The Straw Stirring Drinkwitz’s Drink When It Comes to Arkansas Recruiting

Brian Early, Eli Drinkwitz, Arkansas football, Missouri football, Arkansas recruiting
photo credit: Twitter/Brian Early / Craven Whitlow

Missouri’s triumph over Ohio State in December’s Cotton Bowl capped the program’s best season in a decade and was the Tigers’ first winning season of any kind since 2018. Their head coach, Alma native Eli Drinkwitz, provided plenty of hope for the fanbase moving forward after enduring mediocre results in his three seasons prior.

That tells only part of the story for the Tigers, who have not only excelled on the field, but also on the recruiting trail. Some of that success has been at Arkansas’ expense and could continue increasing with the Tigers’ latest coaching addition of Brian Early.

They may be a thorn in Arkansas’ side now, but that has not always been the case. Former Hogs AD John Barnhill snatched Frank Broyles from Columbia after just one season in which he led the Tigers to their first winning season in five years and the rest is history. Barry Odom had an average four-year tenure with the Tigers, with a 25-25 record, but his role as an advisor – and walking partner – to Sam Pittman for three seasons was key in Arkansas winning back-to-back bowl games in 2021-22. 

However, the momentum on the field is currently 10 wins to four in Missouri’s favor and many of Arkansas’ top prospects have taken notice.

After signing one native Arkansan in its 2023 class, Missouri inked three in the 2024 cycle. As if that was not hard enough on Razorback Nation, Drinkwitz made sure to send out a couple of extra reminders via X (formerly known as Twitter) GIFs and advertisements

While Drinkwitz’s deep ties across The Natural State may give him a leg up on other SEC coaches, interior defensive line coach Al Davis also plays a key role. The College Park, Ga., native played for the Razorbacks from 2009-12, appearing in 46 games while earning starts in 16 of them. Davis was a team captain on the 2012 squad.

Missouri’s entire defensive line will now be mentored by coaches with Arkansas connections as the school officially announced the hiring of Early on Friday. Early, who will coach the Tigers’ edge rushers, worked under Bret Bielema in 2013 at Arkansas as a defensive quality control assistant, but a source did confirm with Best of Arkansas Sports that he has never interviewed for a position on Arkansas’ coaching staff. 

One of the nation’s more established coaches in the defensive trenches, Early just completed an impressive five-year run at the University of Houston and has served on both Arkansas and Arkansas State’s staffs, plus multiple other high schools within the state. 

Drinkwitz mentioned that Early is “a coach that’s been on our radar for a while now,” in a press release from the school.

Historically, the Razorbacks have had a native on staff, but that has not been the case since Dowell Loggains, who was born in Newport, left to become the offensive coordinator at South Carolina following the 2022 season. Loggains is also the only former Arkansas football player Pittman has had on his staff in Fayetteville.

Arkansas has already dropped nine of the past eleven meetings on the field against the Tigers, including last year’s pathetic performance in which the Hogs fell 48-14. They have also lost a hefty amount of ground on the recruiting trail to Missouri. Of the five composite four-star prospects from Arkansas in the 2024 class, the Tigers signed two – the exact same number as the Razorbacks. With Early on board, the Hogs’ ditch likely just got deeper. 

Brian Early Part of A Coaching Legacy

Brian Early grew up in Monticello, where his father, Alvy Early, compiled one of the state’s most legendary collegiate coaching careers at the University of Arkansas-Monticello. Alvy won over 1,100 games combined coaching both girl’s basketball and softball, is a member of the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame and was named the Gulf South Conference Coach of the Decade (2000-09).

Both of Brian’s brothers are also coaches. Preston Early has served as the girls basketball coach at Rogers High for over two decades and is the school’s all-time winningest coach. Kent Early, meanwhile, has been the head softball coach at Bentonville since 2006 and won five state championships.

Early’s first job after graduating from UAM in 1994 was at Greenland High, where he was the defensive coordinator as well as strength and conditioning coach. Additionally, he worked as a DC at West Memphis (2001) and Fayetteville (2009-12), while also serving stints at multiple in-state schools; UAM (1999-2000), Central Arkansas (2004-08), Arkansas (2013) and Arkansas State (2014-18). 

While coaching at Fayetteville, Early and his wife, Nanci, brought in, and later adopted, current San Francisco 49ers linebacker Dre Greenlaw in what has turned out to be a heartwarming story. 

During his time at Arkansas State, Early’s units ranked in the nation’s Top 20 for sacks and tackles for loss all five years. He tutored three straight Sun Belt Defensive Players of the Year from 2016-18 and in 2017 was nominated for the Broyles Award, given to the nation’s top assistant coach.

Following his tenure with the Red Wolves, Early continued to build dominant defensive fronts for the Houston Cougars. Coined “Sack Ave.,” Early’s 2021 and 2022 units finished in the nation’s Top 15 for both sacks and tackles for loss, while seven players earned All-Conference honors under his tutelage. Since 2021, four of Early’s defensive linemen have been drafted, headlined by Payton Turner who was selected 28th overall by the New Orleans Saints in 2021.

The Unsung Hero for Missouri Football

The Million Dollar question: What is Missouri doing that has intrigued so many top football prospects from multiple areas of the state?

Pine Bluff head coach Micheal Williams already has one of his former players on Missouri’s roster, tight end Jordon Harris. He was the third-ranked prospect from Arkansas in the 2023 class per 247Sports and Missouri’s second-highest rated signee overall for the cycle. 

