The Arkansas Razorbacks are looking to capitalize on the misfortune of a blue blood as the landscape of college football finds itself in limbo.
Recently, the game’s annual coaching carousel got kicked into high gear when Lincoln Riley left Norman to coach the University of Southern California. Coming less than 24 hours after Oklahoma’s 37-33 loss to No. 5 Oklahoma State, to say Riley’s move came as a disappointment to most Oklahoma fans would be an understatement.
After Riley’s exit stage right, the dominoes started falling. A batch of current Sooners have entered the transfer portal along with much of what was once the No. 1 ranked 2023 class in the country. The Razorbacks have already benefitted from Oklahoma’s implosion through the addition of former five-star wideout Jadon Haselwood following his visit to Fayetteville this weekend.
Haselwood had a breakout 2021 season, leading the Sooners in receptions (39) and touchdowns (six), as well as racking up 399 yards in 12 games. A connection to Arkansas running backs coach Jimmy Smith, who coached Haselwood at Cedar Grove High School, seemed to be a major player in bringing on the likely suitor to step into the Treylon Burks role next season.
New rules surrounding the transfer portal have Oklahoma reeling and the Arkansas football program in a position to bring in some new toys along with Haselwood as they look to build upon an eight-win season that has earned the Razorbacks a berth in the Outback Bowl vs. Penn State.
Oklahoma Sooners Hightailing Out of Norman
Oklahoma, which has been among the country’s best in recruiting talent since Riley’s hiring in 2017, had its top-ranked 2022 and 2023 classes nuked almost immediately after USC’s announcement of Riley’s arrival.
With a number of recruits reconsidering their decisions and almost as many current Sooners tossing their hats into the transfer portal, let’s see where some of Riley’s former talent could be taking their college careers (as of Dec. 7).
Rattler was benched against Texas in 2020 after a poor first-half performance but would win the job back and lead Oklahoma to a Cotton Bowl victory. In 2021, Rattler was benched again, but this time it stuck.
With true freshman Caleb Williams penciled in as the starter moving forward and the head coach who recruited him off to California, Rattler quickly followed suit. Unlike others you’ll see below, however, his move out west wasn’t to USC. Rather, the former five-star is currently expected to be meeting another great offensive mind, Chip Kelly, at Southern California’s bitter rival, UCLA.
Another 2019 transfer comes in the form of former four-star Austin Stogner. Stogner held 29 offers out of high school and had a decent three-year stretch with the Sooners, racking up 47 catches for 654 yards and eight touchdowns.
Though he may not have the name recognition of a Rattler or even a Haselwood, Stogner will be a big pick up for someone, and right now the leaders in the clubhouse look to be Iowa State, Ohio State, South Carolina and Utah.
Theo Wease Jr.
The 2019 wide receiver class put together by Lincoln Riley was one for the ages, but now none remain, as former five-star Theo Wease Jr. has thrown his name in the portal as well. Wease, unlike Haselwood, didn’t see the field until the Sooners’ final game of the regular season due to a lower-body injury suffered early in the year.
Despite that setback, the interest is pouring in for Wease, and some believe he may be looking for a reunion with Rattler. Early potential landing spots include Arizona State, Auburn, Florida State, Texas and Texas A&M.
Rounding out the current crop of transfers is redshirt junior offensive tackle Brey Walker. Walker was rated as the 35th-best player in the country in the class of 2018 but has only seen action in 17 games over that span for the Sooners.
This is likely one of the few names that would’ve been in the portal regardless of Riley’s departure, but at 6-foot-6, 320-pounds, someone could be gaining a starter with top-level size to set the edge for their offense.
Class of 2022 Oklahoma Football Recruits
Gentry Williams is the only one on this list to remain committed to Oklahoma, but that doesn’t make his connection to Arkansas any less interesting.
As it stands, I don’t believe that we’ll see a flip from the four-star athlete, but a visit this weekend may have the Razorbacks more in the mix than originally anticipated. Williams was also in Fayetteville this summer on an official visit.
