It seems like an awful long time ago Arkansas was putting offensive linemen on the cover of the media guide, graphics of how big they were on every single broadcast. Now keeping a clean pocket for Austin Allen and opening running lanes for talented backs is a major concern. Usually when something takes that big of a downward turn, there is a combination of factors that lead to it and for the Hogs this is the case. Poor coaching, lack of development, and misses in recruiting have all played a part in it. Right now we’re going to focus on the issues recruiting has had in these struggles.
Arkansas’ best offensive line was that famous 2015 group. That group was Dan Skipper, Frank Ragnow, Mitch Smothers, Sebastian Tretola, and Denver Kirkland. Bret Bielema, and then offensive line coach Sam Pittman did everything right to bring together that group. Four of the five were brought in by the current staff too. Kirkland and Skipper came in Bielema’s first class in 2013. Ragnow and Tretola were part of the 2014 class, and Smothers was a member of the 2011 class.
Out of those five, you had some highly sought after talent, most notably they were able to pull Kirkland away from south Florida even though he had offers from Miami and Florida State. Three of them (Kirkland, Ragnow, Smothers) were all 4-star recruits. Tretola was a JUCO standout, and Skipper was a three star that picked the Hogs over Tennessee, Ole Miss, Michigan, and Ohio State.
Let’s fast forward for a second to this year’s starting five. You have Ragnow, a 3 star commit, a converted defensive tackle, and two who initially walked onto the team.
Notice the difference?
There is a pretty clear line where you can see recruiting offensive linemen went downhill. The 2013 and 2014 classes were wildly successful. The 2015 and 2016 classes? Much less so.
Bielema came in to Arkansas with a promise to build from the trenches out, and in the beginning he did that! Those first two recruiting classes had a total of nine offensive linemen. And the guys they zeroed in on largely came. Arkansas had 14 linemen make official visits in those two years and got nine. That is a success rate of 64%. They also got exactly half of the 4-star guys they brought to campus as well.
2015 and 2016 have had a lot more misses. Only six of the 14 to visit have committed (just 43%). And the success rate of getting 4-stars has dropped in half to 25%. If you get a player to make an on campus visit, you’ve got to feel pretty good about your chances of him committing. Arkansas did a good job of keeping those guys and recently have fallen off.
Those failures in recruiting are why the coaching staff feels the need to move a defensive lineman over, or why two walk ons get major time. It’s what happens when you have players like Kellen Diesch decommit, or Toby Weathersby chooses LSU over the Hogs. It’s okay to strike out some on recruiting, you’ve only got a finite amount of scholarships. However, you can’t strike out this much.
Even though this drop off in recruiting doesn’t perfectly align with Pittman’s departure, it definitely plays a role in it. The risk you take in hiring an NFL coach is how they recruit, and it looks like Kurt Anderson’s strategy for recruiting isn’t working. And if you aren’t going to recruit well you need to do some incredible developmental work. That isn’t happening either. So then the coaching staff has to get creative and make a patchwork offensive line, which is what you see now.
Bielema tried to get unconventional when hiring a new offensive line coach, which is something he’s hit on more than he’s missed. Bringing in Anderson when recruiting was starting to leak has proved to be a big miss. This theory of finding diamonds in the rough and coaching them up isn’t working in year two. The offensive line was successful when there was an emphasis on bringing in big talent to the offensive line. It’s probably time to revisit that strategy.