Sonny Dykes’ “Rental Players” Blueprint Charts a Way Forward for Arkansas Football

Sonny Dykes, TCU football, transfer portal, Arkansas football
photo credit: TCU Athletics / Instagram

College basketball is known for the Cinderella story of a team, seemingly out of nowhere, making a successful run during March Madness. For as long as I can remember, a non-name brand school shocks the world during the NCAA Tournament a few times per decade.

Just last year, 15 seed Saint Peter’s made an improbable run to the Elite Eight. Loyola Chicago and Sister Jean made it to the Final Four in 2018. And so on and so on.

On the other hand, college football is not known for shocking seasons like Saint Peter’s and Loyola. Instead, the perennial powers dominate the sport’s highest level. Alabama, Clemson, Georgia and Ohio State are consistently in the running for the big trophy, with the likes of Michigan, Oklahoma and Notre Dame all mixing in there off and on these last few seasons. All are recognizable college football brands that have been the proverbial power in the sport for decades upon decades. 

Then comes along a small, private school from Fort Worth, Texas, with an enrollment of about 12,000 and not just a whole lot of high-level success in football. Under the leadership of Gary Patterson, TCU won just under 70% of its games from 2000-21. The Horned Frogs made a serious run for the College Football Playoffs in 2014, but just missed out. That team went on to destroy No. 9 Ole Miss in the Peach Bowl to end the season at 12-1.

TCU Creates A Blueprint for Arkansas Football

The Patterson era ended in 2021 with a lackluster season and an administration ready to turn the page. So they turned to Sonny Dykes, who had a successful run at crosstown rival SMU. He had been a good, solid coach at SMU, Louisiana Tech and Cal, but nothing that indicated he could turn TCU into a national title contender. Much less in one season. 

But he’s done exactly that, and Sam Pittman and Arkansas football should look into how. 

Fans will likely point to the fact TCU doesn’t compete against the same grueling SEC slate as the Razorbacks. But don’t be fooled by that fallacy. According to sports analytic guru Jeff Sagarin and USA Today, Arkansas ended the year with the 25th-toughest schedule in the country, while TCU’s is 11th — with one to play against the top team in the land.

The SEC was down this year, even in the big, bad SEC West. Texas A&M and Auburn weren’t good at all. LSU had some inexplicable wins and losses and Ole Miss ended the year on a 1-5 stretch. Mississippi State kind of did its thing as always and Alabama somehow lost two games on the final play.

Frankly, Arkansas underachieved because there was opportunity to build on last year’s nine-win season, but it failed to capitalize in some close games against Texas A&M, LSU, Liberty and Missouri — games it lost by a combined nine points — and do-everything quarterback KJ Jefferson was injured or didn’t play in two of those.

The Big 12, at least in 2022, closed the gap with the mighty SEC. Texas, who had an okay season at 8-5, played Alabama within a point in the early going and Arkansas narrowly defeated Kansas in the Liberty Bowl. The Crimson Tide had a convincing win against Kansas State in the Sugar Bowl, but that was just the SEC’s third win over the Big 12 this season with one more game, a kind of important matchup, looming Monday night.

The Big 12 notched wins with Texas Tech whipping Ole Miss in the Texas Bowl and Kansas State blowing out Missouri during the regular season.

Closing the Talent Gap

The 2022 Horned Frogs were ranked No. 32 in 247Sports Composite team talent rankings. For reference, Michigan, the team they upset in the CFP semifinal, was No. 13 and Arkansas is No. 25. The annual ranking of every FBS roster factors in transfers, dismissals and other early departures to determine how talented a roster is from top to bottom. The Composite is based on how individual players were rated coming out of high school.

Point being…TCU isn’t loaded with talent like the Crimson Tide, Sooners and Buckeyes of the world. But yet, the Horned Frogs find themselves in the position to be where those five-star factories should be if you believe a team’s success is all about highly ranked recruits.

But anyone paying attention to college athletics these days knows the portal is how you change your roster literally overnight. There is no doubt teams need long-term, young talent on the roster to bring consistency and development to the program, but if a team needs help in some key spots, they aren’t trying to dig up under-the-radar high school kids anymore.

TCU, like most schools with a new coach, got aggressive in the portal to fill talent gaps between the Patterson era and Dykes’ arrival on campus. The Horned Frogs brought in 13 transfers, with a focus on the defensive line. Dykes hit some home runs with his experienced additions who handled Michigan’s vaunted offensive line in the CFP semifinal.

