TJ Hammonds

State of the Hogs: 2016 Class Improves Pass Rush

The Arkansas products in the 2016 class signed by the Razorbacks has plenty of speed with a special ability to rush the passer. That's the strength of this class, speed in the defensive line. It's the best way to build a winning program.

There was drama on National Signing Day for Arkansas. But not so much in Arkansas, where Bret Bielema and staff did a great job of evaluation, recruiting and finishing on the best players in the Natural State, including hard to find defensive line prospects with speed.

It's too bad that the focus on Wednesday is on the players that make their decisions late for the Razorbacks. It should be on the four that decided extremely early in the process, as in all four of the Arkansas signees in the 2016 class.

Jordan Jones (wide receiver) of Smackover, Austin Capps (defensive tackle) of Star City, T. J. Hammonds (running back/wide receiver) of Pulaski Robinson and McTelvin “Sosa” Agim (defensive end) have been Razorbacks for months. Agim is already enrolled at the UA. All four are speed guys at their positions. Jones runs 4.37 in the 40. Hammonds is a burner, too.

What has become clear with Bielema, there is great focus in evaluation with the players in Arkansas. They know the state well. And, the top players know his staff well, too.

That's how Bielema can land as many as half a dozen preferred walkons in the 2016 class and five are from Arkansas. Justin Hobbs of Farmington, Tyler Hall of Maumelle, Grant Morgan of Greenwood, Tobias Enlow of North Little Rock and Dylan Hays from Litlte Rock Chrisitan are among those passing up scholarships to play for Bielema.

In other years when the Hogs may not have spread their recruiting wings so well out of state, some of these in-state walkons would have probably been given scholarships at the end. The Hogs did well enough out of state to stick with their early evaluations in camp.

It should be pointed out that all four of Bielema's in-state signees were offered by Alabama coach Nick Saban early in the process, too. Bielema had them all but locked up before that happened.

It appears that Bielema hit his numbers on this class, or came close. There were needs at linebacker, offensive line and the secondary. They signed four linebackers, three offensive linemen and three in the defensive backfield. There are committed walkons in that area, too, with two linebackers and one offensive lineman.

There was good news at the end, at end. I'm always excited to add pass rushers. Defensive end Jonathan Marshall from Shepherd, Texas flipped from Oklahoma State over the last weekend to pick the Razorbacks. Dudley Dawson saw him during his visit and had to do a double take. He thought he saw the twin of Trey Flowers after four years at Arkansas, not a 17-year-old.

“Jonathan Marshall looks as good right now as any defensive end who has ever walked in the door at Arkansas,” said Dawson, Hawgs illustrated recruiting editor. “They've had some develop into impressive bodies. But he's that now.”

Because of the development of the spread passing game, defensive ends who can rush off the edge are now the top commodity in the college game. They are tough to find and even tougher to sign. They impact the game.

Of course, Agim is the gem of the class, one of the top players in the nation. ESPN had Agim rated as the nation's No. 11 player regardless of positions. He's a five star by most services. At 6-3, 275, the Hope product has arms of a 6-7 player, one of the keys in keeping blockers off of him in pass rush moves. He's quick and aggressive.

Bielema was asked about Agim on the SEC Network at noon on Wednesday. Bielema burst into a big smile.

"When he was going to some of these recruiting camps, he was a three star and he didn't like that," Bielema said. "He raised his stock. In every competition, he would point across the line of scrimmage at the five stars and tell them to move up in the line so he could go against them. He beat them over and over. His stock went up."

Capps is listed as a defensive tackle, but there is great speed to impact in the pass rush. He's 4.6 in the 40-yard dash and has run on Star City's sprint relays. He can run down quarterbacks.

I like the speed of Briston Guidry of Metarie, La., Arch Bishop Rummel, another Arkansas signee in the defensive line chased by Alabama. At 6-2, 287, Guidry has inside speed to cause problems at defensive tackle, too.

It's speed in the defensive line that makes the SEC special. Every entry in the national championship game over the last 10 seasons has been equipped with deluxe pass rushers and that's what Arkansas got in this class.

This is the answer to the question Arkansas fans have asked over the last three months following tough days against spread quarterbacks like Chad Kelly, Dak Prescott and Patrick Mahomes.

The Hogs missed the likes of Darius Philon and Flowers this season. I'm reminded that Flowers was basically a sleeper when he came out of Huntsville, Ala., five years ago. Arkansas was his only SEC offer and it didn't come until just one week before signing day when he was asked to make a late trip to Fayetteville.

That's not the case with Agim, Capps, Guidry and Marshall. They were targeted long and hard by the nation's best schools. There's a reason. They are among the bluest of blue chip defensive line prospects.

I'm reminded of a talk with Charlie Partridge, the defensive line coach Bielema brought with him from Wisconsin. While others were gushing over Bielema's pledge to rebuild the Arkansas offensive line, Partridge promised the defensive line would not be under valued by Bielema.

“Bret will make Arkansas good on the defensive line,” Partridge said. “Don't ever forget he's an old nose tackle. He knows the games are won and lost in the defensive line. If you are good there, you will have a solid team every season.”

Greg McElroy spoke on Bielema's focus on line play on the SEC Network on Wednesday.

"You see them just get better as the year goes along," McElroy said. "It's the physical nature of their line play. When everyone is getting bumps and bruises as the season goes along, they get stronger. They are not the team you want to play at the end of the year."

Former Missouri coach Gary Pinkel, still employed as a fund raiser for the Tigers, was on the same show.

"Bret built an elite program at Wisconsin and he's doing the same thing at Arkansas," Pinkel said. "They are our rival, very close to us. I don't like to talk about our rival, but they are doing a very good job."

The state of Arkansas does not produce a lot of great defensive line prospects. History suggests that NFL teams are not going to find a lot of first rounders with the Razorbacks.

The only three in-state Razorbacks in the defensive front going in the first round are Dan Hampton of Jacksonville, Wayne Martin of Cherry Valley and Jamaal Anderson from Little Rock. There are three more from out of state in Loyd Phillips, Henry Ford and Billy Ray Smith.

It's too early to say whether or not any in this class will be prospects for the NFL draft. But the early thinking is that they at least have a chance. That's better than most years at Arkansas and the big reason I'll sleep good tonight after seeing Bret Bielema unveil the 2016 signing class.

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