Do the stars matter in recruiting? The clear answer is yes, but I think Arkansas coach Bret Bielema has the right approach for his program, located away from the major hot beds of recruiting and that makes it difficult to fill a class of all five and four stars. He needs some threes.
But I think Bielema has the solution to the problem in several areas. It's all about evaluation and development. Ben Herbert, his strength and conditioning program dating back to his Wisconsin days, is one of the nation's best. Plus, Bielema, a former walk-on, believes in a strong walk-on program and it is producing fruit in his program.
I'm interested to see how walk-on offensive lineman Johnny Gibson (6-5, 330) does this spring. Gibson, a Dumas product, was the backup for Denver Kirkland at left tackle and will probably get a shot at a starting spot somewhere on the line, possible at tackle or guard.
Getting O-linemen as walk-on can and should work at Arkansas. Bret Bielema was a walkon and genrerally elevates a walk-on to scholarship status several times each season.
The Brandon Burlsworth story has to help and I would like to see it emphasized more. Maybe the movie -- to debut this week at the pro football Hall of Fame in Canton -- will help.
An exclusive screening of the major motion picture, Greater will take place at the Pro Football Hall of Fame on Saturday, Jan. 16 at noon. The film tells the Burlsworth story. He's considered to be the greatest walk-on in the history of college football.
Brandon walked on for the Hogs in 1994 and became a three-year starter at guard, eventually earning All-America in 1998. The Colts took him in the third round of the 1999 draft, but a car accident took his life just 11 days later.
Following the screening of the movie in Canton, a special roundtable hosted by Hall of Fame President David Baker will feature two Hall of Famers Aeneas Williams, a college walk-on himself, and John Randle, an undrafted free agent. Randle and Williams will also be joined on the panel by Marty Burlsworth, the real life brother of Brandon Burlsworth.
The screening and roundtable are offered at no additional cost and included in the price of admission for all Hall of Fame guests on Saturday. A maximum of 250 seats are available for the screening. Popcorn and drinks will be available also. Guests may enter the Hall’s Event Center for the movie screening starting at 11:15 a.m. A program will begin at noon followed by the showing of Greater. Following the screening, the interactive roundtable will take place from 2:25-3:30 pm. The movie is scheduled for a Jan. 29 release in theaters.
“I think that sometimes, as fans, we think men like John Randle, Aeneas Williams and Brandon Burlsworth fell out of bed great,” Baker said in a Hall of Fame release. “But, the fact is that the journeys of these three special men serve as a tribute to what one can achieve with unwavering passion, drive, and perseverance. The story of Brandon is one of great inspiration, and one that John and Aeneas can certainly attest to firsthand.”
Back to player development, Herbert's role is huge. It's an area that should just get better and better as Bielema adds more recruiting classes and they get deep into development with Herbert.
As far as the star system, if you are trying to plug them in as freshmen, you probably need the five stars. And you need some period. But if you evaluate properly and develop properly (and Bielema does), then you can still get to the same point. I do think Bielema is getting higher rated players. And, he's probably getting them much more than he did at Wisconsin. And he's going to develop them, too.
I will always remember what Chris Ash, former Bielema assistant and now head coach at Rutgers, told me that first summer when he was here. He said Herbert's strength program is outstanding and it just gets better as the players stay in the program.
Herbert divides his offseason into eight week programs. There is one in the winter leading up to spring drills. There is another one in the summer ahead of August camp.
One eight-week program with Herbert is good. Two eight week programs is even better. Three years with six is even better. That's when you have special development begin to really take hold. You get two eight-week programs a year, one in the spring and one in the summer. Think what Alex Collins was this year compared to his first two.
This will be year four coming up for a lot of the players. And even more are in year three. Those players that are juniors and seniors are solid players and have proper development. And, every class you add and then get at least two years in the system and that's four eight-week sessions with Herbert, it makes a difference.
The good stuff is coming. I believe that. There has been some turn over with the coaching staff and that's normal and expected. The main thing, Bielema still has the same strength guy and the same trainer. Both of those are important. They know the athletes and take good care of them together.
I think when Bielema talks about the junior class being big and good, he knows they have been with Herbert for enough time for it to take hold.
Speaking of the junior class, one of the keys is the development of fourth-year junior quarterback Austin Allen. I keep getting asked questions about Allen and how he compares to older brother Brandon, the departing quarterback.
Brandon Allen is a better athlete than Austin Allen. Brandon is faster and quicker. That's always been the case. Austin always seemed to have the better feel in the pocket, moving and throwing. He just seemed adept in stepping up and avoiding the rush. But he did not have the foot speed or quickness in the open field of Brandon. I think I did an interview about 18 months ago with Zak Clark, who coached both in high school. And that was his take.
