FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas coach Bret Bielema has spent much of the off week trying to find solutions for a program mired in a five-game losing streak.
But his time wasn’t solely devoted to sifting through schemes, personnel, and formations to find ways to cure the Razorbacks’ immediate problems. He and the rest of the Arkansas staff also spent time on the future, working to convince prospects they can help Arkansas emerge from the funk in 2014 and beyond.
In fact, Bielema brought a flier to Thursday’s press conference to highlight the message to prospects as they put together their first full class since arriving.
“Greatness is happening. Are you going to be the next freshman to have a role in the season?” Bielema said, referring to the flier. “It basically lists 18 guys that are either true freshmen or redshirt freshmen that are having immediate impact on our program. We’ve got, probably … I was notified the other day, probably five, maybe six, seven guys, depending on how the next four games go, guys that could be either freshmen All-Americans or for sure freshmen All-SEC players.
“Whether that’s something you want or not, it’s definitely something that encourages you and gets you excited about what we’re doing.”
It’s true Arkansas has leaned on youth at several positions this season. Freshmen Dan Skipper and Denver Kirkland are starting on Arkansas’ offensive line as true freshman. Running back Alex Collins leads the Razorbacks in rushing, while tight end Hunter Henry ranks second in receiving.
There are redshirt freshmen playing key roles as well, highlighted by defensive tackle Darius Philon, cornerback Jared Collins and defensive end Deatrich Wise.
Arkansas currently has 17 players who have made verbal commitments to the program, including four-star quarterback Rafe Peavey, defensive tackle Bijohn Jackson and offensive lineman Jermaine Eluemunor. But Bielema said it’s clear the Razorbacks need immediate help at several positions like linebacker, defensive back and wide receiver, so Arkansas will continue to recruit players to fit.
“I really have taken the last two or three weeks to get a good accord of what I see, what we have and what we need to do,” Bielema said. “I originally planned probably just to sign two or three junior-college players. That may grow by one or two.
“I think we probably — unless we find the right high school kid — need a junior-college linebacker, maybe a junior-college (defensive back) that we weren’t planning on signing and the possibility of maybe a transfer or a junior-college player or two on offense as well.”
Coaches were on the road during the early portion of the week and again this weekend. They’re not permitted to visit with prospects during this recruiting period, but the staff was busy evaluating players and talking to coaches.
Arkansas defensive coordinator Chris Ash said the message has not changed.
“Coach Bielema’s got a great plan in place and how we’re going to run things here, how we’re going to operate and how we’re going to deal with each other and we’re selling that vision,” Ash said after the 52-7 loss to South Carolina. “That hasn’t changed from when we got here. I don’t care what our record is right now.
“What we were selling recruits when we got here is no different than it is right now. It won’t be any different two or three years down the road.”
Bielema said earlier this week he’ll be out watching junior college games today while his current team enjoys its first off week of the season. He said being on the road earlier this week was a refreshing change of pace after spending much of his off week on X’s and O’s, trying to solve Arkansas’ immediate issues.
Bielema said the reception from coaches Arkansas visited was “exceptional.”
“Everywhere we have been it has been extremely positive with the coaches,” Bielema said. “It was beneficial for me to get out on the road and get refreshed a little bit and hear some positive things.”
He’s also spent time on the phone with players verbally committed to the program, feeling it was important because of what has happened on the field.
Bielema wanted to make sure they knew where the program was headed despite the recent struggles. And despite what others say to try and lure them elsewhere.
“At other places when things are in a difficult road, you get sharks in the water and everybody smells blood, and we’re going to have our opponents coming after our kids, our kids that are committed to us,” Bielema said. “That’s when you really rely on hopefully you’ve recruited the right type of kid. A kid that wants to be a Razorback for all the right reasons. He’s the kid that you hopefully get here next Saturday and he sees a crowd that’s going to support the Hogs no matter what.”
Bielema outlined everything Arkansas is looking for in a prospect and specifically listed three criteria: Players who love the game, love to win, and believe in Arkansas’ core values of academic, athletic and social success.
Bielema believes Arkansas got off to a good start with the 2013 class, many of which are working to help the Razorbacks end their five-game slide against Auburn on Nov. 2. But defensive line coach Charlie Partridge said Arkansas’ growth will rely on how many more difference makers Arkansas can add for 2014 and beyond.
“We’re working to build a program,” Partridge said about the message to recruits after the South Carolina loss. “We did not come in here with any intent of a quick fix. We’re working to build from the ground up and build from inside out. … So I think the message to them is, stay the course. We’re going to stay the course.”