Two more Zebras from this year’s class signed in December, as the Tigers added wide receivers Courtney Crutchfield and Austyn Dendy. While neither Harris nor Dendy was offered by Arkansas, the Razorbacks missing out on Crutchfield – who was initially committed to the Hogs –  stirred panic within parts of the Razorback fanbase

One leg up that Al Davis has in recruiting Pine Bluff is he has family in the area, so he is able to kill two birds with one stone when in town. Drinkwitz and Davis have been the two Missouri football coaches Williams has dealt with the most, but he also mentioned a certain coaching legend who does critical work behind the scenes. 

WIlliams does not have a long history with Early, but they did meet when Early was at Houston and Williams was an assistant at national powerhouse Duncanville High. 

“Coach Rick Jones,” Williams stated with pride. “He is a key component that nobody really gives credit to.“

Jones, 69, has served as Missouri’s Senior Assistant to the Head Coach at Missouri since 2020 and has nearly half a century’s worth of coaching experience. He compiled Hall of Fame careers in both Arkansas and Oklahoma, winning over 300 games and nine state championships, eight of those at Greenwood High. He coached six Division I quarterbacks while at Greenwood, including former Razorback Tyler Wilson. 

“He does this email newsletter with coaches throughout Arkansas that he sends all the time discussing ideas on how to properly build your team and things like that,” Williams continued. “That is the difference for Coach Drink and why he is able to clean up in Arkansas because he has a lot of Arkansas coaches and ties.” 

Matt Richardson, Ashdown High’s head football coach, agrees that Jones is critical. 

“Every great coach has to have that veteran,” Richardson said. “Can you imagine a young head football coach if Nick Saban just came and sat in the room? Any question he had, Coach Saban would say that this is the way we did it. Rick Jones is a legend. He has great insight and that is why he is there so Eli can have someone to rely on.”

Richardson has known Early for many years. Some of Richardson’s most highly-recruited former players include current Jacksonville Jaguar Montaric Brown, LaDarrius Bishop and Shamar Easter. 

As someone who has dealt with major college football coaches for many years, familiarity is important to Richardson.

“Coach Early is someone coaches here in the state are comfortable with and most of us have a relationship with,” Richardson said. “Now it just turns into, heck, he’s going somewhere else, but he still has the same phone number and you know him.”

Drinkwitz is adding “great recruiters who are familiar to everyone around” to his Missouri football staff.

Early’s consistency was not the only thing Richardson raved about.

“Let’s just tell the truth – Brian might be one of the best pass-rushing defensive line coaches in the country, he is unbelievable,” Richardson said. “His stats do not lie and, of course, the kids he puts in the league.”

Other Arkansas High School Football Coaches Speak Out

Along with Crutchfield and Dendy, the third 2024 signee for the Tigers from Arkansas was Valley View linebacker Brian Huff. While there was heavy mutual interest between Huff and both Arkansas and Missouri, former Hogs defensive coordinator Barry Odom leaving Fayetteville to take the head coaching job at UNLV essentially made Missouri the favorite. Arkansas was the first school to offer Huff between his sophomore and junior year, then Missouri came later.

“When the defensive staff left Arkansas, I think that kind of solidified his commitment to Missouri and they stayed on them,” Valley View head coach Sean Cockrell said. “I also saw them (Missouri) a bunch. (Linebackers coach) D.J. Smith came to two games and he was here quite a bit.”

Another common denominator that all coaches who were interviewed mentioned was Missouri’s goal of recruiting kids from within a six-hour radius of the campus. 

“To us, Fayetteville is a little over four hours, so it is not much different,” Cockrell said. 

Defensive back Dreyden Norwood is another Arkansas native currently on the Tigers’ roster. The Fort Smith Northside alum initially signed with Texas A&M in 2021 before transferring to Missouri before the 2022 season.

Northside head coach Felix Curry was the Grizzlies’ defensive coordinator during Norwood’s prep career. Having played two seasons for the Tigers thus far, including making six starts, Norwood is currently having the time of his life in black and gold. 

“Dreyden was home for Christmas break and spoke to our kids,” Curry said. “He could not say enough great things about Missouri and Coach Drinkwitz.

“I actually recently told our staff that as far as going to camps, I am most interested in going and visiting Missouri. Just to see what they are doing because, obviously, they are doing something different.”  

Can Arkansas Football Bounce Back?

Before Arkansas can gain momentum on the recruiting trail again, it has to ‘put a fence up’ as the figurative saying goes. Though the dip with in-state recruiting is a reasonable cause for concern, the Razorbacks have made up some ground two states to the East in Alabama

This is not the first time the Hogs have taken a few steps back on the recruiting trail and, despite missing out on Crutchfield, they did at least get a signature from the state’s top prospect Charlie Collins. 

However, as Arkansas recently experienced with Ashton Bethel-Roman, signing a National Letter of Intent does not guarantee a player will make it to campus. Making matters worse, Bethel-Roman was Arkansas’ top-rated wide receiver, and third-highest overall, once Crutchfield flipped to Mizzou. 

Bethel-Roman’s backing out dipped the Hogs’ current ranking for the 2024 class to No. 15 in the SEC, right above Vanderbilt who sits dead last.

Missouri’s connections to The Natural State are continuing to add up and Arkansas has a lot to get fixed, or else it will just continue to watch its Battle Line Rival thrive at its expense. 

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Brian Early was initially retained by new Houston coach Willie Fritz before being plucked away by Missouri football:

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