Hogs bag big haul of WRs, LBs

Wide receivers and linebackers headline Arkansas' 2006 football class announced Wednesday on national letter of intent day. And, they all fell like dominos after national player of the year Mitch Mustain committed a few weeks ago.

Houston Nutt and Gus Malzahn talked about six weeks ago how they wanted Arkansas' football recruiting class to shape up. They both talked about possibly recruiting as many as four wide receivers as the Hogs moved to upgrade their passing game.

So how many wideouts were there in the 2006 recruiting class released at the Broyles Center on Wednesday afternoon?

The Hogs rolled a lucky seven!

"We got some at the end we just couldn't say no to," said Nutt, the UA head coach. "When you get a chance to sign a 6-4 athlete who can run a 10.5 100 meters, you don't say no to any of them. We took a few more than we planned, but that's fine."

It's fine by Malzahn, the Hogs new offensive coordinator who also happens to be the wide receiver coach.

"These are big-time playmakers, every one of them," Malzahn said. "You look at them and they have NFL bodies and they can really run. They are just so athletic. Great hands. But the main thing, they make plays. We needed to upgrade our wide receivers and we did."

The goal on defense was to stockpile linebackers, the position defensive coordinator Reggie Herring coaches. The Hogs' listed four on their signing list, but another, running back Ryan Powers, could end up at linebacker, too.

"I'd say after the second day," Herring said. "He'll get his first chance at running back. We promised him that. But, yes, I want him after the second day. I'm telling you, we had to recruit him as a running back because that is what some others were telling him, too. But he's a future first-round draft pick (in the NFL) as a linebacker.

"Yeah, this is a great linebacker group and you can throw Powers into that group. He's 6-2, has broad shoulders and looks like Herschel Walker.

"This linebacker group has the potential to be the best I've seen in 25 years of coaching as a group all at once to bring in. If they bring a little spirit and passion when they come in August, look out. They are already on the depth chart."

Of course, the class is headed by quarterback Mitch Mustain, Malzahn's signal caller the last two years at Springdale High School. Mustain was just about everyone's national player of the year. It was his decision to come to Arkansas just a few weeks ago that sent this class to the next level.

"We had nine or 10 commitments when Mitch came aboard a few weeks ago, and he immediately became a recruiter and things just took off from there," Nutt said. "That got it going big time. You had all those wide receivers who decided after that."

Then, some of the wide receivers began to bring on some more wide receivers.

"When Damian Williams decided, he made sure we got London Crawford," Malzahn said. "We were already on him, but Damian got after him. We knew they were buddies. Actually, when Damian committed, London called us pretty quick."

Crawford picked the Hogs after decommitting from LSU. Williams had pledged Florida before the Springdale flash settled on the Hogs on Sunday.

"I think Carlton Salters committed about five minutes after Mitch," Malzahn said. "We got a lot of momentum after that. You look at Crawford and he already has an NFL body."

Malzahn raves about Damian Williams, his Springdale star.

"Damian, in my mind, is one of the better players to ever play in our state," Malzahn said. "I'm talking about the 15 years that I've been coaching high school football around here. I've seen some good ones, but he may be the best.

"I truly believe he fits the mold of someone you'd call the best ever. What he has is great versatility. He's a running back who can play wide receiver and you better not overlook him as a kick returner. You need to get him the ball. He's a true playmaker. There is a reason that everyone in the country had their eyes on him. He'll give Arkansas fans some exciting times over the next four years."

Nutt couldn't contain his delight at the Hogs' 2006 class. He said it wouldn't take long for many to figure into the Hogs' plans and called it "maybe our best. I think when you look back in two years, you'll see that.

"We targeted wide receivers and linebackers in this group. We got the kind of quality we were looking for and we are extremely pleased. I think we feel we did a good job of evaluation. You may look and not all of them are four or five stars, but we like them. We feel like we've done our job of finding the ones we wanted.

"The other thing is that there is great, great character in this group. Yes, they are athletic, but the character is there, too. I will say that this is a very, very athletic bunch."

That was Herring's take on the defensive side where the Hogs sigd four defensive linemen, three or four linebackers (depending on where you put Powers), two junior college safeties that looked like Steve Atwater on film and an athletic cover corner.

"When you look back at this group in two years, you are going to see that the Arkansas defense sparkles and looks as fast and athletic as any in college football," Herring said. "What you see is that we are taking some that were safeties and making them linebackers. Some that are ends, we are going to make tackles. There is height and speed, speed, speed.

"The height is the most important aspect. Look at these guys. They are 6-3, 6-4, 6-5 and 6-6. What that does is give you room to grow. Short guys get slower when you put weight on them. Tall guys don't. I love this class. Love it, love it.

