Just over a year ago, Arkansas football fans got a reminder of what a Bobby Petrino-led offense looks like. His Missouri State squad had the Razorbacks on their heels with a 27-24 advantage early in the fourth quarter before Bryce Stephens’ 82-yard punt return for the go-ahead score swung the momentum and eventually led to a 38-27 Arkansas victory.
After a quick cup of coffee at UNLV with former Arkansas defensive coordinator Barry Odom, the man who took the Hogs to their only BCS bowl game in program history once again faces his former team Saturday when Arkansas vs Texas A&M kicks off in the Southwest Classic at AT&T Stadium.
While some still hold a grudge due to the scandal leading to his 2012 exit from Fayetteville, many others are more appreciative of the litany of achievements during his Arkansas football tenure including:
- A combined 21 wins in 2010-11, the first time since 1988-89 that the Arkansas program won double-digit games in back-to-back seasons,
- Won two bowl games and nearly won the Sugar Bowl, where the Hogs came up short against Ohio State.
- Orchestrated offenses that took the nation by storm and re-wrote the Arkansas football program’s record books, particularly in the passing game.
To make it even more unique, the majority of those names still in the record books are Arkansas natives. The 2008 signing class, Petrino’s first with the Razorbacks, featured 15 in-state signees including Tyler Wilson, Joe Adams, Dennis Johnson and the Warren trio of Greg Childs, Chris Gragg and Jarius Wright.
Wilson and Wright actually had their best games as Razorbacks in the memorable 42-38 win over the Aggies in 2011, as 281 of Wilson’s school-record 510 yards were hauled in by Wright. His 13 receptions, many of which you can see in the highlight video below, are still tied for first in school history for a single game.
Without Petrino and his dynamic offense coming to Arkansas, it is likely a handful of the aforementioned stars would have ended up elsewhere while Razorback fans watched them thrive from afar.
An Unprecedented In-State Arkansas Recruiting Class
Arkansas’ 2008 in-state recruiting class was littered with talent and prominent college coaches from across the country looked to take advantage. For starters, Central Arkansas Christian’s Joe Adams was considered by many outlets as the No. 1 prospect in the state. He gave his pledge to Southern California prior to his senior season and remained committed until the 2008 National Signing Day, when he flipped to the Hogs.
Greenwood’s Tyler Wilson committed to Tulsa in the fall of his senior year, where previous Arkansas offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn was serving in the same position, and also had some heavy interest from LSU.
But Wilson changed his commitment to Arkansas less than a week after Petrino’s polarizing sudden departure from the Atlanta Falcons with three games remaining in the 2007 NFL season to take the job in Fayetteville.
Down in Warren, an unprecedented stable of wide receivers emerged from this heralded class. While all three of them had been committed to Arkansas prior to their senior season, few realize that a couple were wavering on their commitments before Petrino sealed the deal as the new Hogs coach in 2008.
Warren initially had four wide receivers who signed with Arkansas — Childs, Gragg, Wright and Basmine Jones, who did not make it to campus.
When Petrino made his first visit to Warren, all four wideouts had already committed to Arkansas the summer prior to the 2007 season under Houston Nutt. Following the historic three-overtime upset road victory over top-ranked LSU, Nutt resigned and was hired as the head coach at Ole Miss the next day.
Childs, who was 6-foot-5, 200 pounds at the time he signed with the Razorbacks, actually played defense before becoming a consistent receiving threat and he recalls Arkansas giving him that opportunity when they extended the offer.
“They had asked me which one I wanted to do,” Childs told Best of Arkansas Sports. “When they offered me, I think they gave it to me as a defensive end, because I was going both ways for a long time.”
At the start of the recruiting process, Childs considered going elsewhere until Houston Nutt came calling.
“I do not think at first we all thought we would go to the same college because we were getting offers from all across,” Childs said. “Once we all got the offer from Arkansas, we all thought, well maybe we should just go there.”
Throughout the search for the next head coach following Nutt’s departure, however, Childs began to strongly consider another SEC West program instead.