Arkansas Football and the Transfer Portal

Arkansas did well in the portal last year with some really nice pickups. There is no denying the 2022 Razorbacks would have been pretty pitiful without Jadon Haselwood, Matt Landers, Drew Sanders, Dwight McGlothern, Jordan Domineck, Terry Hampton and Landon Jackson. Hats off to Pittman and staff with that haul — and so far, so good on the 2023 pickups.

Currently, the Hogs have somewhere around 12-15 scholarships available and plan to fill most of them with transfers because there are some serious roster deficiencies — not only with numbers, but also talent.

The secondary is one position group that is screaming for help. Given the Hogs played two former walk-ons extensively (Hudson Clark and Simeon Blair), that group has experienced a boat load of recruiting misses, injuries and defections, contributing to the Razorbacks ranking dead last in pass defense this year. They’ve already landed former Baylor starter Lorando Johnson from the portal and are actively searching for more.

Linebacker is another area where the Razorbacks need to build depth behind rising sophomores Pooh Paul and Jordan Crook. Crook received valuable practices and minutes in the Liberty Bowl shootout, but the position group drops after that with inexperienced, unproven youth.

Arkansas announced the signing of Antonio Grier as a transfer from South Florida, but he has since said his recruitment is open and he’s still considering UCF. Although the Razorbacks are still in a good spot to land him when he reveals his final choice Sunday, there are surely more linebackers being evaluated by new co-defensive coordinator and former Auburn linebacker Travis Williams and recently named co-coordinator Marcus Woodson.

Other position groups still in need of portal help include the offensive line, wide receiver, tight end and — thanks to Jordan Domineck’s change of heart — defensive line.

Pittman already improved the quarterback room by picking up former North Carolina backup and Morrilton High standout Jacolby Criswell. The Hogs’ lack of quality quarterback depth was exposed against Mississippi State, LSU and even Liberty, with an obviously hobbled Jefferson trying to compete despite a bum shoulder. Criswell is a nice pickup, as is the signing of four-star Malachi Singleton out of Georgia

Transfer Portal Success

As it was with TCU’s still-alive season, the success of next year’s Arkansas football team will rest squarely on its success in the portal this January and again in the spring. There will be another batch of players transfer out of programs following spring practices and Sam Pittman has said the Razorbacks might save a handful of scholarships for bonafide solutions.

Arkansas, much like TCU, will never gobble up the five-stars like the perennial powers, but the Horned Frogs have shown there is hope for other schools that can find fixes in the transfer portal. Right players that fit the program in the right spots can work magic as evidenced by the Frogs’ run this season.

Since the recruiting rankings system debuted in 2000, only three schools have won a national title without a top-five recruiting class in any of the previous four recruiting cycles: Auburn in 2010 with a JUCO transfer named Cam Newton and Clemson in 2016 and again in 2018. Clemson did have Deshaun Watson and Trevor Lawrence running those teams, so that helps. 

Why Not Arkansas?

Sonny Dykes deserves a lot of credit for what can be easily dismissed as “rental players.” All portal pickups are not slam dunks. Some are bad fits. Some aren’t the same player jumping up a level or two. Recruiting and now portal management are big pieces of why coaches get paid the big bucks and those that have success shouldn’t be brushed off as the only reason they’re any good is the portal.

Dykes has blended young talent, three- and four-year TCU lettermen and stopgap talent out of the portal on the Horned Frogs’ run to playing for all the marbles. Case in point is his star quarterback: four-year letterman Max Duggan was a four-star quarterback in high school and Iowa’s Gatorade Player of the Year.

Sam Pittman knows the formula and believes in the blueprint Dykes has proven works. That’s been apparent since he stepped foot on campus and inherited a program Chad Morris left in pretty bad shape — granted one that included a handful of talented, key contributors like KJ Jefferson, Treylon Burks, Trey Knox, Ricky Stromberg, Jalen Catalon, Bumper Pool and others.

Speaking of Morris… His son, Chandler, is TCU’s backup quarterback after committing to Arkansas, signing with Oklahoma after his dad was canned and eventually transferring to TCU.

As previously mentioned, Pittman is clear on the plan regarding the portal and recruiting high school talent. It’s impossible to have one without the other in today’s college football. Whether Pittman can match Dykes’ wizardry, good fortune and win totals on a run to the playoffs is yet to be determined. 

But if TCU can beat some of the iconic names in the sport, why not Arkansas?


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