Even though his feet have never stepped in Fayetteville, Willie Sykes’ heart was already in Arkansas before national signing day on Feb. 4.
That and the opportunity to be coached by Clay Jennings are why the Spring, Texas, standout officially flipped from Nebraska just a few days before signing day and ended up inking his letter-of-intent with the Razorbacks.
Sykes (6-0, 190, 4.4) will finally get the chance to make his official visit to Arkansas this weekend and look over head coach Bret Bielema’s program.
“I am looking forward to getting up there and checking out the facilities and all those things, but I know that I made the right decision in my heart because of the coaches,” Sykes said Tuesday. “It’s about the coaches, especially Coach Jennings and the opportunity to play in the SEC, which means playing against the best of the best.
“It’s also about Coach Bielema and the direction he has the program headed,” Sykes added. “I want to be a part of a program that is on the rise and is headed to the top.”
Sykes, a three-star prospect per Scout.com, had 86 tackles this past season, 4 interceptions, 12 pass break ups and caused two fumbles.
He originally committed to Washington State on Jan. 16, but was one of six de-commits from Mike Leach’s program when Cougars’ assistant Dennis Simmons left for Oklahoma.
“I thought Washington State was where I was going to end up, but some things went down there and Coach Simmons left and then Nebraska entered the picture,” Sykes said.
“I then took a visit to Nebraska and ended up committing on a home visit after the visit,” Skyes said.
During this time, Jennings – the Arkansas secondary coach – was trying to talk to Sykes about taking a visit to see the Razorbacks on one of the last two weekends before signing day.
But his mom Daneaa Thompson - pictured above with Willie - wasn’t sure about her son doing a double flip.
“I was really wanting to do that (visit Arkansas), but my mom was sold on Nebraska, thought I needed to just go there and just move on,” Sykes said. “So I listened to her.
“But I just kept thinking about Coach Jennings and how I thought he was the guy that I needed to have coaching me in college,” Sykes added. “My heart was already there in Arkansas.
“I think it was three days before signing day that I set down with my mom and she asked me what was going through my head,” Sykes continued. “I told her that I was thinking that Arkansas was the place I wanted to be.”
Sykes just kept hearing over and over how Jennings was a great coach and a great guy.
“My high school coach is good friends with him, the guys that were recruiting me for TCU had great things to say about him, every coach that I talked and even his former players were just saying great things about him,” Sykes said.
“Nothing against (Nebraska) Coach (Charlton) Warren, but he is from a military background and I just felt more comfortable with Coach Jennings,” Sykes added.
As it turns out, Warren was hired away from Nebraska by North Carolina this week so he wouldn’t have ended up coaching Sykes anyway.
Sykes was also hearing from Razorback commit and eventual defensive back signee Nate Dalton of Houston, Texas, Cypress Falls.
riding till the end of time im going to retire you for all that you did as a single mother no way I can pay you back pic.twitter.com/EpM0lg7o8B— arkansas U (@williesykes11) February 5, 2015
“Nate just kept telling me great things about Arkansas, all about his visit and being sure about the school and the program and thinking that we could do great things in the secondary together if I would come and be a Razorback,” Sykes said.
“So when I was sitting down with my mom, she asked where my heart was and I said ‘Arkansas,’” Sykes added. “So she gave me here blessing and said to follow my heart.”
Sykes believes he has both the physical and mental ability to shine in college.
“My strengths? Well, I could talk about how I feel like I am a guy that can cover anybody on the field or that I can come down the alley and makes tackles without any fear,” Sykes said.
“But I think the thing that sets me apart is the mental part of the game,” Sykes added. “I think I have a pretty advanced knowledge of the game for a kid still in high school.
“I am constantly thinking ahead about what might happen before the snap and I think that has really helped me become a better player,” Sykes continued.
Sykes went into the season rated as a two-star prospect by two of the major recruiting services and a three-star by the other two.
After a season that saw him earn respect and ended up being named an All-Texas first-team selection, he became a consensus three-star respect.
“Being a two-star guy and all that, it didn’t bother me too much for a couple of reasons,” Sykes said. “First of all some of these guys doing the rankings have never played football or didn’t play it on the college level so I tend to value the coaches and their opinions far more than I do those guys.
“The other reason is that we are all going to show up on the field at the same time in college,” Sykes said. “I might be a two or three star and you a five simply because you are taller, bigger and come from some big program.
“You might be this celebrated five star, but I am going to outwork you on the field and I am determined that spot is going to be mind and not yours simply because of your name,” Sykes added.
Sykes could come in and play either cornerback or safety next season at Arkansas.
“One of the things that Coach Jennings stressed about himself is that he doesn’t really recruit safeties,” Sykes said. “He told me that he recruits defensive backs that can cover and hit.
“Then when he gets us all on campus, he’ll put us at either cornerback or safety and see what works best,” Sykes added, “but he knows that he already has guys that can cover and hit and those are the two big things for him.”
Sykes is expected to be joined in Fayetteville this weekend by eight 2016 prospects on unofficial visits.
Those include the four in-state prospects that have Arkansas offers in Hope defensive end McTelvin Agim (6-3, 260), Star City defensive lineman Austin Capps (6-5, 304), Pulaski Robison athlete T.J. Hammonds (5-10, 190) and Smackover wide receiver and Razorback pledge Jordan Jones (6-1, 170, 4.38).
Also expected in this weekend are Manvel, Texas, linebacker Jordan Carmouche (6-2, 220), Bastrop, La., wide receiver Isaiah Graham (6-3, 180), Trophy Club, Texas, Byron Nelson offensive lineman Kellen Diesch (6-7, 265) and Euless, Texas, Trinity defensive tackle Chris Daniels (6-4, 290), who was born in Arkansas.
“I am really looking forward to getting up there and checking out my new home,” Sykes said. “But I just know it is going to be great.”