FAYETTEVILLE — The Arkansas coaches are still recruiting hard despite not being able to be on the road for the spring evaluation period.
The NCAA has stopped all on- and off-campus visits during the COVID-19 time. In addition, the coaches have been limited in the amount of time they can do virtual sessions with the current players who are doing on-line classes. The first week was two hours, then it increased to four and will go to eight hours next.
But recruiting is still a priority for the Class of 2021. The Class of 2020 included 25 players with 16 targeted for defense. However, one of those, Blayne Toll has since been switched over to tight end. During a teleconference on Friday, Barry Odom was asked what are the priorities for defense in 2021?
“We’re really young on defense,” Odom said. “You just look at the guys returning at every spot. So, I think as coach has set kind of what we’re looking at numbers going into next year, we’ll sign a full class. We’re recruiting heavy every position on the defensive side. I really like our returning roster at every spot. I like the ability that those guys have. I’m anxious to get out and continue to develop what they do. But right now, we’re full steam ahead on really recruiting every spot defensively.”
Kendal Briles likes that his unit has gained Toll to help at tight end.
“Blayne is an extremely gifted athlete,” Briles said. “He’s a big, strong, fast-twitch player who loves playing football. When we first kind of threw that around during February when we were getting ready for spring ball, there was more of a need for our football team for him at the tight end position. Obviously, it involved the entire staff, and we asked Blayne and left it up to him. He said he’s more than willing to do anything for our football team, which I can’t tell you how much we appreciate as coaches, and his family being involved as well with that.
“So Coach Cooper started coaching him and getting him going and I feel really good about Blayne and what his role’s going to be this year as a freshman. I don’t think there’s any doubt that he’ll play somewhere for our football team and he’ll help our football team because of his work ethic and the way that he trains. You put that together with talent and you’ve got somebody that can really play for your on Saturday.”
One player in the 2020 class that Odom gets to keep on defense and he is pleased about it is defensive end Julius Coates, the lone junior college player in the class.
“He’s a big, tall, long, explosive athlete,” Odom said. “The work that Jamil Walker and Ed Ellis and their staff have done in our strength and conditioning area has been unmatched. Those guys have transformed Julius, for one. He gained I don’t know how many pounds from when we started in January to when we had to change some things.
“He had transformed his body. He’d become bigger, stronger, leaner, faster, quicker, all those things. And Jamil has put together such a great plan on the mental side of coaching our team, but also advancing them physically. I would say if you had a before-and-after picture of what Julius looked like from the day he walked in to where he was when we cut loose here, he maybe transformed as much as anybody.”
Odom is pleased that Coates and others will be given a chance to learn under Derrick LeBlanc, who Odom faced when he was at Missouri.
“Then our defensive line coach, Derrick LeBlanc is such a great teacher, one of the best in business,” Odom said. “He was at Kentucky for a couple years and I’ve got a lot of respect for the things he did there. The way that they played.
“Looking at Derrick having a chance to influence those guys on the defensive line and Julius specifically, since you asked you asked about him, just continuing to teach them and bring them along, Derrick’s done a great job with the group. We’re going to count on Julius being a major factor for us. That’s the reason we recruited him, and he’s done a terrific job of developing his skill set since he’s been on campus.”
Another plus for Coates is that Odom doesn’t seem him just a situational player at the end spot.
“I think he provides an opportunity to be an every down guy at the defensive end position,” Odom said. “I think the things you saw from him movement-wise, he’s going to be able to provide a presence of having an opportunity to pressure the quarterback. He’s long, he’s got good speed, good initial quickness. He plays with good pad level. As far as seeing him move in the drills, you can kind of tell from the physical attributes that he has, and I think all those came to my mind watching him go through some of our morning conditioning. Change of direction. The way he was able to put his foot in the ground and bend and change directions. I’m really excited about what he can do for us.”
Arkansas gained a commitment for the Class of 2021 from Little Rock Parkview quarterback Landon Rogers on Thursday. While not commenting on Rogers or any specific quarterback, Briles talked about how he evaluates quarterbacks.
