Jim Harris: Stars Must Come Out for Hogs Against Aggies



Based on recruiting rankings, No. 1 Alabama is where it ought to be in the national polls, No. 10-ranked Texas A&M should enjoy a big advantage against No. 17 Arkansas on Saturday night, and Louisville under Bobby Petrino should be nowhere to be found in the Top 25, much less ranked No. 3.

Alabama has so many 4 and 5 “stars,” as CBS color commentator Gary Danielson kept telling viewers last Saturday in the Crimson Tide’s 48-43 win over Ole Miss, that ‘Bama can afford for a handful of its highly ranked recruits to underachieve their way onto the Tide scout team and it not matter. Another star is always ready to take over, as we’ve seen with program that has already won four national championships under Nick Saban position itself for a fifth in his 10 seasons in Tuscaloosa.

Recruiting does matter, particularly if nearly all of your 25 annual scholarships go to players considered among the top 300 in the country.

Ohio State under Urban Meyer recruits like Alabama now, and hence we’re likely to see those two teams playing for everything next January. Florida State supposedly has been recruiting like the big boys, but somehow all its stars couldn’t make up the 43 points it lost by to Petrino and Louisville last weekend. Petrino, still amazing in how he develops quarterbacks, is in his second stop at Louisville since his disastrous exit from Arkansas, and again has a star under center.  How many programs passed over Lamar Jackson, who looks like a 5-star-plus these days. Petrino seems to have turned more 2, 3 and 4 star quarterbacks into immediate Heisman candidates in the past 14 years than anybody in the game.

Dan Enos, as the Arkansas offensive coordinator, is doing pretty well for himself in just two years in Fayetteville with the Allen brothers. What he did to pull Brandon Allen out of the abyss at about this point last year should have gotten him to the podium with the Broyles Award finalists last December, and he seems to have Austin Allen, a first year starter in his fourth year at the UA, on the same good trajectory.

So, let’s say that while recruiting matters – the statistics say you don’t win a national championship without recruiting a top 10 class – evaluation and coaching (re: development) are paramount to a team competing with, and sometimes beating, the big boys.

Texas A&M rode the wave of Johnny Football mania with the briefly incomparable, record-setting and Heisman Trophy-winning Johnny Manziel (who, by the way, was just a 3-star recruit) in 2012-13 to a recruiting bonanza under Coach Kevin Sumlin, and all seemed well until back-to-back late-season collapses and the exit of a couple of 5-star quarterbacks last year wore the shine off Sumlin’s star. (Texas and Charlie Strong were the beneficiary of both A&M’s recruiting failures last winter and the implosion that came later at Baylor.)

Nevertheless, even with the departures of those highly touted freshman quarterbacks from a year ago, the Aggies still have the dominant defensive star in the game, junior right end Myles Garrett, and his near-twin end on the left side, Dasheon Hall. The offense still has the blazing prep sensations Christian Kirk and aptly named Speedy Noil at receiver, plus the tall and dangerous Josh Reynolds and Ricky Seals-Jones. They have a mostly young but talented group of offensive linemen, a fast freshman runner in Trayveon Williams and the stronger Keith Ford for an improved running game, and maybe the biggest star of all, coordinator John “Chief” Chavis, calling defensive signals. A&M has bought into Chavis’ ways in his second year there.

Without calling any names, it seems interesting nonetheless that several of the more heralded Arkansas recruits of the past few of classes, each still lagging well behind the Aggies, are players rarely seeing any action or are gone from the program. Arkansas’s stars these days seem to be more of the 3-star variety: Drew Morgan, Keon Hatcher, Rawleigh Williams III, Jeremy Sprinkle, Dan Skipper, Frank Ragnow. Deatrich Wise Jr., a Petrino recruit, might have been rated a 2-star. Obviously, Wise has lived up to that staff’s projection of stardom, as has White Hall’s Sprinkle, whose athleticism was obvious as maybe the tallest high school shortstop ever.

The wiser coaches in the world will remind the prep star-gazers that nobody carries their stars onto the practice field when they arrive at their college destination. It all starts over for everyone. Bret Bielema reminded everyone through what must have been a subtweet directed at some Hog backup that players don’t arrive at Arkansas already an All-American, but get there through development and hard work.

