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Twists, Turns Highlight Hogs’ Signing Day

By Matt Smith
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Arkansas welcomed in a class of 22 that, while only ranking ninth in the SEC, was No. 22 nationally according to the 247Composite rankings.

2012 was a year to forget for Arkansas. April brought the infamous motorcycle crash of former coach Bobby Petrino that led to his firing, while autumn saw the Razorbacks stumble from No. 8 in the polls to a 4-8 finish under temporary coach John L. Smith.

Athletic Director Jeff Long reached for the stars to fill the Petrino/Smith vacancy, including a brief flirtation with LSU’s Les Miles, before ultimately stunning the college football universe by luring three-time Big Ten champion Bret Bielema from Wisconsin.

Bielema was seen as a talent-maximizing coach, not someone who signs five-star recruit after five-star recruit. In the SEC, you have to do both. Despite being on the job for only two months, Bielema has apparently gotten the message.

Arkansas welcomed in a class of 22 that, while only ranking ninth in the SEC, was No. 22 nationally according to the 247Composite rankings. The average ranking of the five classes signed by Petrino was only 32nd. Bielema did leave the door to add to the signees announced Wednesday, including one very important recruit.

“I didn’t just want to take someone to fill a scholarship, so we have a couple scholarships left,” Bielema said. “I’ve learned in the SEC that some schools will oversign, so we’ll be in tune to that for the next 48 hours.”

The “Boss Hog” of the class was expected to be Fort Lauderdale, Fla., running back Alex Collins, who surprised many by committing to the Razorbacks over Miami, a school just 45 minutes down Interstate 95 from Fort Lauderdale. However, Collins did not sign a letter of intent on Wednesday due to a reported family disagreement.

Only 36 hours after Collins’ now fledgling commitment, another top south Florida prospect committed to the Razorbacks, as massive offensive lineman Denver Kirkland announced he too would sign with Arkansas. Kirkland is a consensus four-star prospect and is rated as the No. 145 player in the nation according to 247Composite.

“That one got really intense,” Bielema said of Kirkland’s recruitment. “He’s really big. He gets locked onto you and you’re in trouble. He could probably play four positions up front.”

Bielema and his staff showed the ability to go into the three big recruiting states – California, Florida and Texas – and win some battles, landing three recruits from each state. Arkansas also kept much of its elite in-state talent home, including four-star tight end Hunter Henry. The Little Rock native committed over the summer and stayed true to the Razorbacks despite the disappointing season and subsequent coaching change. Wisconsin produced NFL tight ends Travis Beckum and Garrett Graham during Bielema’s tenure in Madison.

“Hunter Henry is very athletic and not afraid to lay out and catch the ball,” Bielema said of his newest tight end. “He’s a great kid, I love the way he approaches things.”

Arkansas even went far beyond the continental United States, signing Honolulu offensive guard Reeve Koehler, who 247Sports ranks as the No. 14 guard prospect in the nation, and Australian punter Sam Irwin-Hill.

Bielema’s Wisconsin teams churned out NFL Draft picks on the offensive line on a yearly basis. The combination of Bielema and well-respected offensive line coach Sam Pittman helped make the decision to go from the Hawaiian Islands to the Ozark Mountain foothills much easier for Koehler.

The Hogs signed two quarterbacks in the class. One is familiar name, Fayetteville’s Austin Allen, younger brother of current Razorback quarterback Brandon Allen, a redshirt sophomore who is likely to be the starter in 2013. The younger Allen rates slightly higher than his older brother did coming out of high school, but will likely have to wait his turn to occupy the starting role. Former Georgia Tech commit Damon Mitchell also signed with Arkansas on Wednesday.

If there was a disappointment in the class, it was not landing an elite playmaker on the outside. If offensive coordinator Jim Chaney operates similarly to how he did in his four seasons at Tennessee, wide receivers will be just as important as they were under Petrino with the likes of Joe Adams, Greg Childs, Cobi Hamilton and Jarius Wright.

While Arkansas is a mere shell of the team that climbed to No. 3 in the polls late in the 2011 season, Bielema has shown he’s not in over his head in the rugged SEC West. There is hope for Bielema, however. Kevin Sumlin (Texas A&M) and Hugh Freeze (Ole Miss) were both highly successful last season as first-year head coaches in the SEC West. Bielema has also given hope to a Razorbacks fanbase in desperate need of it after a 2012 to forget.

Matt Smith - Matt is a 2007 graduate of Notre Dame and has spent most of his life pondering why most people in the Mid-Atlantic actually think there are more important things than college football. He has blogged for College Football News, covering both national news as well as Notre Dame and the service academies. He credits Steve Spurrier and Danny Wuerffel for his love of college football and tailgating at Florida, Tennessee, and Auburn for his love of sundresses. Matt covers the ACC as well as the national scene.