Arkansas’ Recruiting Strategy Led to Last-Place Ranking Behind Vandy But Is Right Call Long Term

Clark Lea, Sam Pittman, Vanderbilt football, Arkansas football, Arkansas recruiting
photo credit: Vanderbilt Athletics / Nick Wenger

Breaking news! OK, it isn’t breaking news whatsoever. Anyone who has paid attention to Arkansas football recruiting over the course of the last decade or so is familiar with this old tale.

The Razorbacks are one of the worst teams in the SEC when it comes to signing elite high-school football talent.

As teams prepare to kick into gear for the spring football season, rosters are getting close to set. That includes freshmen for the 2024 season, some of whom have arrived at their respective campuses already for spring drills and camp. Others will arrive in the summertime having elected to finish their high-school academic careers.

Arkansas ranks 15th out of 16 SEC teams when it comes high-school recruiting in the Class of 2024. Rivals, the national recruiting and college football website, gave the Razorbacks class a grade of ‘D,’ worst in the SEC. Worse than Vanderbilt, which by most every football metric is ranked 16th out of the 16 league teams, but the Commodores get leeway because, well, they’re Vandy. Expectations for Nashville’s primary college football team aren’t the same expectations for Fayetteville’s. South Carolina and Florida – ranked 12th and 8th, respectively – each received a grade of ‘C’ and everyone else in the SEC was given a ‘B’ or better.

A Positive Spin for Arkansas Football

Arkansas is in rough shape here. But, here’s the thing. The Hogs may not be in rough shape overall when it comes to their Class of 2024.

Arkansas football coach Sam Pittman said during the late parts of last year’s messy regular season that he was not interested in signing high-schoolers just to meet some quantity threshold. In fact, part of the reason Arkansas is ranked so low in the SEC is because Pittman and Co. signed just 16 high-school players, same as South Carolina. Four of the top five-ranked schools – Georgia, Alabama, Texas, LSU and Oklahoma – signed 28 or more (Texas is the outlier with 22 signees). 

Trey Biddy, who has been covering Arkansas athletics for more than a quarter-century, agrees with Arkansas’ new approach. That’s because the transfer portal has radically changed the sport and, in turn, leashes for coaches have become shorter. So now a team can go from dud to stud, or vice-versa, simply through judicious use of the interchange.

“I just think for Arkansas and the size of the state, if you want to compete in the SEC and you hit the transfer portal hard, not just seniors, but get guys that are younger that can be in the program for a few years and stuff, like Landon Jackson, for example, Ty’Kieast Crawford,” Biddy said in a HawgSports podcast last week. “Get guys who are not just seniors, but also recruit the high school ranks. I mean, that’s the way to build a roster in the SEC if you’re Arkansas, because you don’t have that direct access to talent.”

Arkansas isn’t Ohio State or Michigan or Alabama or Texas or Oklahoma. The Razorbacks are, and it will pain many to read this, a lower-tier power-conference program. Results over the last decade-plus have borne that. By adding experienced bodies, if those players pay dividends, Arkansas could theoretically bring itself closer to the middle. Sometimes, if things go just right as they did in 2021, the Razorbacks can occasionally vie for upper-tier status too.

Using Some Different Math

Consider, too, the kind of players Pittman is signing out of high school. Forget the number. The average ranking per player the Razorbacks landed – independent of the quantity – would rank Arkansas’ incoming freshmen 23rd in the nation. Right now, that ranking is 31st. In the grand scheme of things, 31st doesn’t sound too bad, especially given the number of FBS teams last year was 133. But Arkansas isn’t fighting to beat the Umasses, the Georgia States and the Hawaiis of the world. Their competition, by virtue of being in the most dominant conference the sport has ever seen, is much stiffer. 

Arkansas isn’t terribly far away, honestly. That’s seen in how often Arkansas has given upper-tier teams in the SEC a run. They’ve even come out with wins over teams with superior talent. A small bump from the transfer portal or maybe three or four more high-schoolers per recruiting class who rated the same as those incoming next season and suddenly, the gap shrinks. Not enough to beat Alabama or Georgia, mind you, but enough where .500 seasons are the norm. For the record, five of Arkansas’ last seven seasons have failed to meet that standard.

The bump is coming. Enough scholarship spots remain that Arkansas is aiming to sign several more players out of the portal. Depth still lacks at linebacker, on the offensive line and the inside of the defensive line. Next year, the wide receiver position will sustain significant losses. But reloading the way the portal allows should keep the Hogs from completely falling off the map.

They are in the SEC, after all, and some of the best players in the country who play in smaller conferences relish the chance to mix it up in the conference when they hit the portal. That’s a big reason Arkansas got the likes of Fernando Carmona and Anton Juncaj in this most recent cycle. Right now, Arkansas, because of where it is in the standings, provides plenty of immediate opportunity for those players to meet that goal.

The calculus may change if the Hogs get to that mid-tier. If Arkansas puts together five or six quality seasons – not necessarily even 10-win seasons – the Razorbacks aren’t going to be considered one of the laughingstocks of the major conferences anymore. Who knows, though, what college football will look like when that time comes. With all the flux that’s hit the sport since COVID-19, tomorrow may look drastically different than today. 

At least Pittman is adjusting his plan to meet those changes in the wind.

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