Which is why we’ve seen guys like receiver Drew Morgan ascend from the depths of a coach’s butt-chewing at the start of last year to putting Arkansas in position to win last season’s A&M game, which Arkansas gave away in the fourth quarter and lost in overtime, a repeat of the 2014 result. That game was Morgan’s springboard to being a regular, dependable receiving target for the Allens.

It’s why that maybe on paper the Aggies should outdistance the Hogs on speed alone but Saturday night instead should be as close a contest as the past two in AT&T Stadium. Rest assured, though, Texas A&M has been boasting of winning the recruiting battle vs. everyone since as far back as I can remember, even with the historical knowledge that the Aggies never live up to all the hype.

What’s funny is, while Aggies boosters wailed in frustration as two so-called quarterbacking phenoms left the program late last season, a lesser heralded guy showed up to give A&M a better chance to battle Alabama for the SEC West crown. Trevor Knight, who had an all-world Sugar Bowl against Alabama as a freshman for Oklahoma, suffered the ignominy of losing the starting job to a walk-on from Texas Tech (Baker Mayfield), and left Norman as a grad transfer, only to find a better situation for his talents in College Station. Sure, he has more days than not where his passes can’t even find the wondrous hands of regular Hog-killer Reynolds, but his running ability and leadership have made this offense the best the Aggies have had since Manziel’s two seasons.

Arkansas’s key to prevailing will partly boil down to whether its defensive line can win its battle and bother Knight enough to slow the A&M offense. If not, those four receivers (plus the nine other A&M players who have caught passes) and the two running backs could have huge games. Arkansas can only conceal so much in its back seven, though sophomore Ryan Pulley at corner is beginning to look like a blossoming star and outside linebacker Dre Greenlaw will get there. So far, senior middle linebacker Brooks Ellis, not the fastest guy in the world, still has been the most consistent and most solid player on the UA defense in the 3-0 start.

Meanwhile, fifth-year senior Hatcher has been that player for the Razorback offense in leadership and production (especially yards after catch) and proving to be a dependable target for Austin Allen. Rawleigh Williams has more than impressed in coming back from a serious neck injury last season. Those two with Allen and Sprinkle have been enough in the three wins, as Arkansas’s young line develops.

But on Saturday night Arkansas needs an appearance of its other stars. For example, 6-foot-3 senior receiver Dominique Reed, who gives the Hogs what A&M has with the smaller Kirk: a game-breaking weapon in the open field. Reed still seems affected by the vicious hit he took against Kansas State in the Liberty Bowl, a de-cleater that scarily laid him out for several minutes and sent him to a Memphis hospital. Whether in spring practice or in the preseason, Reed didn’t return with the same confidence and hands he showed from midseason on last year.

Question: When does freshman running back Devwah Whaley, who was rated above A&M’s Trayveon Williams in last year’s Texas high school ranks, have his breakout game? We saw it coming last week against Texas State, but while there were flashes and a near-breakaway run before Whaley tripped on the foot of his blocker, his 11 carries still didn’t produce what Arkansas has to have, to complement Rawleigh Williams, in the SEC race starting with A&M.

Question 2: Will end Wise give the Hogs 60 minutes and match the effort that quick tackle Jeremiah Ledbetter gave last week. And, for that matter, was Ledbetter so dominant because Texas State had nobody with which to challenge him? While Wise won’t be Garrett in the eyes of NFL scouts, both Wise and Ledbetter possess All-SEC ability, and an All-SEC performance on Saturday against the A&M offensive front will put the Hogs in position to win.

Lastly, when does the best high school kicker in the country, according to Parade magazine and other rankings, produce on the college field? We’re talking about Arkansas’s Cole Hedlund, who, to his credit, has been knocking his extra points and straight-on field goals dead down the middle this year with improved height on the kicks. However, given a chance to all but salt away the TCU game early in the fourth quarter two weeks ago, Hedlund banged one off the right upright. And to be fair there, too, the snap and hold (like some others) was shaky. So it’s not totally on him. (For irony, note that while Arkansas signed Hedlund as a scholarship kicker, A&M invited him to walk on.)

The last two Arkansas-A&M matchups wouldn’t have gone to overtime if the Razorbacks could have kicked a reasonable-length field goal late in the fourth quarter. A&M has a kicker, Daniel LaCamera, who delivered five field goals at Auburn last week. Hedlund may only have to deliver one to provide Arkansas with a win Saturday. Can he?



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