Nutt Discusses Strategy For 'Springdale 5'

FAYETTEVILLE - His office door propped to welcome a light breeze on a beautiful Northwest Arkansas Thursday morning, Razorbacks football coach Houston Nutt squirmed slightly on a leather couch, then sat up, his eyes narrowing.

The subject, as always these days, was the "Springdale 5," a handful of gridiron dandies who have been offered scholarships by lots of national powers, including most of those in the Southeastern Conference.

Some of these guys have their own Web sites, for goodness sake. Interestingly, on them, several have Arkansas atop their list of schools that have offered. And they weren't in alphabetical order.

How does Nutt - who had been beaming before discussing this serious recruiting business - read the situation?

"Today, right now today, I feel good," said Nutt, his eyes widening as he went along. "Two or three weeks ago, I didn't feel as good because you couldn't go over there. You hear about everyone else going over there, and you hear rumors and rumors of, 'He's going here. He's already committed.'

"And all those things drive you crazy. But you roll up your sleeves and you say, 'Hey, we're going to protect what's ours, first and foremost.'"

Nutt nodded emphatically and slapped a fist into his hand: "We'll protect them right up here 15 miles away."

One of the most important home stands of Nutt's eighth-year tenure began Monday (on the heels of several other high-brow coaching visits) when he led all six of his assistants to Springdale High for the Bulldogs' first spring workout.

There's always pressure in recruiting, but more so with this group because of the close proximity of the sort of players who don't exactly come along every day in these parts.

"I take that as a challenge," Nutt said. "And I put pressure on all of us as a staff. You know, it's up to us to get these guys in our family, and in my mind, there's nowhere else for them to go. They need to be here, and we have a home for them."

Because of NCAA rules, Nutt can't speak specifically of these Springdale seniors-to-be he has offered - quarterback Mitch Mustain (6-3, 200), wide receiver/defensive back Damian Williams (6-2, 185), wide receiver/kicker Andrew Norman (6-2, 172), offensive tackle Bartley Webb (6-7, 285) and tight end Ben Cleveland (6-4, 235) - but he covered them in a group.

"The timing couldn't be better," Nutt said. "At each one of those positions, the timing couldn't be better."

With last season's Class AAAAA runners-up sporting so many Division I types, there's a perception that this senior class could be the best in Arkansas history, giving Nutt and company a pool of 15-20 big-timers rather than the usual six or eight this small state produces.

But don't get too carried away.

"I think that's a stretch," Nutt said. "I don't think there's that many. Actually, I think overall in the state, we're down. We're a little bit down.

"By five on one team, you get blinded - 'Wow, this is just unbelievable!' Well, it's unbelievable for Springdale and Northwest Arkansas, but overall, the numbers are a little down from where they were last year."

That's another reason these five are so crucial to Nutt's future plans.

"Whenever you've got five on one team, that's huge," Nutt said. "And what you like about the five up here is they've won. They've won and won and won. You love that temperament of, 'Hey, I'm used to winning. We should win championships.'"

That's just one of many qualities these kids - and keep in mind that's just what they are - all seem to possess. One's a student minister, another's on the student council. One's in the National Honor Society and the select choir. Several are on the academic honor roll and all have pretty gaudy numbers (for example, Mustain completed 63 percent of his passes last season for 2,169 yards and 20 TDs) because of Gus Malzahn's pass-happy offense and despite mostly playing half-games because of early endings due to the mercy rule.

The most important aspect, though, is these guys are home-grown. First mission of all coaches who aren't at Notre Dame is to keep the in-staters.

Arkansas native Bill Burnett, who became a hot-shot running back and team captain here from 1968-70, was sold on Texas before a conversation with Razorbacks athletic director Frank Broyles, then the head coach.

"Made me feel like a communist," said Burnett, grinning.

The rest was history.

How will Nutt handle the Springdale 5? In a real hands-on manner.

"I think there's enough people around them that tell 'em, 'You need to be a Hog,' the tradition and all that," Nutt said.

"We try to go a step further and put it on a personal basis that, 'There's going to be some days where you might throw an interception, you might fumble. We're going to be there for you. Go ask Matt Jones. Go ask Clint Stoerner about when he put the ball down at Tennessee (a stunning, had-it-won 28-24 loss against the top-ranked Volunteers in 1998). Ask them how coach Nutt responded.'"

Nutt points to the top-notch, upgraded facilities, the UA's tutor system, recent NFL Draft success (three first-rounders the last two years), in-staters who should've stayed (running back Cedric Houston of Clarendon chose Tennessee and fell to the sixth round of the recent draft comes to mind), the way former Arkansas players are treated around here and SEC exposure as key selling points.

He also believes he can sell them on the gameplans he'd like to be able to toss out more often.

"Style of play is a big point to each of these guys," Nutt said.

"And then I think past that, I think they all believe they're going to have a good education no matter where they go.

"Then what is it?

"It comes down to relationships, and that's how we have to win 'em."

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