Like every other college head football coach on national signing day, Arkansas’ Bret Bielema made his way to the podium and pronounced his 2016 recruiting class a rousing success.
An objective look at it saw Arkansas start great early, do a good job during the middle, have a great last Saturday and then suffer some disappointment with big names late.
The class - which includes one of the nation’s top three tailbacks in Beaumont, Texas, Central’s Devwah Whaley - is currently ranked 24th by ESPN.com and 24/7, 30th by Scout .com and 33rd by Rivals.
“It obviously is an exciting day,” Bielema said. “Signing Day as I kind of tweeted at the beginning of the day is kind of like a coach’s New Year as you put to bed last year and move forward with this year.
“At this time a year ago we were looking at a class with maybe 13 or 14 guys and obviously with the departure of three juniors, a couple of medicals along the way and a couple of transfers out, I was hoping to get somewhere between 19 and 22 to be an ideal number.
“We landed on 20 right now and not done yet, but we are in the process to have some as we move forward because we will not have a class size of 25 either.
“To get an ideal signing class every year around this number - 19 to 22 - would be the right number to be in.”
Bielema noted that he has had calls from both offensive and defensive graduate transfers and he wouldn't mind going up to 23 players in the class.
The Razorbacks signed seven players with Alabama offers, including Whaley.
“In my opinion, I have recruited a lot of good running backs, but he (Whaley) is as gifted as any of the ones I have recruited,” Bielema said. “He is strong, he is physical, he has a nose for the football and comes from an incredible family.”
The class took a hit late when several players chose to go elsewhere including Georgia wide receiver Kiel Pollard (South Carolina), Texas prep wide receiver Tyrie Cleveland (Florida), Louisiana prep cornerback Kristin Fulton (LSU) and cornerback Joseph Putu (Florida), who visited last weekend and was committed to Arkansas, but chose to sign with the Gators despite never having stepped onto campus.
Bielema chose to look at how he had three juniors leaving for the NFL and how his team has improved its win total each year instead of the defections.
“If you recruit the kind of kid that you want and you develop them and you put them into the system that we truly believe in then good things can happen and that is what we have done,” Bielema.
“We lost a lot of good players and now we get to replace them with these 20 guys.”
The Arkansas signing class has earlier enrollees in five-star Hope defensive end McTelvin “Sosa” Agim and Northwest Mississippi Community College offense lineman Terrance Deion Malone.
“Deion Malone was coming in about 275 and 280 and I think he is 290, 292 and Herbs (strength and conditioning Coach Ben Herbert) is blown away with his ability to work and the other offensive lineman have been blow away with his ability to work,” Belema said.
Agim (6-3, 280) - who is already enrolled in school, went through five bowl practices with the Razorbacks and will go through spring practice - is the 11th-best player in the country according to ESPN.com.
“We needed immediate help on the defensive line and McTelvin Agim has proven to us he can play right away,” Bielema said. “Where we don’t know, but he is a very talented player, but he has put on weight and came into my office yesterday and is up to 280 and he played high school ball at about 260. The sky is the limit for those two guys.”
The other trio of defensive linemen signed were Star City four-star defensive tackle Austin Capps (6-5, 315), Metairie, La., Archbishop four-star defensive tackle Briston Guidry (6-3, 280) and Shepherd, Texas defensive end Jonathan Marshall (6-4, 275).
Agim, Capps and Guidry all had offers from Alabama and LSU while Marshall was a late flip from Oklahoma State.
“On the defensive line, I don’t know if Austin Capps can come in and play right away, but he is a guy that can probably play on either side of the ball,” Bielema said. “He is physical. I offered him when he was a sophomore in high school and we have been on him for a long time.
“He is an in-state product that we feel very strong about. A guy that we also offered as a sophomore was Briston Guidry from Rummel High School in New Orleans.
“Briston has been a fun recruiting story in that he was committed to another SEC school (Mississippi State) and we competed with the rest of the country and he came through in a big way and committed to us and has been a shining star. A kid that really enjoys life.”
Arkansas - who announced Wednesday that it had moved sophomore-to-be Hjalte Froholdt to from the defensive line to the offensive one - also added two more offensive lineman in San Bernardino Valley, Calif., star Paul Ramirez (6-5, 290) and Urbandale, Iowa, standout Jake Heinrich (6-4, 280).
“Paul is not going to join us until June, but he is a very talented tackle that can play left or right tackle and can give us immediate depth if not be in the starting rotation himself,” Bielema said.
