The Signing Day Grinch snuck into Hogville in the days leading up to Signing Day and snatched away all the drama - no unexpected press conference flip flops, no 5* players leading the Hogs on only to spurn them at the announce table, not even a single parent running off with a Letter of Intent - yet all the Hogs in Hogville still gathered on Wednesday morning in joyous celebration of the most star-studded recruiting class in program's history during the recruiting rankings era.
After two of the most so-crazy-they-must-be-true years in Fayetteville, Bret Bielema was gifted with one of the deepest collections of high school talent Arkansas has seen in recent years. Most of that group jumped on board relatively quickly, allowing Arkansas to build momentum in recruiting even when few things were going right on the field. Five of the in-state players signed by the Hogs were consensus 4* players, with others hitting that rating on at least one service.
Bielema and his staff were able to supplement the in-state group with talented players like Hjalte Froholdt and Jeremiah Ledbetter on the defensive line, Jalen Merrick on the offensive line, and adding Austin Cantrell to form the nation's best set of tight ends with C.J. O'Grady and Will Gragg.
It's more star power than Arkansas is used to in a recruiting class, and if you accept that recruiting rankings at least a projection of likely success (although certainly not a guarantor), that's certainly something to be excited about. Many will point out that while it's one of the best Razorback classes, it's still ranked last in the SEC West. I believe recruiting rankings should not be viewed as absolutes, but more a gauge. Arkansas signed a top 25 class that should expect to be competitive and win some games.
Bielema has earned his reputation on the development of players, and given a group of players with more talent to begin with, who knows how far this group of players can go. To further push that point, the class is strongest where Bielema's teams have historically been strongest: in the trenches along the offensive and defensive lines, and of course at tight end.
Yes, Arkansas did a tremendous job with the "big uglies" as Bielema has referred to them. The question marks for the class are a bit stronger in the "skill position" areas. The eligibility status of Dominique Reed has a big impact on how to feel about this group, at least in terms of immediate impact on the team. Everyone who has seen Reed play in junior college came away very impressed with his combination of size, speed and overall talent. That's why he was taking visits to Oklahoma, Auburn, and Texas in recent weeks. If he qualifies, he'll be one of the most hyped newcomers of the year, and his presence along with JoJo Robinson coming off a redshirt season and a year of development for last season's players will create some buzz around Arkansas' passing game. If he doesn't, most of the receiving impact from newcomers will likely come from the tight end group.
That's not to take anything away from La'Michael Pettway and Deon Stewart. They both will hopefully go on to have tremendous Razorback careers. While 3* prospects frequently play as freshman, as Jared Cornelius and Kendrick Edwards both did at receiver last year, their impact is usually not significant. I believe any player regardless of recruiting ranking can eventually develop into a star, but at that position it's usually not immediate.
Defensively, you have to like what Arkansas did on the defensive line. While the back seven doesn't have the star power of the front four, Robb Smith deserves every bit of confidence fans can give him. What he and the defensive coaches did last year with few star recruits was remarkable, so the defense will likely be something fans are excited and confident about until proven otherwise. Judged by comments from recruiting analysts, linebacker Derrick Graham and defensive back Nate Dalton are two players who could prove to be major players down the road. Dalton was a quarterback at his high school before moving to safety, and if Hog fans are lucky he might be able to show Damon Mitchell that sort of move isn't such a bad deal.
It all results in one of Arkansas' best classes in recent memory. It's not perfect. There's no superstar 5* running back like Alex Collins, but with Jonathan Williams' return to Fayetteville, the Hogs don't really need to sign one until next year. It will be interesting to see who all takes a redshirt and who plays immediately. Some will play out of necessity, like the linebackers most likely. But will any of the higher-rated prospects sit out like Brian Wallace did last year? Remains to be seen, other than we expect Ty Storey to redshirt at quarterback.
And because most everyone committed so early, it didn't really feel like Arkansas closed particularly strong like they did in 2013. It felt like the Hogs didn't even host as many official visitors as we've seen in recent years, but that doesn't matter. Whether a player commits a year early or on Signing Day is irrelevant in the end. Storey committed back in 2013, but as a quarterback it wouldn't be surprising if he ends up having a bigger impact on the program than anybody else in the class.
Arkansas ended the day with 24 signees, and they all sent everything in by about 10:00 in the morning. No surprises. No problems. Smooth as Tito's.
That's not to suggest this class hasn't been without its share of exasperating storylines. The K.J. Hill saga will be long remembered, particularly if he is able to break trend and have a successful career at Ohio State. Bielema often said throughout the year, having to recruit in the face of what had been an ugly couple of years in Fayetteville, that he was by necessity looking for players who were more interested in building a program as opposed to those who wanted to walk into previously established programs. Unfortunately, it seems Hill doesn't fit that mold, as leaving home for the reigning national champions isn't dissimilar to leaving Bryant for a more glamorous central Arkansas program in North Little Rock after his sophomore year.
There's nothing wrong with that. It's possibly a similar choice Malik Monk could face later this year or next spring. It's just unfortunate that he committed in August (at the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame, of all places) only to decommit and watching his family going through all the toxic spats on Twitter and message boards and radio shows. It made everything much more chaotic and toxic than it had to be.
In the end, while Hill would have made Arkansas' class better, he conveniently chose a school in another conference so Arkansas fans won't have to worry about seeing him and can put all this behind them. There are 24 players who did choose Arkansas today. Some of the lesser-known prospects will become stars and some of the 4* players won't pan out, that is the way of things. But with a class this decorated there will almost definitely be some future stars in the group that will win some games and have memorable moments - and that's cause for celebration.