I love the coaching staff now," Ellis said. "I'd rather see them stay there, but [a switch] wouldn't change my mind."

The uncertainty still leaves Arkansas' current staff facing quite a dilemma. Plenty of recruits won't commit to a program without having a good idea who will be coaching that team by the time they arrive on campus. How do you sell those prospects on Arkansas?

"The most important thing in any recruiting situation is that you're totally honest with the kid," Horton said. "When a kid has that concern, you can certainly sympathize with that and agree with that. That is the situation we're in right now. For a kid like that, what you're really trying to get done is just to stay in the game until our situation is resolved. For us, there are several kids who have expressed that concern."

For now, they're treating Arkansas with caution.

But at least they're keeping the Razorbacks under consideration.


Steve Megargee is the national college columnist for Rivals.com. He can be reached at smegargee@rivals.com, and you can click here to follow him on Twitter.



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