Hogs Can Use This Hack around Scholarship Limit to Counter Getting Outbid in NIL

John Ridgeway, Anton Juncaj, Arkansas football, transfer portal
photo credit: Nick Wenger / Albany Athletics

As transfer portal season ramps up, Arkansas football fans are itching for some program-changing signings. The Hogs have found their quarterback in Taylen Green, and former five-star Georgia linebacker Xavian Sorey became the headliner of the class when he committed.

Transfers from major programs get fans excited, but the Hogs have also extended a number of offers to players in the Group of Five, FCS and junior college ranks. A lot of these players won’t move the needle on the hype meter, and Razorback fans may be getting nervous that their team is having to resort to a Moneyball strategy because it lacks the NIL money or program stability to land bigger fish.

That raises an interesting question: can Arkansas succeed primarily by identifying talent from lower levels? Are there even enough SEC-worthy players, and can we predict their success based on their production in the FCS, JUCO, or even Division II?

Let’s look at some factors to consider when evaluating lower-level players.

Success Translates More Than Hype

It’s easy to get more excited about transfers from major SEC powers, but being around a great program doesn’t automatically make a great player. Yes, Arkansas has turned powerhouse castoffs into stars in recent years: Landon Jackson, Dwight McGlothern and Drew Sanders all come to mind. 

But the Georgia pipeline hasn’t been as friendly: LaTavious Brini was good enough to start but struggled in 2022, and Jaheim Singletary was frequently burned and lost his starting job to Jaylon Braxton just a few games into this season.

And while taking Oklahoma castoffs worked when it was Jadon Haselwood, the Hogs mostly needed to get Haselwood because the previous four-star OU transfer receiver, Jaquayln Crawford, finished his Razorback career with all of three receptions. Another OU bust was former four-star linebacker Levi Draper, who never played a career snap at linebacker and moved to tight end before getting injured and medically retiring in 2021.

Meanwhile, Arkansas has signed two FCS transfers under Pittman: John Ridgeway of Illinois State was an excellent starting defensive tackle in 2021, and Andrew Armstrong of Texas A&M-Commerce led the Hogs in receiving in 2023 and is back for another year.

What do Ridgeway and Armstrong have in common? They were really, really good at their previous schools. In 2019, his last full season before transferring to Arkansas, Pro Football Focus gave Ridgeway an overall grade of 88 (including 91 in run defense), making him one of the best defensive tackles in the entire FCS. How about Armstrong? His offensive grade of 83 in 2022 made him among the best receivers in the FCS.

We’re learning that success often translates in the coaching ranks as well. For years, schools have preferred to hire FBS retreads or up-and-coming coordinators from major programs, like Oregon hiring Georgia DC Dan Lanning. The hire of a solid FCS coach is viewed as less impressive, or even a disappointment.

Kansas State’s AD reported getting nasty emails when he hired North Dakota State’s Chris Kliemann, but the Wildcats have already won a Big 12 title under Kliemann’s coaching. Small-school coaches have continued to shine in recent years, and we’re seeing a push to hire more of them. Lanning can’t figure out how to get past Washington’s Kalen DeBoer, whose break into major college football came when he led Sioux Falls to three NAIA championships. Or take Kansas’ Lance Leipold, who won five national titles at Division III Wisconsin-Whitewater before jumping straight to Buffalo. Kliemann, Leipold and DeBoer were all near the top of Razorback fans’ lists had the Hogs decided to move on from Sam Pittman after the 2023 season.

If “knowing how to win” is a skill for coaches that translates, what translates for players? It’s not hard to figure out which measurables will translate and which ones won’t. Sure, a 260-pound offensive linemen at an FCS school probably isn’t going to cut it in the SEC, but you don’t need any advanced stats to tell you that. Size and speed translate. Ridgeway was over 300 pounds when Arkansas recruited him.

He may have played at a small school, but he wasn’t a small guy. Armstrong was 6-foot-4, ran a 4.5-second 40-yard dash and dropped just two passes in 92 targets in his last season at A&M-Commerce, allowing him to be a reliable downfield target. At Arkansas, guess what he was? A reliable, downfield target who led the team in targets, receptions, yards and PFF grade among receivers. Oh yeah, and he only dropped two passes in 79 targets. Everything that coaches and analysts saw him do on film against FCS defenses held true against SEC defenses. It’s harder, yes, but it’s not a completely different sport.

Multiple Years Usually Helps

The three quarterbacks who were Heisman finalists this year all were in their second year after transferring: Jayden Daniels, Michael Penix and Bo Nix.

Yes, all of them transferred from other Power Five schools, but consider the leap that Mizzou’s Cody Schrader made from his first year to his second, after transferring from a Division II school. Schrader averaged just 4.4 yards per carry in his first season with the Tigers, but that jumped to 6.0 (including 3.2 yards after contact per rush) in 2023, earning Schrader the Burlsworth Trophy.

