FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas’ 2014 signing class didn’t finish among the top 25 in any of the major recruiting services.
Rivals.com ranked the Razorbacks No. 29, while 247Sports and ESPN.com had the Arkansas class 30th. Scout.com ranked Arkansas’ class No. 29. It placed Arkansas’ group 11th among other Southeastern Conference programs in most rankings.
But Arkansas coach Bret Bielema shrugged off those polls when he introduced his class Wednesday. He said it’s a lesson he learned long ago, when one of his recruiting classes didn’t pan out as he had hoped at Wisconsin.
"I was furious," Bielema said about his early experience. "Just having a bad day. I thought we had a great class and my (athletic director) at the time (Barry Alvarez) said something to me that was really, really great. He goes, ‘I don’t care where we are ranked today, but in five years let’s talk.’ That team was the first one to win me a Big Ten championship. I think that’s a great example."
The highest Wisconsin finished in Scout.com’s rankings under Bielema came in 2008, when the Badgers’ class ranked No. 26 overall. It was for fourth in the Big Ten.
So ESPN.com’s Jeremy Crabtree said it’s no surprise Arkansas wasn’t among the SEC’s best. It’s not part of Bielema’s track record.
"Bret’s not going to go out and sign a bunch of five-star guys just to sign five-star guys," Crabtree said. "He’s never been known to chase stars. He recruits players of a specific style, especially on the offensive side of the ball, and I think that’s what you see a lot of in this class."
Of course, competing in the Southeastern Conference has proven to be much different than the Big Ten. Four of Arkansas’ SEC West rivals — Alabama (No. 1), LSU (No. 2), Texas A&M (No. 7) and Auburn (No. 9) — finished in the top 10 of Scout.com’s recruiting rankings with the 2014 class.
Scott Kennedy, who is Scout.com’s director of scouting, said it Arkansas always has had trouble competing with the SEC’s most prestigious programs on the recruiting trail, though. So he said it’s not necessarily a sign the Razorbacks are in trouble.
"They’ve certainly won their share of games," Kennedy said referencing Arkansas’ work on the field under former coaches like Houston Nutt and Bobby Petrino. "You don’t have to have the most talent. You just have to have enough talent."
Bielema’s first Arkansas class was ranked 34th overall last year, but 12th in the conference according to Scout.com. This year’s group was nearly the same (33rd overall, 12th in the conference).
But the Arkansas staff wasn’t keeping track Wednesday as they introduced a 24-player group it believes will help rebuild the program.
"Ratings and stuff don’t mean anything," Arkansas senior associate head coach Randy Shannon said. "It’s once you get them there. …
"I’m just like Coach B. Find the guys that fit what you can do and believe in what you’ve got as a player. And don’t worry about the ones that you don’t get. Just coach the ones you have and everything will be from there."
Center of Attention
Chanhassen (Minn.) offensive lineman Frank Ragnow, who signed with the Razorbacks last Wednesday, spent his high school career as a tackle.
But the Razorbacks plan to develop him into their next center.
"He can run. He’s athletic. He’s smart," Arkansas offensive line coach Sam Pittman said. "All three of those things you have to do to play center. A lot of people talk about well, left tackle, left tackle. … But there’s one snapper and one quarterback on every team and everybody else has got two of everything else. You better have you a center. Frank Ragnow, I believe, is going to be a great center here."
It wouldn’t be unheard of to turn a high school prospect that hasn’t played the position into a center. In fact, former Razorbacks center Travis Swanson had never played center before arriving at Arkansas. He started every game in four seasons.
Luke Charpentier is projected to replace Swanson at center this season, but Pittman said the Razorbacks won’t rule out Ragnow if he’s deserving of the job right away.
"We won’t put that kind of pressure on him," Pittman said. "If he’s ready, we’ll play him. You know we will."
Lunney Jr. was very familiar with one of the Razorbacks’ signees last Wednesday.
He coached tight end Jack Kraus while he was at Bentonville High.
But the familiarity only left Lunney Jr., open to some harassment from the Arkansas staff when Kraus didn’t make an instant verbal commitment to the Razorbacks.
"The coaches used to give me a pretty hard time, ‘What’s the deal here?’" Lunney Jr. said. "What are we waiting on? Why hasn’t he pulled the trigger? You drive by his house every day on the way to work.’"
Kraus eventually selected the Razorbacks and will help freshman All-American Hunter Henry at the position. Lunney Jr. said he’s happy for Kraus, too, even though tight end caused some grief for him before choosing the Razorbacks.
"You find our in a hurry what a guy thinks about you," Lunney Jr. said. "You certainly don’t think you’re going to put yourself in that situation. The odds are pretty small that something like that would ever happen, the same guy that you coached in high school, and you coach his position (at Arkansas), all that stuff.
Arkansas offensive coordinator Jim Chaney said the Razorbacks needed more speed and size at the wide receiver position. He believes they addressed both needs in signing four players last week.
The speed comes from blazers like Miami Northwestern High’s JoJo Robinson and Evangel Christian (La.) High’s Jared Cornelius. There’s size in 6-foot-4 junior college transfer Cody Hollister and 6-6Miami Norland High’s Kendrick Edwards.
"I look back on our season … You always want to have more speed at the wide receiver spot," Chaney said. "But I’m not sure physical play didn’t have as much to do with some of the things we were unable to get done as speed was. So to try to get a little speed and a little stature, that’s what we wanted to do and I feel like we did it.
New Arkansas defensive line coach only had three weeks on the road after joining the staff in late December. But Segrest felt like it was productive as he got to know Arkansas’ defensive line and special teams commitments.
"The main thing was just finding out who we had committed and going out and visiting with those guys and building that relationship," Segrest said. "To me that’s key with anybody as far as being a defensive line coach or specialist when it comes to (kicker) Cole Hedlund). I just wanted to be able to put a face with the name and meet them and get to know them and for them to get to know me.
"You just hit the ground running and do what you have to do there."