“Greg loved Sylvester Croom when he was at Mississippi State,” Warren High head coach Bo Hembree said, referring to the former Bulldogs coach in Starkville from 2004-08. “The day Coach Petrino came to Warren, Greg was actually on a visit there at Mississippi State.”
Meanwhile, Jarius Wright had grown up wanting to be a Razorback, but he admitted that he did have some enticing offers that seemed to better fit his style of play.
“I did want to play at Arkansas and wanted to be there, but I was not all the way sold,” Wright said. “But Coach Nutt sold me on getting to do some of the Wildcat stuff, getting a chance to maybe play both ways because I was being recruited as an athlete by his staff.”
Lincoln Riley Makes Strong Push for Jarius Wright
Oklahoma was one of Jarius Wright’s top schools, along with LSU who came in late, but his most enticing offer was from the Air Raid offense at Texas Tech under Mike Leach. Wright’s main recruiter? A young, graduate assistant/wide receivers coach named Lincoln Riley.
Now the head coach at USC following a stint in the same position at Oklahoma from 2017-21, Riley has since coached three Heisman Trophy winners.
“I felt like we talked almost every week and he let me know how important I was to help their program,” Wright said. “He used to tell me I reminded him a lot of (Tech alum and two-time NFL All-Pro wide receiver) Wes Welker, but just more athletic. Of course Michael Crabtree was there at the time and made a huge difference in the Big 12. He would just tell me that if I wanted to catch 100 footballs a year to come here. Of course, as a receiver, that sounds really good.”
For a time, Hembree was all but certain that the Red Raiders would secure Wright’s signature.
“I really thought Lincoln had him at Texas Tech,” Hembree said. “He came down to see Jarius a lot. When Petrino came, that just changed all of their mindsets on coming to Arkansas.”
Lincoln Riley was thwarted that time, but – 13 years later, as Oklahoma’s head coach – would get his revenge on Arkansas when he stole a talented receiver by getting Mike Woods as a transfer from the Hogs.
Bobby Petrino’s Vision for Gragg at Arkansas
Possibly the most impressive story of the 2008 class was that of Chris Gragg.
Initially slated to play defense at Warren High, Gragg was thrust into playing receiver during a game his junior season and that is where it all started. Coincidentally, the receiver he took the place of was Moorehead Jordan – the father of current 2025 Arkansas target and Lumberjack receiver Antonio Jordan.
“I ended up having some good games at receiver and after that I was introduced to all of the Trey Biddys and the Arkansas media guys,” Gragg said. “They were actually watching Jarius and Greg, but I was making plays too, so they started watching me.”
All of the smaller in-state programs took interest in Gragg following his junior season, but the Razorbacks were his first Power Five offer. While his initial pledge was to Houston Nutt, Petrino was the first who realized Gragg had a chance to be special not only catching passes, but also as a blocker.
Hembree recalls the meeting where Petrino brought that up with a grin not long after he was hired at Arkansas.
“Chris comes in while Bobby and I are sitting in my office,” Hembree said. “Bobby puts his hand around Chris’ wrist and looks at us both and said, ‘Coach, I am fixing to make him a tight end.’
“At that time, Chris was only about 6-foot-3, 180 pounds, so I was like there is no way in the world that is going to happen. Bobby was one of the best evaluators I have ever been around.”
The evolution of the tight end position in the spread offense was becoming more popular at multiple levels of football during that time and it did not take Gragg very long to be sold on the idea.
“Coach Petrino used to tell me about this guy he had at Louisville who made a lot of plays at ‘H-back’ as Petrino called it, a mixture between tight end and receiver,” Gragg said. “I was watching guys like Tony Gonzalez and Rob Gronkowski making plays. I felt like I could be a matchup problem and he told me that was a way to get on the field early, so I bought in.”
As far as blocking goes, before his college career, Gragg gained some experience blocking for speedsters Jones and Wright out of the Lumberjacks’ popular four-wide set, but did not have much experience doing it from the line of scrimmage with his hand in the dirt.