“We also signed an offensive lineman from Iowa that we feel very strong about in Jake Heinrich,” Bielema said. “He had surgery on his hand and his senior season was cut short, but he is full go now and is moving forward.”
“…I thought that addressed our needs on our O-line and D-line.”
Arkansas signed four linebackers in New Orleans area products De’Jon Harris (6-1, 238) and Giovanni Harris (6-2, 239) as well as Florida prep star Alexy-Jean Baptiste (6-1, 220) and Georgia prep standout Dee Walker (6-3, 210).
“We were just so thin and linebacker and safety and we did pursue a couple of junior college players at the linebacker position, but just didn’t find anybody that we fell in love with over the time,” Bielema said.
“So my deal was to sign three high school and one judo, but when that didn’t work, we signed another (high school) linebacker to our mix.
“We have a couple of guys from New Orleans in Giovanni and Scoota (Harris). The thing I love about Scoota, De’Jon Harris, is that in one of his last high school games he was the starting middle linebacker and the starting quarterback and had over 15 tackles and threw for 200 yards and ran for over 100 yards at some of the highest level competition in Louisiana.
“Really, really excited about the linebacker group…”
Arkansas signed one quarterback in Lafayette, La., Teurlings Catholic's Cole Kelley.
“We always talk about how we want to big big, well, how about a quarterback that…is listed at 6-7, 260. We had him at 6-7, 257 the first time we had him on campus a year ago.
“We made an early offer and (offensive coordinator) Dan really felt strongly about him and he is absolutely very, very talented. He throws at the ball 100 miles an hour and has great velocity and great touch. He is a very, very tough competitor.”
Arkansas signed four in-state kids in Agim, Capps, Smackover wide receiver Jordan Jones and Pulaski Robinson wideout/tailback T.J. Hammonds.
“He (Jones) is a tall rangy kid that ran a sub 4.4 forty and we saw the talent and got with him and his family. He needed to do some things off the field and he did so we made an offer and then as the rest of the SEC came in, he stayed strong.
“I think he is going to be a very gifted athlete here who competes right away for us at wide receiver.
“TJ Hammonds is another young man from in-state that could play four of five different positions. We are going to start him off at running back and try him a bit at the slot receiver and as a punt returner.
“He is just a fun, engaging kid that I think could bring a lot to the table.”
Hammonds had over 2,000 yards total offense while Whaley had 1,701 yards rushing and scored 23 touchdowns.
They will find a new lead blocker in Columbia, Mo., Rock Bridge fullback Hayden Johnson (6-4, 255), who chose Arkansas over Florida State, Nebraska and Missouri among others.
“He wanted to play fullback and was recruited as a D-lineman by some schools and he stood strong after we offered as several schools like Florida State and a lot of the SEC came in. He stood strong and I really appreciate what he did there.”
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BIO: A 5-star prospect per ESPN.com and 4-star one per Scout.com, Agim is regarded as one of the nation’s top defensive prospects and enrolled at Arkansas in January. Agim had 72.5 tackles, 26 tackles for lost yardage, 14 sacks, 9 pass break ups, 8 quarterback hurries and an interception. He also returned 8 kickoffs for 406 yards and one touchdown and chose Arkansas over Alabama, LSU, Notre Dame, Oklahoma and Texas and a host of others.
BIO: Malone chose Arkansas over Mississippi State and others after helping lead Northwest Mississippi Community College to a 11-1 mark and national championship. He played his high school football at Batesville, Miss., and was part of an offense this season that averaged over 500 yards of total offense.
BIO: A 3-star prospect, Boateng had 46 catches for 782 yards and 11 touchdowns this season. He chose Arkansas over Ole Miss, Nebraska, Wisconsin, Texas Tech, North Carolina, Arizona State, Boston College, California, Houston, Iowa, Kansas, Kansas State and Maryland among others.
BIO: Capps, a four-star prospect per Scout .com, had 86 tackles, 17 for lost yardage, 5 sacks, two recovered fumbles and one blocked punt while also playing offensive line during Star City’s 9-4 season that ended with a 50-21 loss at Prairie Grove. Capps chose Arkansas over LSU, Auburn and several other schools.
BIO: A three-star prospect, Edwards had 79 tackles this season with 13 tackles for lost yardage, 3 pass break ups and an interception. Edwards committed to Arkansas in the summer after also having offers from Missouri, South Carolina, Louisville, North Carolina State and others.
BIO: Guidry had 91 tackles this season with nine sacks, 7 tackles for lost yardage, 7 quarterback hurries, 2 fumble recoveries and a blocked field goal. The 3-star prospect chose Arkansas over Alabama, Mississippi State, Oklahoma, Arizona State and others.
