Dave Van Horn took a different approach to rebuilding the Arkansas baseball roster this offseason.
Rather than relying heavily on the JUCO ranks like last year, the Razorbacks are bringing in nine players from the transfer portal to compete for a finite number of spots on the 2024 team.
They are currently set to add only one junior college transfer — Will Edmunson from Hutchinson C.C. — this year, which is a significant drop-off from the 10 they signed this past season.
Asked about the shift, the veteran Arkansas baseball coach said it just “made more sense” to lean on the transfer portal over JUCO players this time around.
“If you ask me, I would probably rather take a kid that’s got Division I at-bats or has gotten Division I hitters out if you’re talking about right now,” Van Horn said. “I feel like we covered our bases this summer as far as getting the kids in here that we need to help us put together a roster that can be competitive in the SEC.”
Van Horn has had quite a bit of success recruiting the junior college ranks, even in recent years. Caleb Cali was the starting third baseman much of last season and Hunter Hollan was a weekend starting pitcher, while Peyton Holt and Ben McLaughlin produced at a high level when given the opportunity.
Dylan Carter, Brady Slavens, Jalen Battles, Braydon Webb, Matt Goodheart, Charlie Welch and Ryan Costeiu are just a handful of other key contributors on the last three Arkansas baseball teams who came to Fayetteville from JUCO.
However, the Razorbacks have also been very efficient with transfers from other Division I programs, which could lead to a snowball effect that makes JUCO recruiting virtually obsolete.
“We’ve done a pretty good job of sometimes maybe not getting the biggest name, but maybe getting someone just under that, that comes in and has a really good year,” Van Horn said. “Kids are keeping up with all this now. Recruiting is so different than it was five years ago as far as recruiting these older kids. They’re smart. They investigate. They’re making phone calls.”
JUCO Recruiting for Football, Basketball
While Dave Van Horn has routinely dipped into junior college for starters and key role players, his counterparts in the other two major sports have hardly given a thought to those prospects and instead focused their efforts on the transfer portal.
Eric Musselman was a master with transfers before the portal existed and has signed just one JUCO recruit since coming to Fayetteville — and he never even made it to campus. Akol Mawein was released from his NLI so he could follow assistant coach David Patrick to Oklahoma.
Sam Pittman has signed one JUCO player in each of his four classes, but only one has ever actually played for the Razorbacks.
Julius Coates showed promise and even started three games in 2020 before entering the portal. The next two players were a pair of defensive tackles brought in for depth purposes, but Jalen Williams transferred after one season in which he got no playing time and Tayor Lewis transferred before his first season with the Razorbacks. It remains to be seen how 2023 signee Amaury Wiggins turns out, as he’s currently vying for the backup center job.
This hasn’t always been the case.
Arkansas basketball has thrived on JUCO players through the years, as far back as Almer Lee and Martin Terry in the early 1970s and as recently as Mason Jones in the pandemic-shortened 2019-20 season.
In between, there were legends like Ron Brewer, Alvin Robertson and Darrell Walker under Eddie Sutton and then Lenzie Howell, Isaiah Morris and Jannero Pargo under Nolan Richardson — not to mention the 1994 national title team that had Corey Beck, Dwight Stewart, Alex Dillard and Roger Crawford. More recently, Jaylen Barford, Daryl Macon and Coty Clarke had successful careers during Mike Anderson’s tenure.
There isn’t quite as illustrious a history on the gridiron, but Arkansas football has also benefited from JUCO players in the past. In fact, Bret Bielema had a pretty high hit rate with them, bringing in the likes of Martrell Spaight, Sam Irwin-Hill, Sebastian Tretola, Dominique Reed and Jeremiah Ledbetter. Even Chad Morris landed Rakeem Boyd and Myron Cunningham.
One reason those kinds of players have dried up is that Arkansas, like many schools, now goes to the transfer portal when it needs immediate help at a position. Someone who has produced at the Division I level is a much safer bet to produce — and produce quickly — at a new school than someone coming from junior college, as it’s a much larger jump in level of competition.
The Last Bastion of JUCO Recruiting: Arkansas Baseball
Baseball is arguably the last bastion of elite JUCO recruiting. The trend at Arkansas is seen across the board.
According to 247Sports’ database, Power Five schools signed 129 junior college football players in the 2018 class. Three years later, in 2021, that number fell to 45 — a decrease of 65.1%.
It’s difficult to find similar numbers for basketball, but it’s probably a safe bet that it’s experienced a similar decline because of the explosion of the transfer portal, which saw more than 1,700 players enter it this offseason.
There has probably been a decline in baseball, too, but it’s still relatively common for programs to find players like Caleb Cali, Hunter Hollan and Brady Slavens in junior college because of the nature of the sport.
A certain stigma surrounds JUCO players in football and basketball. As the Netflix docuseries “Last Chance U” highlighted, many fans assume grade issues or off-the-field concerns are assumed to be why the best JUCO players end up at two-year schools.
That happens in baseball, too, but there are also other factors at play.
First of all, there’s an incentive for some talented players to head to junior college instead of Division I. JUCO players are immediately eligible for the MLB Draft, while those at four-year schools have to spend three years in college (or two, if they meet an age requirement). Bryce Harper famously used this loophole back in 2010, when he skipped his senior year of high school, spent one year at the College of Southern Nevada and got selected No. 1 overall.
The plan may be for those players to turn pro after one or two seasons, but if the money they’re being offered doesn’t match what they’re asking, they can still sign with a Division I school.
There are also a lot more Division I bounce-back players in college baseball. It’s not uncommon for a freshman to sign with a high-major program, not make the team in the fall and transfer to a junior college midyear. In basketball and football, those players are much more likely to just hit the transfer portal because the timing of their seasons allows them to find a new Division I home.
It’s also important to remember that rosters are still bulging because of the pandemic. The NCAA’s blanket eligibility relief granted to those playing in 2020 essentially added an extra class of players to the college baseball ranks. For example, without the pandemic, Jared Wegner never would have played for the Razorbacks.
Coaches tend to favor older players over young ones who haven’t proven themselves, so as they bring in more transfers from the portal, more freshmen are forced to take the JUCO route, increasing the quality of play at that level.
Major League Baseball shortening its draft from 40 to 20 rounds and eliminating more than 40 of its minor league teams reduced the number of opportunities for players trying to begin professional careers, so more and more older players are sticking around in college – either at their original school or by transferring to a bigger school.
The players with the bonus COVID year should cycle through in the next couple of years, so that will sort itself out, but the other factors are still at play and should keep junior college baseball alive and well.
Whether or not Dave Van Horn goes as heavily on JUCO players as he did last offseason remains to be seen. There should still be a solid talent pool from which he can nab some contributors in the years to come, so it likely won’t completely dry up like it has in football and basketball.
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