Hogs land defensive beef

The end of the investigation and a bowl victory helped Arkansas coach Houston Nutt and his staff close strong with the 2004 recruiting class. Here's a look at what Nutt calls one of his best classes.

Houston Nutt was all smiles as he introduced the 2004 Arkansas football recruiting class, and that was even before he knew that Fred Bledsoe had signed with the Razorbacks.

Nutt claims that judgment should be passed on each class based on the last five to fall. In this case, the Hogs finished in fine fashion with late additions of Bledsoe, Marc Winston, Jamaal Anderson, Kyle Payne, Ernest Mitchell and Freddy Fairchild over the past few days.

That looks nice with some of the early commitments like Arkansas player of the year Peyton Hillis, a Conway tailback and Oklahoma defensive player of the year Zach Snider, a Tulsa linebacker.

Nutt was pleased with all areas of the class, although he noted that early commitments by Conway's Hillis and Texarakana's Korey Sutton scared away a few tailbacks at the end. What he really liked was the way the Hogs stocked up in the depleted secondary, and in the defensive line where the Hogs lost some late battles last year.

Bledsoe didn't announce until about 3 p.m. Wednesday at a press conference at Little Rock Central where he had some Tennesse garb to tease the assembled fans. That was about an hour into Nutt's press conference. But, it sounded like Nutt and the rest of the Arkansas coaches felt like Bledsoe was with them all along.

"That's the way I've felt," said Tracy Rocker, the Hogs' defensive line coach. "When I've been around him -- first at summer camp and then when he came to our games in Fayetteville and Little Rock -- he always talked like he was already a Razorback. He said things like 'we gonna do this or do that to those guys next year.' And we'd go into the home in recruiting and have a big time with everyone. It was just a party. We didn't try to put anything on him, just go eat their food. I like to do that. Everyone was so happy to see us. I just felt like he was one of us all along."

Rocker was the main man when it came to Mitchell, the big defensive tackle form Newnan, Ga. Nutt said Mitchell's mom hugged Rocker when they came in the door.

"All I had to do is close the door," Nutt said. "It was obvious the mother was glad to see Coach Rocker. You got a good feeling there. But we had to weather a late run from Florida State and then last night, another one from Clemson. So you are glad to see them sign."

Nutt said the end of the NCAA investigation made a big late push possible this year, just as it was the negative ammo opposing coaches used last year to erase commitments to some defensive linemen.

"Like night and day," Nutt said of the difference. "We didn't hear the negative stuff this year. Nothing they could use on the NCAA any more. We didn't have to go in at the end and hear stuff about us not going to a bowl or getting other penalties. That stuff was gone. We also didn't hear any negative stuff on our graduation rates. We had nine juniors get their degrees this year. Our graduation rates show what we are doing in the class room. That's good now. We had to battle that the last couple of years, but not any more. Our graduation rate now is very, very high."

Besides Bledsoe and Mitchell, the Hogs added defensive linemen Freddie Barnett, Marcus Harrison and Michael Tate. Jamaal Anderson, listed as a wideout, will probably be tried first at defensive end.

"You guys were here last year at this time asking questions about the defensive line, but if you remember we signed a few and you weren't asking questions by the middle of the season because Coach Rocker had them playing so hard," Nutt said. "But if you look at this group, this is what we see on the other side of the field when we line up against Alabama and the rest in this league.

"Ernest Mitchell is a strong, strong person. He can bench ... what is it Coach Rocker, 500 pounds? ... and we have Fred Bledsoe in this group, too. Fred is 6-4 and 280 and can really move. He's nimble and light on his feet. He's so quick. He intercepted three passes. He's what you are looking for there. Michael Tate, he's a speed guy and someone you can put at end."

Rocker smiled broadly when he talked about his new pups.

"I know about the Wayne Martins, the Dan Hamptons and the Jimmy Walkers who played here in the defensive line," Rocker said. "Who knows? Maybe one of these young men will be like that and you'll have his number hanging up there someday as one of the great ones. But first, we'll see what we have in the spring with those that got their feet wet last year, the Keith Jacksons, the Jeremy Harrells. All I'll say is that this is a good looking group. I'd say we signed an entire front, someone for all of the spots. They fill it nicely."

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