Considering Gragg lived with running backs Dennis Johnson and Knile Davis, he knew that he had to get that part down regardless of whether he wanted to or not.
“If we were at home watching film, it was going to show up if I was not blocking,” Gragg said. “Also, at Warren and Arkansas I played special teams where I had to block, so that is one of the things that helped me in the NFL as well.”
Both Gragg and Wright stay close to the game to this day as coaches. Gragg currently serves as the wide receivers coach at Springdale Har-Ber, while Wright is in the same position at Sylvan Hills.
The 2008 class also included the late Ryan Mallett, who transferred to Arkansas following a season at Michigan. Mallett graduated from Texas High, just across the border on the Texas side of Texarkana, but spent the majority of his childhood in Arkansas. It was a goal for Wright and his Warren teammates to continue playing together at the next level, but that desire stretched much further than their locker room.
“We also had (Camden Fairview’s) De’Anthony Curtis and Jim Youngblood plus their other two D-linemen, Joe Adams, Dennis Johnson,” Wright said. “It was talked about before we even went up there that we wanted to put Arkansas on the map.”
Turning the Corner vs. Petrino and Texas A&M
With one-third of the 2023 season complete, Arkansas football has a chance to start the road back to putting the Hogs on that proverbial map, just as they did two years ago when they finally beat the Aggies for the first time since those Petrino days.
There is a lot at stake for the Razorbacks in this matchup. A win would put the win-loss record at a game over .500 and also gain some much-needed confidence by breaking a two-game losing streak, plus Sam Pittman would earn back a bit of patience from the fanbase smack dab in the middle of a tough four-game stretch.
The annual Arkansas vs Texas A&M matchup began in Petrino’s second season and he led the Razorbacks to three consecutive victories over the Aggies from 2009-11. Since that time, Arkansas has fallen on many hard times as a whole, but especially in this series.
Of the 10 Razorback defeats to the Aggies in the past 11 games, three have gone into overtime and six have been decided by a touchdown or less. Despite the Aggies’ recent dominance, Arkansas still leads the all-time series 42-34-3.
Recent history may not be in Arkansas’ favor in terms of the final result, but the Aggies are beatable despite being a 5.5-point favorite. They currently sit at 3-1 overall and 1-0 in SEC play following Saturday’s 27-10 victory over Auburn, and will be starting Max Johnson at quarterback after it was announced on Wednesday that Conner Weigman is out for the season. Weigman went down in the second quarter of that Auburn win and Johnson impressed in relief, completing 7 of 11 passes for 123 yards and two touchdowns.
Petrino’s offense ranks in the SEC’s top five in total yards (451) and points (40) per game, while Arkansas’ defense is surrendering 22 points per contest – 36 in the past two losses – and 300 total yards per game. Arkansas’ defense has been much better than the stats show, as they did not allow more than 300 total yards in any of their first three contests before LSU reached 426 last Saturday night.
If there is anything the Razorbacks’ defense has proven, it is that they can take advantage of turnover opportunities. Through the first four games, Arkansas has eight total takeaways – six interceptions and two fumble recoveries – and two pick-sixes, both of which are tied for the conference lead.
With only two games remaining before the Southwest Classic moves away from AT&T Stadium, Arkansas has a great opportunity on Saturday to close that chapter with a happy ending.
Can K.J. Jefferson and possibly Andrew Armstrong or Isaac TeSlaa have a combined performance for the ages like Tyler Wilson and Jarius Wright did in the 2011 shootout with the Aggies?
Without Petrino’s arrival, it’s easy to imagine a world where “Childs Please” never happened because Childs went to Mississippi State or focused on defensive line for Arkansas. In that same alternate universe, Jarius Wright could have become one of Texas Tech’s best all-time receivers under Lincoln Riley.
There are plenty of “what ifs” that stick in one’s craw for Arkansas football fans when thinking of the aftermath of the Petrino era, but he is not given enough credit for staving off some pretty depressing possibilities on the front end of his time in Fayetteville.
No matter what happens in Arkansas vs Texas A&M come Saturday, that shouldn’t be forgotten.
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