1. Florida Hogs Eager For Return
It wasn’t long ago that wide receiver Javontee Herndon was the only player on Arkansas’ roster from Florida. But Herndon has plenty of company this fall.
The Razorbacks’ roster — and coaching staff — now has plenty of ties to the Sunshine State as Arkansas (3-2, 0-1 in Southeastern Conference) prepares Saturday’s game at No. 18 Florida (3-1, 2-0 in SEC).
In addition to Herndon (Jacksonville), running back Alex Collins (Ft. Lauderdale), guard Denver Kirkland (Miami), safety De’Andre Coley (Miami), and defensive tackle Ke’Tyus Marks (West Palm Beach) are from Florida. So, too, are defensive line coach Charlie Partridge (Plantation) and linebackers coach Randy Shannon (Miami).
“I’m happy to have some Florida boys,” Herndon said. “It’s been so long.”
The recent influx can be credited to Arkansas coach Bret Bielema. Florida has never been a major recruiting for the Razorbacks under previous staffs, but that changed with four signees from South Florida in his first Arkansas class last February.
Bielema developed recruiting ties in the state when he was an assistant and has signed 26 Floridians in eight years as a head coach, according to Arkansas.
Shannon and Partridge have deep Florida ties as well. Shannon was the head coach (2007-10), assistant coach (1992-97, 2001-06), and linebacker (1985-88) at Miami. Partridge grew up in Florida and has been a mainstay in the state, recruiting scores of players who signed at Pittsburgh and Wisconsin while he was on those staffs.
So Bielema said Saturday’s game is more than just a trip home for the Floridians in the program. It’s a chance to aid Arkansas’ recruiting efforts in the talent-rich state by beating one of Florida’s three big schools (Florida, Florida State and Miami).
“I think I’ve signed over 60 players from Palm Beach, Broward and Dade (counties),” Bielema said about his 20 years of recruiting in the state. “I’ve got players now that are coaches or have kin, cousins or brothers or whatever, that are giving us players.”
“So to go down there and beat one of the big three would be a big, big deal just because it gives Arkansas a little bit of relevance in the SEC.”
Partridge said it’s free publicity, adding there has been an obvious enthusiasm from the Florida natives who have signed. Collins leads Arkansas in rushing, while Herndon does the same in receiving. Kirkland stepped into the starting lineup at guard last week. Coley and Marks are expected to redshirt in 2013, although Bielema said Wednesday Coley will be part of the travel squad this weekend.
“I’m going have a huge crowd of family to see me play down there that can’t see me play up here,” said Kirkland, who added he has lost track of how many tickets he is trying to round up for friends and family to attend.
Partridge felt the same, calling the trip a “very exciting personal game.”
His brother, John, is a Florida alum and will be in attendance Saturday.
“Any chance you have to go play in your home state, I think there’s a personal side to getting ready for this game,” Partridge said. “We’ve just go to keep their emotions under control with Denver getting his first start and Alex doing what he’s doing. I think all the Florida guys are very excited to go back home and play in that state.”
2. Mitchell Meeting Clinton
Arkansas linebacker Braylon Mitchell has a pretty good excuse if he misses today’s final practice in preparation for Florida. Mitchell is heading home to Heber Springs to participate in a program that will include former President Bill Clinton.
Clinton is speaking this morning in Heber Springs as part of a ceremony to celebrate the 50th anniversary of former President John F. Kennedy’s dedication of the Greers Ferry Dam. Arkansas coach Bret Bielema said two weeks ago Mitchell was invited to participate in the ceremony and has been excused from practice to attend.
“My high school coach called me and said I was asked to come down there and before the President speaks I say the Pledge of Allegiance,” Mitchell said. “It’s a pretty big honor and a big deal to me. It’s going to be a pretty good honor getting to meet Bill Clinton and knowing he’s from Arkansas. Just having him as our President and knowing he wanted me to come out there and help him out means a lot to me.”
3. Swamp Memories
Arkansas offensive coordinator Jim Chaney is one of the few Razorbacks who have played in or coached a game at Florida. But the former Tennessee offensive coordinator said his experiences may not be very helpful to the Hogs, considering the Volunteers went 0-2 in Gainesville, Fla., while he was on staff.
“Does it help that I’ve been in the Swamp?” Chaney said. “No, I’d prefer to have never been in the Swamp. My past history hasn’t been very successful down there. But it is a place I’m familiar with. I know my way to the press box. They have good hot dogs up there, so I’m excited about it.”
Shannon was Miami’s head coach during a 26-3 loss at Florida in 2008. He was part of Miami wins as an assistant in 2002 (41-16) and player in 1986 (23-15).
“I try to just tell them it’s a game that you’re going to really enjoy being a part of,” Shannon said. “There’s going to be a lot of fans there. Fans are going to be … the first five minutes of the game they’re going to be hostile. They’re going to be into it. They’re going to be enthusiastic. That’s part of playing at Florida.”
4. Who Starts At Safety?
Arkansas is expected to return to its base 4-3 defense since Florida doesn’t operate in a spread offense. It means the Razorbacks will have to choose between starting either Alan Turner or Rohan Gaines at safety next to senior Eric Bennett.
Ash said no decision had been made as of Wednesday night.
“Alan Turner’s done a great job back there, had a lot of tackles last week, made a lot of plays for us,” Ash said. “Rohan is healthy and he’s getting a lot more reps, so it’s a good competition throughout the week and we’ll decide a starter later.”
Both players started in Arkansas’ nickel defense last week. It was the second time this season the Hogs opened the game with three safeties to defend the spread.
Gaines was ahead of Turner on the depth chart to open the year, but missed two games because of a knee injury and has eight tackles. Turner has started every game and ranks second on the team in tackles (36).