Jim Harris: Recruiting Class Comparisons Don’t Tell Whole Story of Hogs’ Fall


You’ve got to do a heckuva lot more of a deep dive than citing “recruiting class rankings” to dissect why Arkansas is likely headed for 0-8/2-10 in Chad Morris’ first year as Razorbacks’ head coach, or why Arkansas looked thoroughly outplayed by the fourth quarter Saturday versus Vanderbilt in a 45-31 loss.

The argument in some circles is that Arkansas should have been the more talented team on the basis that Vanderbilt’s recruiting service rankings have been languishing somewhere in the 40s while Bret Bielema brought in classes that averaged in the mid-20s. I have been writing since Houston Nutt was Arkansas’s head coach that those numbers are the equivalent of cow droppings.

The eye test Saturday was enough to tell you, recruiting rankings aside, that Vanderbilt and head coach Derek Mason have done a much better job in the past five years than the departed Bielema did in his last four classes. As I stated on “Hogzone” Saturday night, Vanderbilt had much tougher football players than did the Razorbacks. Hash out all you want that Arkansas, especially on defense, didn’t bring its A-game and all that, but through the course of the season, Vanderbilt has at least competed and played with a toughness against the likes of Notre Dame and Georgia that Arkansas has lacked. You can coach a lot of things into a player, but toughness is innate

Now, to be sure, the Razorbacks have played with often extraordinary fight since week 4 of the season, but that competitiveness did not match what Vanderbilt brought to Fayetteville. Vanderbilt’s receivers were physically tougher and played with more effort than the coverage Arkansas presented them. The converse was also true: Vanderbilt’s defensive backs out-toughed Arkansas’s receivers, including on the play that resulted in Ty Storey’s first of two interceptions, one that set up a 41-yard Commodores scoring drive in the first half, and from there the Hogs were chasing Vandy the rest of the day.

Bret Bielema’s recruiting classes had a few 4-star recruits that helped push Arkansas up into the 20s. You could term them top-heavy, because the back end of the classes were generally filler. The best way to judge a recruiting class is how a staff closes on its final five or so recruits. If you’re ranked in recruiting in the high 20s but handing out scholarships to little-recruited defenders whose best offers were the likes of Texas State and FCS schools, it’s a good sign things aren’t well.

Vanderbilt hasn’t signed many 4-stars, but the 3-stars who leave you with a 42nd-ranked class who chose the Commodores have stuck it out though four difficult years, developed into SEC-looking players, and are in the simplest terms “tough SEC football players.” No, they haven’t been able to quite get over the hump in the SEC East under Mason. Like Arkansas, they lack depth and can’t afford an injury to the likes of a difference-making running back Ke’Shawn Vaughn, just as the Hogs couldn’t put away Ole Miss when talented running backs Rakeem Boyd and Devwah Whaley and Storey all exited that game for good on Oct. 13.

The point is, look deeper into Arkansas’s and its opponents’ recent recruiting classes. Vandy’s Vaughn, a junior, isn’t part of those aforementioned middlin’ Vandy classes because he was a transfer, from Illinois. He’s easily one of the best running backs in the SEC; and Saturday he gained 172 yard on 26 carries with three touchdowns. 

Three 4-star Bielema signees in the O-line who should still be eligible are retired from football. Walk-ons start at center and right guard. The senior left guard was a 4-star defensive linemen who still needs some time to figure it all out on the O-line, and will probably get that chance in the NFL. The junior left tackle, a 3-star, chose Arkansas over UCA. We can go up and down the whole roster and point to players who rated 4-stars in high school who have not lived up to that acclaim, not to mention the irony: unheralded walk-ons who have overachieved to assume key starting or backup roles.

While a hand-held clocking of a 40-yard dash figures into player evaluations by these recruiting services, those don’t correlate to being a good football player. And toughness? Where is the measurement for that? All we really have to go on is the prospect’s offer sheet, which often is exaggerated by the recruited player themselves. But, best as we can tell, Arkansas doesn’t have many players on its roster who had SEC offers from any of the league’s big boys. When Bielema gave it his best shot at trying to beat out the likes of LSU and Florida on signing day 2016, he struck out mightily. 

It’s not that Bielema didn’t recruit, he just didn’t sign many if any SEC-level difference makers in his last four classes. Nobody on Morris’ first team stands out as worthy of a spot even on the All-SEC second team. However, if you want to see the existence of COACHING, look at the development of such players as previously seldom-used senior defensive lineman Armond Watts, a 3-star recruited along with high school teammate and 4-star O-lineman Brian Wallace out of St. Louis. Missouri did not want Watts, if that means anything. Everyone wanted Wallace.

On Saturday, those average recruits at Vanderbilt like Arkansas’s Watts played like they refused to finish 0-8 in the SEC. Watts played that way for Arkansas, but several of his teammates – players who suffered through losing to the likes of Toledo three years ago, or coughing up big leads late in the 2016 season, or through last season’s collapse to sub-SEC level play and a coaching transition – seemed to lack that desire, along with the lack of speed and football toughness that was obvious to anyone watching.

Make sure you catch Jim on KTHV’s Hogzone.

recruiting class lack of toughness


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