FAYETTEVILLE — Josh Liddell said Arkansas coach Bret Bielema told him all he needed to know when the obvious question emerged earlier this month.
Who is going to be Arkansas’ defensive coordinator next season?
“Coach B told me that he was getting close to finding his guy,” said Liddell, who made a verbal commitment to Arkansas and is expected to sign his national-letter-of-intent at Pine Bluff Dollarway High this morning. “I don’t know who it is or when he’ll decide on who it will be, but I just trust Coach Bielema.”
There are several others who have been practicing the same policy this winter.
That’s because Arkansas has navigated the final three weeks of recruiting for the 2014 class without the defined leader of its defense. Chris Ash, who worked as Arkansas’ defensive coordinator last season, left the program in mid-January to become the co-defensive coordinator at Ohio State. The vacancy has not been filled.
But the absence didn’t appear to alter Arkansas’ push to add defensive players that would help transform a unit that struggled in 2013. Twelve of the 23 players who have either committed to Arkansas or signed with the program are on defense.
“I think coach Bielema has handled those questions in meetings,” said Chris Hauser, Arkansas’ director of recruiting. “And people have been pleasantly surprised with the insight that they get when they’ve met with him.”
The Razorbacks can prove it has paid off, too, when Coppell (Texas) High five-star defensive end Solomon Thomas chooses between Arkansas, Stanford and UCLA during a signing day ceremony televised by ESPNU at 7 a.m.
Stanford is regarded as the favorite to land Thomas, who was a U.S. Army All-America Bowl participant and named second-team All-USA in 2013 by USA Today. But ESPN.com Recruiting Nation senior writer Jeremy Crabtree said the push for the defensive end — who is the highest-rated player remaining who is still considering Arkansas — has become one of the more “fascinating battles” of the season.
“Everybody around him, his high school people, his high school is telling you in his head Stanford is the right decision,” Crabtree said. “But you have your heart tugging at you a lot, too, when you’ve got such a good connection with everything that Arkansas has got. So, I mean, that’s going to be one of the biggest – I think it’s one of the biggest decisions will see (this morning).”
Scott Kennedy, who is the director of scouting for Scout.com, said it’s no secret what an upset would mean to the Razorbacks in the big picture.
“It would be huge,” Kennedy said. “If you get a guy that’s from a high-profile area like Solomon is in Texas, all of a sudden it opens up some more guys in Texas. It’s a little bit easier to go back down into Texas and recruit the next guy at that level.”
It would be impressive too, considering Arkansas doesn’t have a coordinator.
Bielema acknowledged Ash’s departure on Jan. 14, which hit the Razorbacks just before coaches were permitted to return to the road after a dead period. It was the second blow to Arkansas’ defensive plans after defensive line coach Charlie Partridge left the program to become the head coach at Florida Atlantic.
Bielema didn’t waste much time finding a replacement for Partridge, naming Rory Segrest the defensive line coach in early January. He has taken more time in announcing who will be in charge of Arkansas’ defense next season, even though current linebackers coach Randy Shannon and former Rutgers defensive coordinator Robb Smith are believed to be candidates.
“I just don’t think we’ve let it affect us,” Hauser said. “I’m not saying it maybe hasn’t in some instances. But we’re obviously a great university, a great program with coach Bielema. He’s going to play things the way he wants to play them. We’re going to hire a successful coach that has a great background and is obviously going to help us win football games. So I think people understand that.”
El Dorado (High) defensive end Bijhon Jackson is the highest-rated defensive player the Razorbacks have secured so far. Jackson made a verbal commitment in Dec. 2012 and never wavered despite Arkansas’ struggles and after Ash’s departure.
Arkansas didn’t lose any others on defense after the coaching change, either. Verbal commitments like cornerback Chris Murphy (who is an early enrollee), Georgia linebacker Khalia Hackett and Louisiana defensive backs Henre’ Toliver and Dwayne Eugene remain ready to sign with the Razorbacks today.
Arkansas even gained three defensive commitments after Ash’s departure, dipping into Florida for defensive end Anthony Brown, cornerback Cornelius Floyd and safety Randy Ramsey. Shannon played a big role in landing all three prospects.
“They’ve done a good job of indicating their thoughts and the direction,” said Jason Howell, who is the Southwest/Midlands recruiting analyst for Rivals.com. “I don’t think it’s really slowed them too much. It seems they’ve done a good job of navigating all that and have been able to secure the guys they needed to secure and really needed to secure and kept the class together.”
The group won’t win any national awards for its ratings.
Arkansas’ class is one of the lowest-rated in the Southeastern Conference, according to outlets like Rivals.com, Scout.com and ESPN.com. But Crabtree believes the Razorbacks are getting much-needed defensive help despite the stars rankings.
“Kids look at the opportunity to play early at Arkansas, especially on the defensive side of the ball,” Crabtree said. “That’s been a big selling point for them. I mean, there’s a high profile in-state guy like Jackson to be the ringleader for the defensive class. There’s some other quality depth. They knew they needed to get better, especially in the defensive backfield. Would they have liked to have maybe done a little better at linebacker? Yes, but I certainly think if you looked, they knew that they needed to address the need at corner, safety and defensive tackle.”
Arkansas will put the finishing touches on the group this morning.
Then, Bielema will fill out his coaching staff by hiring a defensive coordinator.
“I don’t think it has hurt them as bad,” Kennedy said. “It certainly didn’t help. But having the right guy is so much more important than rushing a hire in January.”