Arkansas football’s recruiting struggles are no secret. The Hogs have often found themselves with only the 10th- or 11th-best recruiting class in the SEC.
But in recent years, NIL and laxed NCAA transfer rules have resulted in more and more current college players leaving their schools for greener pastures. So much so that college recruiting now seems to have a larger focus on the transfer portal than it does the high school ranks.
“I spend most of my time talking about transfers now,” HawgSports reporter Danny West said in his recent visit with the Hit that Line podcast. “High school [recruiting] is still important, but transfers seem to dominate the headlines.”
This often allows colleges like Arkansas to pick up high-quality players from smaller schools who are looking to improve their draft stock in the SEC, as well as players that have struggled to get on the field at powerhouse programs like Georgia and Alabama. In recent years, Arkansas has been a good landing spot for players in that situation, netting the likes of Drew Sanders, Felipe Franks and John Ridgeway, among others.
With major staff and player overhauls on both sides of the ball, it was important for the Arkansas coaching staff to nail this incoming transfer class. Many media members think the Hogs have done just that.
Currently, 247Sports has Arkansas’ transfer class ranked No. 10 in the nation. That’s up slightly from last year’s group, which checked in at No. 14 in the first year of 247Sports’ transfer class rankings.
“This is an elite transfer haul put together by Sam Pittman and his new-look coaching staff,” Brad Crawford wrote for 247Sports. “In totality and considering what Arkansas endured this offseason from player exits to unexpected staff changes, this is the nation’s most underrated transfer group.”
Return of the Tight End
It’s been a minute since Arkansas truly featured a tight end in its offense. But with the return of offensive coordinator Dan Enos and addition of North Texas transfer tight end Var’Keyes Gumms, that’s about to change.
And for good reason. Over the last two seasons, when receiver-turned-tight end Trey Knox caught three or more passes, the Hogs went 6-2, as West pointed out in his interview.
“Maybe that’s just coincidence, but I just felt like they under-utilized [Knox] quite a bit,” West said. “And I know Dan Enos will probably not do that. He’s got a pretty good track record of utilizing the tight end and having success with it.”
Knox is gone now, following former Arkansas tight ends coach Dowell Loggains to South Carolina, where Loggains was hired as offensive coordinator. Likewise, tight end Hudson Henry has moved on from football, never having been able to capture the on-field magic of his sure-handed older brother, Hunter.
But fret not, Razorback fans. Opportunity abounds for the North Texas transfer. Last year, Gumms caught 34 passes for 458 yards – both of which were Mean Green records for a tight end. There’s good reason that 247Sports’ Chris Hummer considers the Houston native to be a “perfect portal fit” for the Razorbacks’ offense.
And if tight end catches equals wins as West suggested, the 6-foot-3, 230-pound transfer could be a game changer. When Gumms caught three or more passes last season as a redshirt freshman, the Mean Green went 5-2. When he caught two or fewer, they were an abysmal 1-4.
That’s the kind of production Enos offenses thrive on. In 2015, his first year as OC at Arkansas, tight ends accounted for nearly a third of all receptions (31.7%) and receiving touchdowns (29%). Hunter Henry hauled in 51 catches for 739 yards and three scores, while Jeremy Sprinkle added another 27 grabs for 389 yards and six touchdowns.
With the threat of two pass-catching tight ends and Alex Collins in the backfield, receivers like Drew Morgan were able to run free. The undersized Morgan ended up leading the team with 63 catches for 843 yards and 10 touchdowns.
Likewise, last season at Maryland, Enos had two tight ends haul in 30+ passes, helping lift their team to their first 8-win season since 2010, including a victory over No. 23 North Carolina State in the Duke’s Mayo Bowl. The Terps had eight players who caught at least 20 passes. Under Briles, Arkansas never had more than four receivers with 20-plus catches. Point being, Enos offenses, like most, are at their best when the ball can be spread to a variety of targets.
Perhaps we won’t see 2015 levels of production from the tight end position this year – after all, Henry and Sprinkle were both NFL-caliber talents. But Gumm has the potential. And if redshirt freshman Ty Washington, who caught his one and only target for a 17-yard touchdown in the Liberty Bowl last year, can work his way onto the field and true freshman Luke Hasz lives up to the potential he flashed this spring, the tight end room could feature multiple threats.
Pittman’s staff also scored blocking tight end Francis Sherman from Louisville through the portal. That’s in addition to the Hogs’ super senior blocking tight end, Nathan Bax, and another four-star freshman in Shamar Easter, who will join the team this summer. All-in-all, the tight end position will likely be a strength of the Razorback offense for the foreseeable future.
Arkansas Football Beefs Up on Defense
The transfer portal giveth and the transfer portal taketh away. Arkansas has seen 26 scholarship players depart Fayetteville while cycle, while only 18 are coming in. The most notable outbound transfers on the defensive side of the ball are safeties Jalen Catalon (Texas) and Myles Slusher (Colorado).
So, adding depth to the Hogs’ secondary this offseason was a primary concern for Pittman and his two new co-defensive coordinators, Marcus Woodson and Travis Williams. To that end, Pittman’s crew snagged former five-star cornerback Jaheim Singletary from Georgia, as well as safety A.J. Brathwaite Jr. from Western Kentucky, cornerback Kee’yon Stewart from TCU and a pair of defensive backs from Baylor – cornerback Lorando Johnson and safety Alfahiym Walcott.
With the departure of linebackers Drew Sanders and Bumper Pool to the NFL, Arkansas also needed to beef up its front seven. The Hogs added veterans Jaheim Thomas from Cincinnati and Antonio Grier from South Florida at linebacker, plus four defensive linemen – Pittsburgh’s John Morgan III, Missouri’s Trajan Jeffcoat at defensive end and Maryland’s Anthony “Tank” Booker Jr. and Louisiana Tech’s Keivie Rose at defensive tackle.
While there are still depth problems at the safety position, Arkansas may only need marginal improvement on defense to net 2-3 more wins this season. In 2022, the Hogs finished 7-6, with four of those losses being by a combined nine points.
“This rebuilt defense is transfer-rich and there’s a bunch of high-quality pieces,” Crawford wrote. “When this class is graded at the end of the 2023 season in terms of overall impact, it might be closer to top 5 than its current spot just inside the top 10.”
At this point, it’s tough to say what “success” from this transfer class would look like. But in order for Arknasas to improve upon last year’s seven-win season, it seems likely it will need significant production from the incoming transfers, particularly on defense.
Frankly, the bar is not high. Arkansas ranked 124th out of 131 FBS schools in total defense last season. A jump to the middle third of the pack could boost the Hogs to eight-plus wins.
There is plenty of playing time to be earned by the incoming transfers, creating the potential for the class to prove even better than No. 10, but ultimately, the impact of the group will be measured in wins and losses.
More coverage of Arkansas football and the transfer portal from BoAS…