Austin has accuracy and throws a very good deep pass. He improved his arm strength over the summer after Dan Enos gave him some drills to work on and some ideas on lifting. His deep pass gained about 10 yards in distance with accuracy. Teammates have always said that Austin's deep pass was better than Brandon's.
What Austin has to do to become effective is make sure he is as good at the run game calls at the line of scrimmage. Brandon mastered that over the last two seasons and was near perfect this season. That is an under valued part of what a quarterback does. We may not even know it when he's doing it or not doing it, but the coaches do.
As far as different, that remains to be seen. One thing that will help Austin in his development is that he was not thrown in too early without proper complement of offensive weapons. The offense is developed far more as far as receivers than it was for Brandon's first two years. Brandon had a young Hunter Henry and that was about it. Keon Hatcher was inconsistent and learning and the offense was not equipped with the best way to utilize receivers as far as route running. Part of that was the lack of experience in the overall group of receivers.
The best thing that I see is that the system has option routes and double moves for the wide receivers and Austin will have open receivers because they can get separation. That's going to help Austin be different than a young Brandon Allen and it's a very good thing.
It's clear that Austin Allen will be the guy to take the first snap at quarterback in the spring drills. I'd bet on the following order: Rafe Peavey, Ty Storey and Ricky Town. But it could change quickly if Town shows he has a command of the calls in the huddle and can operate the running game. He hasn't had as much time as the others in the complete operation of the offense.
Poster “Sugarboar” came up with his own take of the pre-spring depth chart and it isn't a bad list. I'll give it to you as something to ponder:
QB A Allen R Peavy
LT B Wallace J Gibson
LG T Malone J Merrick
C -Frank Ragnow, Zach Rogers
RG - Johnny Gibson, Josh Allen
RT -Dan Skipper, Johnny Gibson
TE - Jeremy Sprinkle, Austin Cantrell, C J O'Grady or Will Gragg
FB - Kody Walker, Chris Jones, Hayden Johnson
RB - Rawleigh Williams III, Kody Walker, Devway Whaley, TJ Hammonds
WR - Keon Hatcher, Drew Morgan
WR - Dominique Reed, Damon Mitchell, Luke Rossi
WR - Jared Cornelius, Cody Hollister
I have some other thoughts. One thing to remember, all O-line guys are starting fresh with Curt Anderson as the new O-line coach. A freshman has a chance to jump ahead maybe more quickly than he might have if returnees knew the techniques and style of the O-line coach. That was one of the things Pittman told Dan Skipper, Denver Kirkland and Reave Koehler (and I know Koehler didn't develop, but he was highly regarded coming in).
I can remember on signing day Sam Pittman saying that those freshmen might not be far behind those that just had 15 practices with him and his style. How much Anderson is different is not known yet. My point is that Heinrich might be in the depth. I think he's very good. Now, I know that the O-line style is not going to change in an overall method. The offense won't change. But the way Anderson coaches and his technique emphasis points will probably be changed somewhat from Pittman. Most all O-line coaches do it slightly different.
Otherwise, I like Sugarboar's thoughts and they are not far from mine. I would think that it might be easier for Skipper to flip to left tackle and let Wallace play right tackle. Wallace has done all of his prep the last two years at right tackle. Skipper can play left tackle and in fact has played there. Might be an easier switch to move him there.
Gibson has worked more on the left side and some of that has been at guard. I'd think keeping him on the left side if you want to move him to guard would be easier. But that's probably not a big deal.
As far as the tight end depth, you probably need to break that into two positions. They are going to play two tight ends.
I might have two tight ends and do it like this: TE-Jeremy Sprinkle, Austin Cantrell. TE-C.J. O'Grady, Will Gragg.
All three of those freshmen tight ends are a little different. O'Grady catches everything, I'm told. He is probably more advanced as a pass catcher. Cantrell is probably the better blocker and is the most physical. Gragg is a combination of both.
I am not sure how Jack Kraus will be in the fall, but he obviously misses spring with ACL surgery. He will be in the picture at some point. He was good the second half of the season and the reason that O'Grady never played after moving up to the varsity after about the third game.
It's fair to list Whaley behind Williams and Walker. But I might flip him and Williams.I would not be surprised if Whaley started.
And, I'd stick Deon Stewart and La'Michael Pettway in the depth at wide receiver. And, I know Keon Hatcher is a very good player, but I think Drew Morgan is the starter. He earned that this season.