FAYETTEVILLE — New Arkansas coach Bret Bielema had a message for high school prospects and their families when he was introduced to the state Wednesday night.
There’s something specific he’s looking for as he builds his Arkansas roster.
“I will recruit uncommon men here that are held to higher standards,” Bielema said. “I don't want people to be normal. I want them to be uncommon and the standard set in the world of college football on and off the field.”
With that, Bielema’s recruiting pitch for the Razorbacks began.
The new head Hog has plenty to do as he settles into his new job, but one of the most important tasks has been reaching out to prospects and their families in hopes of assembling a quality recruiting class. He hasn’t wasted any time, placing plenty of phone calls to prospects in the three days since his press conference and will hit the road as Arkansas’ coach for the first time this week.
So what should Arkansas expect? While Bielema doesn’t carry the high-profile recruiting chops of guys who consistently rake in five-star prospects, ESPN recruiting analyst Jeremy Crabtree believes he’s a perfect fit for the Razorbacks.
“Every stop he’s been at, whether it’s Iowa or Kansas State or Wisconsin, he is known as a very good talent evaluator,” Crabtree said. “He knows where to find kids that play his style - especially on the defensive side. He doesn’t necessarily get caught up in the star game. He knows he needs a certain kid to play a certain way.”
Crabtree believes that’s important for an Arkansas program that isn’t blessed with a large pool of in-state talent. It’s no secret the Razorbacks have had to rely on Texas and surrounding areas for prospects, which isn’t much different from Wisconsin.
Bielema has had success in both Texas and Florida in his time with the Badgers. The Wisconsin roster has 11 players from Florida and five from Texas.
Bielema said both areas will remain important to his recruiting efforts at Arkansas.
“I’ve signed over 50 players from the state of Florida during my coaching career,” Bielema said. “A lot of times, they’ve been our best players. On my current roster at Wisconsin, we have the best secondary we’ve had since I’ve been there, and three of the four are from the state of Texas. So, it’s not uncommon ground.”
But Bielema said his job at Arkansas, much like Wisconsin, will start in the state.
“If anybody in this state can play on the championship level, we need them here at the University of Arkansas,” Bielema said. “I learned that from different state universities I have been at. If you can't solidify things in your state and they are playing for other people you are not going to be as good as you can be.
“So it's going to be important from this day forward that we throw a fence around the state borders and realize everybody needs to stay here at home and represent us in a very positive manner.”
It’s a point Bielema surely made Wednesday night, when his first phone calls went to Pulaski Academy tight end Hunter Henry and North Little Rock High running back Altee Tenpenny. The two are among the top prospects in the state.
Henry is one of 17 prospects committed to Arkansas, but has said he is keeping some other doors open while he gets to know the Razorbacks’ new coach. Bielema’s message to Henry was about the number of Wisconsin tight ends in the NFL (four).
“He definitely mentioned that and got it across,” Henry told Hawgs Illustrated about their conversation. “He made it clear that the tight end is a big part of his offense. It definitely impressed me and I am definitely impressed with him.”
It’s no secret Arkansas’ offense will place a greater emphasis on the ground game under Bielema. That means an in-state player like Tenpenny, who is rated as a four-star prospect, would be a key piece if Bielema can convince him to stay in state.
“I am excited that he wanted to talk to me as soon as he got here,” Tenpenny told Hawgs Illustrated about his phone call. “I am really looking forward to talking to him and seeing how he is going to run his program and how I would fit in.”
Bielema’s recruiting classes there were never ranked among the top 10 in the nation. In fact, his best group was ranked No. 34, according to the Rivals.com database on recruiting classes. But Crabtree said player development has been key for the Badgers, who have sent numerous players to the NFL under Bielema.
It includes Houston Texans defensive end J.J. Watt, who walked on at Wisconsin and now has become one of the NFL’s most dominant defensive players.
“I see a lot of similarities between Arkansas and Wisconsin in that they don’t necessarily go out and fill a recruiting class full of four- and five-star guys,” said Scott Kennedy, a recruiting analyst for Fox Sports Next (formerly Scout.com). “I just think of them better as having coaches developing teams. So I think it’s a pretty seamless transition there.”
Said Bielema: “When we bring a young man in, he’s going to play good football in year one, but he’s going to play great football in year four. We want to make sure we bring in the type of kid who’s going to buy into this culture.”
While Bobby Petrino was especially successful in luring quarterbacks and skill position players to Fayetteville because of his offensive background, offensive linemen and defense have been Bielema’s primary emphasis in building a program.
No one expects Bielema to snag five-star players from Nick Saban’s grasp at Alabama at this point, but Crabtree said he will find and develop talent. Especially on defense, which has been one of Arkansas’ weaknesses the past few years.
“The teams that play for championships in the SEC, they play great defense,” Crabtree said. “And I like that calling card that coach Bielema brings. He’s been part of successful defenses everywhere he’s been. He’s coached guys that have gone to the NFL. And he’s also found guys that have fit the scheme and fits it well.”
So Bielema — whose staff will be important to that success as well — will begin searching for those fits when he steps on the road.
And he had another message for anyone he’s planning to see starting this week.
“As a head coach, you can only go once,” Bielema said about the NCAA limits for visits. “So if I’m coming to visit you, I only have one chance to meet your mom, your dad, your uncle, your brother, your minister, your preacher, whoever it is. I only get one chance to go into your school. … So when I decided to cast my coin, I’ve got to make it last and I won’t want to use that unless I know it’s real.”