BIO: Gunter’s senior season ended early with a season-ending injury, but he did have 26 catches for 232 yards. Gunter chose Arkansas after also receiving offers from Mississippi State and Ole Miss, where his dad Bubba played in the late 1980s.
BIO: Hammonds, a four-star prospect per Scout .com, rushed 103 times for 1,375 yards (13.1 yards per carry) and 22 touchdowns and also caught 23 passes for 661 yards and six more scores during his senior season. Hammonds, who had 2,131 all-purpose yards this past season, chose Arkansas over Alabama, TCU and several other schools and the Razorbacks plan to use him as both a tailback and slot receiver.
BIO: Harris became one of the nation’s most-buzzed about products after a senior season that saw him fill in at quarterback and lead him team to the state championship game while rushing for 1,058 yards, having 374 receiving yards and threw for 495 yards, accounting for 23 touchdowns. He also had 83 tackles, 14 for loss. Harris chose Arkansas over Alabama, Oregon, Colorado and others. Harris was named the New Orleans Advocate’s Large School Offensive Player of the Year.
BIO: A four-star prospect, Heinrich chose Arkansas over Iowa State, Kansas State, Louisville, Illinois, California, UNLV and others. He graded out at 91.5 percent this season with 21 pancake blocks and did not allow any sacks this season.
BIO: Arkansas’ lone quarterback signee in the 2016 class, Kelley is a three-star prospect that chose the Razorbacks over Oklahoma State. Louisiana Tech and Southern Mississippi. He completed 199-of-352 passes this season for 2,911 yards and also rushed 96 times for 277 yards and 11 more scores.
BIO: Jean-Baptiste chose Arkansas even before he had seen the campus and do so despite offers from Miami, Michigan State, Louisville, Wisconsin, Pitsburgh, North Carolina and North Carolina State. The three-star prospect had 45 tackles this season with three tackles for lost yardage, 3 fumbles caused, 2 fumble recoveries and an interception.
BIO: Johnson committed to Arkansas after shining at a summer camp and pledged soon afterwards and stay true as Florida State, Nebraska and others offered, He played defense mostly this season and had 74 tackles with 10 sacks. That came after a junior year in which Johnson had 67 tackles and nine sacks while rushing for 280 yards and nine touchdowns last season while playing defensive end, tight end and Wildcat quarterback for the Bruins.
BIO: Jones, a three-star prospect who has blazing 4.37 speed, was the first member of the 2016 recruiting class to pledge to the Arkansas and remained steadfast to the Razorbacks although he was offered by Alabama and others along the way. He caught 36 passes for 721 yards and 11 touchdowns, rushed 21 times for 150 yards and one touchdown and was 8 of 16 passing for 149 yards and two touchdowns with one interception. On defense, he had three interceptions and returned one for a touchdown. He also returned four punts for 95 yards and one kickoff for 79 yards and a touchdown.
BIO: The 3-star prospect that was once committed to Tulane chose Arkansas over other offers from Louisville, Oklahoma State, Utah, Texas Tech, Arizona State and California. LaFrance had 99 tackles his senior season with 5 sacks, 8 tackles for lost yardage and also scored four touchdowns while playing tailback on offense.
BIO: A late flip from Oklahoma State to Arkansas, Marshall is a big pass-rushing defensive end that joins with McTelvin Agim to give the Razorbacks two edge rushers in the class.
BIO: Ramirez was a Junior College All-American this season for San Bernardino Valley, Calif., College. He chose Arkansas over Louisville, Indiana and others.
BIO: A two-star prospect, Smith had a whopping 123 tackles and 3 interceptions and from the safety spot for Marshall. Smith had offers from Texas State, Northwestern State, Lamar and Sam Houston State before Arkansas, Baylor and TCU all came in late in the process.
BIO: A three-star prospect that Arkansas expects to be a strong defender against spread teams, Walker chose Arkansas over Nebraska, Tennessee, Iowa, Indiana, Louisville, Central Florida and late interest from Georgia and Florida, where he took an official visit. Walker had 96 tackles this season with 5 sacks, 8 quarterback hurries and one foced fumble for a Colquitt County team that went 15-0 for the second straight season to win back-to-back state titles.
BIO: Whaley is a four-star prospect by all the major recruiting services and the third-best running back in the country per ESPN.com. Whaley rushed for 1,701 yards and 23 touchdowns as a senior and chose Arkansas over Georgia, Alabama, Texas, Texas A&M, Alabama and a host of others. He announced his decision on ESPN right before the start of the Under Armour All-American game.