With his Brillo pad mustache, ubiquitous scowl and an SEC pedigree dating back to 1989, Arkansas defensive coordinator John Chavis is an old SEC hand. But on a recruiting visit to Blackman High School in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, this spring, he also showed he’s quite handy.
When the power suddenly went out in the Blackman’s fieldhouse, Chavis didn’t flinch. “Where’s the breaker box at?” he asked coach Kit Hartsfield.
Chavis fiddled with the circuits, the lights popped back on and Arkansas had the perfect metaphoric moment to illuminate what projects to be the best recruiting class in school history. After a bleak 2-10 season on the field in Chad Morris’ debut, Arkansas’ elite class looms as the stunner of the early signing period. Arkansas ranks No. 13 in the Rivals.com team rankings, ahead of schools like Auburn, Florida and USC. They are on track for the best class in school history, topping a 2009 class that finished No. 16.
“I think it’s the biggest surprise of signing day,” said Woody Wommack, Rivals.com southeast recruiting analyst. “When people go through the classes and see the usual blue bloods and recruiting powers and they see Arkansas that just went 2-10, that’s going to catch a lot of people by surprise.”
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Two of the Razorbacks’ touted prospects come from Blackman, as they signed four-star receiver Trey Knox and have a verbal commitment from four-star defensive back Adonis Otey. And it’s clear that as Chavis moonlighted as an electrician – a profession he told coaches he’d have entered if he didn’t coach – he provided a perfect metaphor for a team attempting to emerge from the darkness.
“The program hasn’t been great these past few years,” Knox told Yahoo Sports in a phone interview. “We’re coming to turn it around and make a statement in the college football world that Arkansas is a powerhouse again.”
How did Arkansas get off to this hot recruiting start? They used a blueprint that Chad Morris learned as offensive coordinator at Clemson, where he helped Dabo Swinney turn around the Tigers in the early years. They’ve tried to replicate both that relentless energy and constant presence Clemson used in the early years.
“I can’t even count the number of high school football games we’ve been at, getting our logo out there and representing our brand,” Morris told Yahoo in a phone interview. “Knowing when we got to Clemson, what the brand looked like then and what it looks like now, everyone is working hard to get there.”
Arkansas also got help from a recruiting assistant, SJ Tuohy, the brother of Michael Oher who is best known for the portrayal of him as annoying little brother in “The Blind Side.” Morris confirmed to Yahoo that Tuohy, Arkansas’ assistant director of football operations, is still persistent. A kid who grew up with Nick Saban visiting his living room to recruit is now attempting to help Arkansas build a program that can beat him.
“He’s constantly in charge of managing my recruiting, making sure I’m on top of it,” Morris said. “He’ll interrupt me. ‘Coach, I don’t care what you’re doing, we have to get on the phone with this guy.’ ”
The biggest sell at Arkansas is a simple one – playing time. In changing over from Bret Bielema’s pro-style offense to Morris’ wide-open, tempo-based system, a lot of the parts didn’t fit. Perhaps most surprising was how undermanned the Hogs were on the offensive line, a hallmark of Bielema’s teams at Wisconsin. Arkansas played two former walk-ons and a converted defensive lineman on the offensive line most of the season, one of the main reasons why JUCO tackles Chibueze Nwanna and Myron Cunningham were such important pieces of this class.
Arkansas fought Texas and Oklahoma late for Cunningham, as they’d developed a strong relationship early. That was a technique that helped the Razorbacks in a number of similar cases, as Georgia made a late run at four-star quarterback KJ Jefferson but Arkansas held on because of the strength of the relationship offensive coordinator Joe Craddock had with Jefferson.
Morris said many of those bonds were built through Monday nights in the Arkansas facility, when the coaches did a lot of their recruiting calls. The staff uses FaceTime to chat with the prospects, and when one committed a coach would take him on a spin through the offices to celebrate with all the coaches. Sometimes, Morris said, they’d put two phones together so recruits would chat with each other on FaceTime.
“You can build something special here,” Morris said. “We’ve worked extremely hard to get this class and get it to the finish line. It’s gratifying that we’ve found recruits that share our vision.”
Wommack pointed out Arkansas had the good fortune of two top 100-caliber players being in-state. They signed both receiver Treylon Burks and tight end Hudson Henry, who is considered the country’s No. 1 tight end prospect. Hudson is the third Henry brother to play at Arkansas, including Chargers tight end Hunter, and his father played there as well.
Knox and his fellow recruits talk about “TNA” – “The New Arkansas” – on their group Snapchats. They make jokes, as Knox said they’re fond of “calling each other ugly.” But they have bonded through the optimism that comes with swaths of available playing time and the challenge of building Arkansas back to competitiveness in what still resonates as the most grueling division in college football. Along with TNA, the other social media rallying cry has been turnARound, which the recruits are buying into with absolute belief. As Knox told Yahoo Sports: “Hog Nation – help is on the way. We’re about to make plays and hopefully contend for national championship.”
That’s a long way from 2-10 and bold talk for a program that’s missed bowls in four of the past seven years. But perhaps Wednesday is a sign that the lights of optimism are coming back on in Fayetteville, as it’s become apparent that this Arkansas recruiting class has provided a spark.
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