It’s early going, but so far the Arkansas football program is enjoying the kind of offseason you tell your grandchildren about.
The Razorbacks team proper is showing up in the top 20 of the first batches of too-early preseason polls, but it’s what the coaches are doing in two other realms that are turning even more heads. On the recruiting front, the Hogs are succeeding like never before in the modern era. Here’s where Arkansas comes in with the 247Sports composite rankings for the class of 2023 after the commitment of Oklahoma’s No. 1 player, Luke Hasz:
2. Notre Dame
4. Penn State
6. Texas A&M
7. Ohio State
And here’s what’s shakin’ over at the Rivals recruiting rankings for the same class:
1. Notre Dame
4. Penn State
6. Texas Tech
7. Texas A&M
Arkansas Recruiting Reaching Rare Heights
Whatever your source, it’s clear this is a special time for a program that in the modern era historically rarely cracks the top 20.
“Arkansas is really killing it in 2023 recruiting,” said 247Sports analyst Josh Pate on his “Late Kick podcast. “They’re ranked in the top five right now. Of course, you’ve got the cynic out there who would say, ‘Well, they won’t be top five when it’s time to actually put pen to paper next year.’”
But Pate then makes the point that starting the process so high means the chances of falling low are slim to nonexistent. As evidence, he points to Razorbacks’ punching bag Penn State, which was previously ranked at No. 1.
“You don’t formally go from ranked number one to outside the top 30. The point is, unless all the kids decommit, I can pretty much guarantee Arkansas is going to have a nice, solid 2023 recruiting class.”
What is truly turning Arkansas into a destination program in 2022 is the recruiting prowess combined with transfer portal success. The former helps strengthen the Razorbacks down the line, but the latter is the equivalent of a short-term boost. Both are instrumental to competing at the highlight levels in modern college football.
Arkansas Football Transfer Portal
Officially, Arkansas won its last five out of six games in the 2022 season. But if you count the transfer portal season in the last few weeks as a “bonus” competition, then Arkansas has won more than that.
With incoming transfers like Drew Sanders (former No. 1 player in state of Texas), Dwight McGlothern, Landon Jackson, Jadon Haselwood (Oklahoma’s leading receiver in 2021) and Latavious Brini (started 11 games for Georgia) coming aboard, the Hogs have five transfers rated as 4 stars or above by 247Sports. That ties with Ole Miss for the most in the nation.
For most of the last few weeks, Arkansas was ranked in the top five of 247Sports’ national ranking portals. The Hogs are No. 6 as of Jan. 28:
3. Ole Miss
5. South Carolina
7. Florida State
The fact that Arkansas and USC, which enjoys a lot more nationwide recognition and the benefit of a splashy new coach hire, are the only two teams in the top six of both the recruiting and transfer portal rankings says a lot about how far Sam Pittman, Barry Odom and Kendal Briles have renovated the Hogs’ national image from the days of Chad Morris-ian drear.
But what separates programs like USC and LSU from programs like Arkansas, in the past, has been the formers’ ability to leverage prestige to high recruiting (and now portal) rankings year in and year out — even after down years like what LSU is coming out of and what USC experienced at the end of Lane Kiffin’s tenure.
How can Arkansas keep this kind of success going when it doesn’t have the benefit of a prestigious, nationwide brand on par with the blue bloods?
A big key here will be hanging onto Sam Pittman for years and replacing Briles and Odom with great coordinators once they move to head coaching positions. Pittman needs time to get Arkansas to a point where it can not only reload with elite recruits, but also reload with great coaches (as USC did with Lincoln Riley and LSU with Brian Kelly).
Getting those elite recruits, both from high school and the transfer portal, is a first step, though. And that’s where recent big news should play a role.
Projecting J.B. Hunt NIL’s
Impact on Arkansas Football
Recently, J.B. Hunt heirs Mandy and Bryan Hunt announced the launch of a new NIL program that will help Razorbacks develop their personal brands and hook them up with local nonprofit organizations.
The goal of this Athlete Advocate Consortium (AAC) is “assisting in the development of student athletes to achieve their maximum potential in all aspects of their college experience with a focus on their personal interactions in their community and civic responsibilities,” as the press release said.
The J.B. Hunt affiliation marks the first time that leaders linked with one of the major Fortune 500 companies headquartered in Northwest Arkansas have done something for the Razorbacks involving the NIL in a public way. This structure will make it easier for other big-money donors to contribute finances down the line, which should open up hundreds of thousands if not millions of dollars for NIL deals for Razorbacks in the coming years.
While basketball’s JD Notae is the first Hog to sign with the AAC, no doubt visions of sugar plums and six-digit checks are dancing in the minds of Arkansas fans over what significance this could have for the football program.
For sure, Razorbacks making money off deals with nonprofits they care about while contributing to good causes is a win-win.
“NIL policy has given college athletes the option to enter the business world, but with great power comes great responsibility,” Bryan Hunt said. “AAC connects these college athletes with a local nonprofit, not only to give back to a cause they care about but to also bring awareness to all of the good these organizations are doing to help our communities.”
As good as this all is, it’s not the permanent game changer some Razorback fans want it to be. A few other big-time programs have already started similar NIL nonprofit programs. Just look at Texas football and the athletic department’s “Horns for Heart” program that has a website with an admirable mission statement followed up a borderline disturbing photo of hands covered with blood-like red paint.
Pretty soon, almost every big-time program in the nation will follow suit, says 247sports writer Brandon Marcello.
“Everybody else is going to join the party, and they’re going to start throwing around comparable money,” Marcello said on John Nabors’ “Locked on Razorbacks” podcast.
“If you’re Arkansas and you can convince some of these bigger companies to jump in early, but also put in maybe a little bit more money than these other individuals are willing to spend within NIL, that could be advantageous for you.”
As Marcello sees it, within a couple of years there will be around 30 schools including Arkansas that have comparable programs to the AAC. So, whatever the athlete’s cause of choice — hunger, autism, literacy, cancer, etc. — he or she can partner with a nonprofit and rep that cause as part of an NIL program at almost any major school considered.
In the short term, this news should only help Arkansas retain its lofty status in the transport portal and recruiting rankings.
“If you want to potentially get in the top five or top 10, get one of your greatest recruiting classes you’ve ever had, you better jump in quickly and do it now and get it done for the transport portal and for this 2023 signing class next February,” Marcello added.
“Because, after that, I think things are going to even out and the big dogs will be the big dogs.”
That means there is a lot more riding on Arkansas football’s 2022 season than simply keeping momentum going under Sam Pittman. For now, there’s a window of opportunity for Arkansas to become the kind of permanent “big dog” that regularly shows up at the top of Bookmakers.com national championship odds. But once it closes, it won’t be easily opened again, given this developing NIL dynamic likely will help the rich get richer.
As well as the Razorbacks do in basketball, baseball, softball, soccer and gymnastics, none of that success will translate into generating the kind of cachet and attendant NIL money to compete with the likes of USC, LSU and Georgia if the Razorback football team loses steam.
It’s important to keep this in mind when the new contract for Sam Pittman is announced. Yes, he may get an extra million or two per year over what some fans think he deserves based on past performance. But, despite Hunter Yurachek’s stated insistence on pay for performance, the reality of this new emerging market means compensation should also reflect what could be lost in the future.
A few millions will be a drop in the bucket compared to what’s on the line with the football team’s success and the multiplier effect that success can have in so many areas.
This column first appeared on BestofArkansasSports.com.