"This group is going to be as fast a bunch of Razorbacks as you've seen in a long time. They still have to grow some tusks, but they will.

"What you are talking about is our system. We evaluate the players to fit our system. If you want to be like the big dogs, you have to have a little vision. You find a way to get the overall body and that means finding the speed and the height. Then you roll them into what you need. You take defensive ends and make them ends. You take linebackers and make them ends. You take safeties and make them linebackers."

However, these safeties, junior college products Matt Hewitt and John West, are going to stay at safety. Both looked sensational on film, moving their tall, big bodies like former UA star Steve Atwater.

"By the grace of God, we found Matt Hewitt," Herring said. "He was headed elsewhere and didn't graduate from junior college and his film came across our desk a few weeks ago. I think that was wonderful. He was exactly what we are looking for, an older guy with a big body who can play.

"We designed it to get junior college safeties and it worked the way we drew it up. We got two guys with bigger bodies. That is the foundation. We were concerned about the quality of the safeties we had here and the depth. Vickiel Vaughn and Randy Kelly came on at the end of the year, but we had focused on finding some safeties and we did. Our depth was just not there at that spot."

The Hogs signed 26, one over the limit they can enroll in August. Nutt said a couple of players could have trouble qualifying by NCAA standards.

"If you look at the wide receivers, there are a couple who might not make it and may end up in junior college," Nutt said. "But all of them can make it. There's not a one of them who isn't close enough to make it. They may all make it."

The usual signing day festivities were changed a bit Wednesday. The event started a little earlier, at 3 p.m. at the newly opened player's lounge in the spot one occupied by the weight room in the Broyles Center. Then, the group was moved to the team film room where an overflow crowd waited. That facility contains 120 seats and there were around 50 who did not get seats.

"We've never been close to filling up this room," said Kevin Trainor, UA sports information director. "But we didn't have nearly enough room today."

Nutt was still raving about his new group of wide receivers as fans and UA brass filed out around 4:45 p.m.

"I've wanted to upgrade our wide receivers and we've gone after athletes like this, but we haven't gotten a group like this since maybe we had Anthony Lucas and that bunch," Nutt said. "We'd go after them and they would see what we were doing, the offense and that would turn them off. They see what we are going to do with Gus and that got this bunch excited.

"It feels real good to get a class like this. It's a really good group and we hit our targets as far as wide receivers and linebackers."

The Hogs signed only three offensive linemen. Both Nutt and Malzahn noted that will be a priority position next year.

"We wanted four offensive linemen and we lost one late this year or we would have hit it," Nutt said. "So we'll have to get some numbers there next year, offensive line and cornerback."

Malzahn did not seem concerned that the Hogs got only four blockers.

"I like the ones we got," he said. "In talking to Mike Markuson (UA line coach), he thinks that's an area where we have some depth and we'll be fine this year with the young ones who were sitting out last year. And, the ones we got are very athletic, very mobile and good blocking for the pass and the run. Next year, we may have to get five or six offensive linemen, but we are fine right now with these three."

The Hogs signed two possible pass catching tight ends, bringing another smile to Malzahn's face.

"We listed, of course, Ben Cleveland at tight end, but there's another one in there, maybe, at wide receiver," Malzahn said. "Allen Gardner is 6-6, 210 and runs 4.5. He can add some weight to that frame and be a tight end with what we want to do.

"Ben Cleveland could play defense, but he isn't going over there. I'm telling you that right now. He may have the best hands of any of the players we sign and those wide receivers have great hands. Ben is a great player, very talented and about 248 right now."

Nutt beamed about the job Malzahn did on reeling in his Springdale players at the end in a hectic closing two weeks.

"It came down that they trusted Gus and says a lot about him," Nutt said. "They believed in him. Alex Wood did a wonderful job, too, and they carried a big load at the end, but they trusted Gus."

Wood, the Hogs' new QB coach, had plenty of good things to say about Mustain.

"He's just an outstanding player with a strong, strong, accurate arm," Wood said. "He makes big plays with his wide receivers. You watch all the films and he delivers the deep ball on target and he hits his wide receivers in stride. Yes, they make some great catches, but he puts it where they don't have to break their stride. He's very accurate on the deep ball.

"It's also obvious -- both in the way he plays and the way he handled recruiting when he began to jump in to help us with other players at the end -- that he's a natural leader. He's just a talented mature guy. Gus said that about him and I see it. It's there.

"Gus told me he is very coachable. I look forward to working with him. You saw that he was comfortable in that system and it was obvious that those guys had been together in that offense. The continuity and the way they played together was very obvious in that they were comfortable in what they were doing."

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