“There’s an incredible amount of variables and things that come into play when you’re talking about taking a quarterback or evaluating a quarterback,” Briles said. “The main thing you want is a winner. I don’t care how ugly it looks, if their form is Joe Montana, that doesn’t matter to me. It’s production. Does he manage the game, does he protect the football, is he knowledgable, does he have answers for why he did what he did? All of those things, then obviously you’ve got to have talent. For us and what we like to do, we like to have a guy that’s mobile that, Barry will tell you all day long, I’m sure, he hates it when he’s got every single person covered on the field and he takes off for 12 and gets a first down. That’s the type of playmaker that can win you football games. If you have who can make plays with his feet, usually you have an opportunity to be in every game. We always like to have a guy who can make plays with his feet just because he makes me look smart and makes us look smart offensively. God blessed those kids with being able to get out of bad situations and they can do that. We always like to have a guy that can make plays with his feet.
“Then leadership is a huge deal, and competitiveness. You’ve got to have a quarterback who is a good leader on and off the field that guys are going to respect, not just for what they say but what they do because your actions speak a lot louder than words. Being consistent with that and then a competitor, period. If you’re not a gritty, determined competitor playing any position, you will not survive, especially at the quarterback position because we know there are going to be good days and there are going to be bad days. That’s talking practice, that’s games, that’s everything. But you’ve got to be tough.”
Odom went into more detail about recruiting while not being on the road.
“Really the ability to continue to work other than not being able to leave campus, it hasn’t changed,” Odom said. “Every day we have got a certain number of guys that we are getting to from an evaluation standpoint.
“Yes, you sure wish you could see them in person, but you are getting all the information that you can. But you also understand the high school coaches are going through the same things we are so the access to get ahold of them has been good. We have talked to and connected with more guys in that regard than maybe we would have if we were out on the road because of the ability to connect with them on the phone.
“Now I wouldn’t trade that with having the opportunity to see it with your own eyes, but at the end of the day, recruiting is developing relationships and that takes time. Over time and developing that relationship, the word trust comes about. Guys understand that if we get their kids in our program and our organization, they are going to be their best, they are going to graduate college, they are going to have great success at the University of Arkansas.
“So those things that we are talking about, we will be anxious to get another group of guys once we get to camp when things open back up on campus, to be able to see the facilities. We have been able to show those things virtually, but there is also not much quite like being there in person.
“We have adjusted like you would expect us to and again it is left by Sam and the emphasis that he has put on recruiting just on the evaluation of prospects, the communication with high school coaches, the communication with high school prospects and their families, we have done a really good job as a staff, but we have to keep pushing because before we know it, we will be back up I hope and have a chance to get the kids back to campus.”
Briles also talked about the recruiting aspect that is different this year not being able to be on the road.
“To add to what Barry had to say, it hasn’t changed a ton,” Briles said. “Obviously Coach Pittman, it has been his leadership, but also I think our recruiting department has really stepped up and those people are working harder than they ever have because recruiting, while it is not all you can do because you are still having meetings and things you can get done, but recruiting has been ramped up and I think our recruiting has done a tremendous job in getting guys in front of coaches to be evaluated with high school coaches sending out numbers to talk to different guys that they might have. So those guys have done a tremendous job.”
“I think one of the things that has changed this spring, and I want to say that it is unfortunate for some, but it does change the game for some of the people that are on the bubble. You really like their tape and you think they have a great chance to play in the SEC West and you want to evaluate them.
“Not being able to go evaluate them in the spring to see is that guy 6-2, does he have broad shoulders, to see all those things and talk to various people within the high school on a daily basis, it makes it a little bit more difficult for coaches across America that are trying to evaluate kids and tough on some kids that are on the bubble and need to go to camps. You need to have that spring ball to be able to show themselves to different coaches on all levels.
“It is going to push recruiting back for some, but I think at the end of the day it is all going to work out because tape doesn’t lie and if you are a good player you are going to be found because there is just no way to hide anymore. But it does slow it down for some kids this spring.”