Arkansas head football coach Bret Bielema prides himself on the Razorbacks’ walk-on program, something that could be a big component in the 2016 recruiting class.
That’s because the Razorbacks are likely to have only 18 to 22 scholarships to offer in this recruiting cycle due to the good retention in the previous classes combined with the NCAA’s 85-man scholarship limit.
Bielema is hoping to find some more success stories like redshirt sophomore defensive back Kevin Richardson (6-0, 170), who got a scholarship after the first few practices this year to become at least the 12th walk-on to earn one since his arrival.
“It was extremely humbling,” Richardson said. “It gets a lot of weight off my parents’ shoulders and made me excited. This is something that I have been working for since I got here. And to have it right in front of my eyes, it’s something I have dreamed of.
“The dream doesn’t end with the scholarship. That doesn’t stop the grind. I am going to work like I still don’t have it.”
Bielema was a walk-on at Iowa before earning a scholarship and eventually being named captain his senior season.
He also recruited walk-on J.J. Watt to Wisconsin and now Watt is arguably the best defensive player in the NFL.
Bielema looks for what he terms “uncommon men” to add to his program – be it on scholarship or as a walk-on.
“It’s something that I think if you do your due diligence, if you recruit high schools the right way, you can find kids that are a little bit under the radar and will be a nice addition,” Bielema said early in his Arkansas tenure.
Bielema believes he has one of those in Richardson, who played in all 13 games last season mostly in sub packages and special teams while making eight tackles and one quarterback hurry.
“We voted on it as a staff,” Bielema said. “K-Rich has been here the last two years and had played a lot. I hope he will coach for me someday. He is extremely intelligent.
“He plays corner, he plays nickel, he plays safety. He is really on the two-deep in three different spots and is just an incredible kid. He is a kid that I am very excited to have on scholarship.”
Just since Bielema arrived, Arkansas has awarded scholarships to Richardson, A.J. Derby, Mitchell Loewen, Adam Deacon, Austin Jones, Alex Voelzke, Alan D’Appollonio, Price Holmes, Patrick Arinze, Scotty Thurman, Jr., Tyler Colquitt and Jake Hall – all who came to the Razorback program without a scholarship.
Thanks Coach @BretBielema for giving me such a great opportunity and never giving up on the walkons!— Kevin Richardson II (@K_Rich30) August 10, 2015
Former Dumas offensive linemen Johnny Gibson and IMG Academy defensive back Reid Miller both seem likely candidates to earn ones as well down the line.
Arkansas has already offered Fayetteville offensive lineman Noah Johnson (6-3, 321), Conway quarterback and UCA commit Breylin Smith (6-1, 180) and the Little Rock Christian duo of wideout Joe Hampton (6-2, 180) and offensive lineman Dylan Hays (6-3, 280) the opportunity to be preferred walk-ons next season.
Bielema learned the power of a great walk-on class from former Wisconsin head coach and current Badgers’ athletic director Barry Alvarez.
"Well, I think that one of the common things that coach Alvarez and I used to always talk about was you'd use walk-ons as kind of erasers," Bielema said. "They were guys that would erase recruiting mistakes.
"From a coaching staff, we really took a lot of pride in bringing in walk-ons and establishing a mentality in them of what they're going to build themselves into and get the big picture one, two, three years down the road rather than trying to figure it out one, two, three months down the road."
The announcement of Richardson – a Jacksonville High product who had over 2,000 all-purpose yards and eight interceptions as as senior - being placed on scholarship was greeted with great joy from his teammates according to Jennings.
“I have never seen so many guys jump up and down. You would have thought they were in church when Coach (Bielema) announced it. All those guys are excited for Kevin. I’m excited for Kevin.
“This guy comes to work every day with his lunch bucket. He doesn’t shy away from any work. Anything anybody else does, he wants to do 10 times more.
“He is what being an Arkansas Razorback is all about. He has got Razorback blood in his family. All of his brothers and sisters have gone to school here, too, so we are happy he is going to be on scholarship.”
Arkansas defensive coordinator Robb Smith feels like Richardson’s versatility adds a lot to his secondary.
“Kevin is another guy that can certainly jump in and play safety and is very good at our nickel position, he is very good at corner and knows exactly what we are doing in all of our packages at all of our positions,” Smith said. “Those guys are valuable commodities. Especially as the season winds on and you may have a guy get nicked up, it’s great to have a guy within your roster that can play multiple positions.”