Hogs Expand Recruiting Base

FAYETTEVILLE -- If everything pans out as expected today, Arkansas should sign around 23 prospects to football scholarships to kick off the week-long national signing period.

Razorbacks eighth-year coach Houston Nutt and his staff were forced to spread their recruiting base into other states when Arkansas didn't produce everything needed for a complete 2005 class.

"The state of Arkansas was a little down this year," said Nutt, a Little Rock native. "It will pick back up next year, but it was a little down and we had to be real selective this year. There were some kids, that if you had a few more scholarships, you would say, 'Come on!' but we couldn't do that this year.

"We had to put priority on some linemen and some linebackers."

With NCAA probation limiting the number of scholarships, Nutt sent his staff to places it had never been and places it had been unsuccessful in the past in hopes of overcoming the in-state slack.

The results were impressive. UA assistant Roy Wittke hauled in a milk truck of an offensive lineman from St. Francis, Wis., in 6-foot-6, 310-pound Jose Valdez.

The northernmost scholarship player on the current roster is junior linebacker Desmond Sims from Lilbourne, Mo., but the Hogs plan to keep spot recruiting, mostly beefy linemen, from states north of the Mason-Dixon Line.

"Roy Wittke and Mike Markuson have some background up there and we speak at a clinic once a year up there," Nutt said. "We've been pinpointing, where we're not wasting time. And we'll continue to try to pinpoint one or two kids in the north most of the time."

Nutt also sent recruiting coordinator Chris Vaughn back to his home state of Florida after Arkansas did not even try to recruit there last year. Vaughn, who failed to sign any prospects from Florida in 2003, found some sunshine this year by landing two of the state's top prospects in Tallahassee Rickards running back Michael Smith (5-8, 170) and Weston Cypress Bay offensive lineman Mike Aguirre (6-5, 305).

"So many coaches know coach Vaughn down there and when there's that bond, that relationship there, you have a chance," Nutt said. "There's just too many players in Florida and the one year that we weren't down there, we kept getting these calls from coaches saying, 'Coach, we've got to get you back down here.'"

Vaughn said now that the pipeline from Florida to Arkansas is up and running again, it should make getting prospects from there easier in the future.

"The one thing that's unique about Florida is those kids will travel," Vaughn said. "Distance isn't a factor for them a lot of time and having guys like (former receivers) Steven Harris and Boo Williams, who are from Florida, have success here also helps when we go into those homes."

At the core of this year's class, like every year for the Razorbacks, are prospects from Arkansas, Texas and Georgia.

The top in-staters figure to be Pulaski Oak Grove running back Darren McFadden (6-1, 210), Wynne defensive lineman Cord Gray and Little Rock Central safety Kevin Thornton (6-2, 195), who is expected to choose the Razorbacks today. Another Arkansan that could be an impact in this class is Freddie Fairchild (6-3, 205), a rangy linebacker who the Hogs signed out of Central High last year before placing him at Hargrave Military Academy in Chatham, Va.

From Texas, plenty of hype has surrounded Allen defensive end Marcus Shavers (6-3, 245), Houston Yates linebacker Tyrell Graham (6-4, 210) and Richardson offensive lineman Colin Tucker (6-5, 272). The Hogs' lone quarterback in this class also is from Texas in Allen's Casey Dick (6-2, 195).

"We've got our base areas that we're going to recruit every year, in-state and Texas as well as Louisiana, Memphis, Tulsa, Southern Missouri and of course, Georgia and Alabama," Vaughn said. "But Roy Wittke's got some connections up in Wisconsin which allowed us to get up north a little bit and I had some connections in Florida, which helped us get into some new areas.

"It was all about the connections."

Led by Markuson and Arkansas assistant Tracy Rocker, the Razorbacks made more connections in Georgia than ever before with at least three (maybe more) top-notch prospects expected to ink with the Hogs today.

The Georgians are Atlanta Washington linebacker Michael Bibbs (6-3, 210), Dunwoody safety De'Andre Bryant (6-6, 205) and Decatur defensive end Michael Hall (6-4, 220). Washington offensive lineman Duke Robinson could also join the list today when he signs with either Arkansas or Oklahoma.

"Georgia has been really good to us this year and that's a credit to how hard our recruiters have worked," Nutt said.

One obstacle the coaches had to clear in this class was recruiting after a losing season since the Hogs went 5-6 and failed to reach a bowl for the first time in Nutt's tenure.

"The losing season wasn't a factor overall," Nutt said. "I think (prospects) understood that when you have one returning starter on offense and three on defense and bunch of your juniors go pro, then you're going to be down.

"Really though, we turned it into a positive because when you go 5-6, it makes it real easy to get across to (prospects) that, 'Hey, we need you. We need you right now as you can see. This is why we need you.'

"They already knew that we're not afraid to play freshmen, since we played about 9 or 10, so there was a lot of positives there."

And next year's class should be even stronger, according to Nutt, since the NCAA's probation will be lifted and the Razorbacks will be able to fill 25 scholarships like most everybody else.

"This is the first time in a long time to be able to go into a living room and not one of our coaches have been asked a question about probation," Nutt said. "'Are you going to be on TV? Will you be able to go to a bowl?' This is the first time in a long time that we haven't been asked any of those questions and it feels great to get it behind us. It really helps.

"Now that we'll be back up to 25, I think you can only expect better and better from here on out."

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