One-year pickups like John Ridgeway can work if the player is talented enough, but the best bet is often to find players who jump out on film and have multiple years of eligibility remaining.

Potential NIL Hack for Arkansas Football

As Arkansas fans worry that the program has been “out-bid” for major names in the new Wild West of NIL, lower-level players typically don’t demand enormous NIL offers.

While this doesn’t necessarily help with the issue of quality, it might help with quantity. Consider a discussion between Mike Irwin and Courtney Mims on a recent segment of “Ask Mike” on whether some programs could further exploit NIL to get around the 85 scholarship limit.

Essentially, programs with deep NIL coffers could offer mostly FCS players (with some DII guys thrown in) preferred walk-on status with guarantees that NIL money would cover the same amount as a scholarship. Maybe Arkansas could try this at a position like offensive line to increase the number of capable players competing to play.

That might already be happening in Fayetteville, just not in football. Hoops point guard Keyon Menifield, who played 28 minutes against Abilene Christian on Thursday, is a walk-on this year. He was expected to redshirt, but the NCAA granted him eligibility the day before the Lipscomb game, so now Eric Musselman has an extra scholarship-level player at his disposal. Do we think he left a scholarship at Washington to receive no guaranteed money at Arkansas? Or did the Arkansas basketball staff ensure that he had some other NIL-based arrangement to cover his cost of attendance?

Positions That Can Make the Jump

Because speed translates the easiest to higher levels of competition, skill positions like receiver, running back and defensive back are going to generally be safer bets. In addition to Andrew Armstrong, another recent example of an FCS-to-SEC transfer working out is (now-former) South Carolina receiver Juice Wells, who had a monster game against Arkansas in 2022 and a great season overall for the Gamecocks after coming from the FCS ranks. If you see a lower-level receiver being recruited by Arkansas, I don’t think there’s any reason to panic, since those players can be very good.

What about linemen? Or linebackers? Arkansas has given some looks to some offensive linemen from the FCS ranks. Those are a bit dicier, because the competition in the trenches is extreme in the SEC, and typically only players who show potential from the early part of their career (that is, are good enough out of high school to be offered by FBS programs) have a shot to be great.

My research turned up only three offensive linemen over the last two offseasons that have made the FCS-to-SEC jump, and none of them became starters at their new school, though Tre’Mond Shorts (LSU) played 75 snaps in 2022 and had an excellent PFF grade. Deion Sanders raided the FCS ranks at Colorado, and one of his pickups was guard Landon Bebee, who had started for Petrino at Missouri State. Bebee played 600 snaps across 10 games (starting seven) and had a PFF grade for the Buffs similar to what he’d had at Missouri State, despite a major step up in competition. (Before you mock Colorado, whose line was horrible, note that Bebee was not particularly good at Missouri State, and his PFF grade there was much lower than the names we’re seeing Arkansas target.) So making the jump isn’t impossible, even if it is risky.

Who Could Help Arkansas Football

That takes us to some of the names we’ve seen Arkansas target in the transfer portal. The latest is Albany defensive end Anton Juncaj. His 91 PFF grade was among the best in the entire FCS in 2023, so he checks the box of being really good at his level and clearly deserves a scholarship at the next.

Whether or not a good defensive end at Albany is capable of translating that to the Power Five is already an answered question: Florida State star DE Jared Verse, who just declared for the NFL draft after an all-ACC season, came from Albany two years ago.

The junior college ranks are also good ways to get good players, and Arkansas has apparently scheduled a couple of visits with JUCO players. Pittman’s first linebackers coach, Rion Rhoades, was a JUCO coach and I suspect Pittman thought he’d need a lot of JUCO help to do a major rebuild.

Rhoades spent just one season in the role, and Arkansas largely moved away from JUCO recruiting as the staff realized they probably had more talent on the roster than they initially thought. But with guys like Rakeem Boyd, Dorian Gerald,and Myron Cunningham coming from JUCO in recent years, there’s plenty of talent to mine there. 

Cunningham in particular jumps out: an offensive tackle who started in the FCS but never played, went to junior college, dominated, got noticed by big schools, was signed by the Hogs and went on to be easily the best left tackle Arkansas has had in years. His signing wouldn’t be hyped today, but Arkansas fans would love to have another Myron Cunningham. He checks all the boxes discussed here: dominated at a lower level, looked the part of an SEC player at his position (300-plus pounds) and had multiple years to grow into his role.

At the end of the day, stars do matter, but they aren’t the only thing that matters. To be competitive, evaluation is key, because good players are available everywhere.

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More coverage of Arkansas football and the transfer portal from BoAS…

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