Raleek Brown, the No. 1 running back in the class, committed to the Oklahoma Sooners in February, but it didn’t take him long to make his way back to Riley at USC. Being from Mater Dei (Calif.), this was one of the easier flips to predict of this group.
St. Frances (Md.) defensive end prospect Derrick Moore was among the highest-rated Sooner recruits on the defensive side of the ball in the 2022 class prior to his decommitment.
With his recruitment back open, Moore will have quite the pick of schools to call home as his offer sheet includes the likes of Alabama, LSU, Notre Dame, Ohio State, Penn State and USC.
It didn’t take long after his decommitment for some pretty big offers to roll in for four-star ILB Kobie McKinzie. Texas and Missouri both joined the party recently, adding to Mckinzie’s 12 other FBS offers. Ultimately, the Cooper (Texas) prospect decided to stick around in the Lone Star State with Steve Sarkisian and the Texas Longhorns.
Though Arkansas offered McKinzie prior to his commitment to Oklahoma, it doesn’t seem like the Razorbacks have much of a chance in this one.
Closing out the 2022 class is offensive guard Demetrius Hunter. Hunter decided on Oklahoma back in March but thought enough of the situation with Riley that it’d be best to take a step back and reopen his recruitment.
Missouri and Texas A&M are both options within the SEC for Hunter, as well as Houston, Oklahoma State and SMU.
2023 Oklahoma Football Recruits
I see Bixby (Okla.) tight end Luke Hasz as the best possibility among the former Oklahoma commits to follow Haselwood to Fayetteville.
Hasz included the Razorbacks in his top eight back in July, and has ties to the area which he talked about after his visit to the campus in June. Rated as a 5.9 four-star in the Rivals database, Hasz holds more than 30 offers from the likes of Alabama, LSU, Miami, Ole Miss, Ohio State, Oregon, Penn State, Tennessee, Texas and USC.
Though the Trojans weren’t included in Hasz’s initial final schools list, it’ll be interesting to see how invested he is in playing within a Lincoln Riley offense. Another twist to consider is that the Razorbacks added two 2023 TEs shortly after Hasz’s commitment to Oklahoma in three-star Jaden Hamm and four-star Shamar Easter.
While a four-tight end group may seem like overkill, Hasz isn’t one that I’d see Sam Pittman turning down should he come knocking on the door.
The Los Alamitos (Calif.) product will now be staying home after a four-month commitment to Oklahoma. Similarly to Brown, this was written in the cards every step of the way. Rated the nation’s fourth-best player overall (second pro-style QB), Nelson and Riley were a match that college football was destined to see one way or another.
Joining Nelson will be high four star wideout Makai Lemon. Lemon and Nelson are teammates at Los Alamitos, and it’s hard not to group him in with the other two Cali kids as predetermined deals to join Riley at USC.
This is, at least in my eyes, the biggest loss of the group for Oklahoma. Brandon Inniss is the No. 1 wideout in the class, and his decision to commit to Oklahoma over a top five of Alabama, Florida, Miami and Ohio State made quite the statement to the world of college football.
Now with a second chance at that decision, I’d be shocked to see Innis anywhere but Columbus or Tuscaloosa.
Lastly, we have four-star RB Treyaun Webb. The Trinity Christian (Fla.) product is listed as the No. 2 all-purpose back in the class, and he included Ohio State and Georgia in his final three prior to committing to Oklahoma.
Potential Razorback Ties to the Coaching Carousel
The annual coaching firing-and-hiring season has hit full force. The big-time programs have already hired their head coaches, but could any of them end up poaching Arkansas offensive coordinator Kendal Briles or defensive coordinator Barry Odom?
I dive into those possibilities here:
Dan Mullen’s firing after a 24-23 overtime loss at Missouri sparked speculation about who could be the next man up for the Gators. The choice that came with the strongest reaction was Lane Kiffin — a name that was sure to pop up on nearly all of these jobs before he signed an extension with Ole Miss.
While Kiffin wasn’t the answer, the Gators grabbed the next best thing in Louisiana-Lafayette’s Billy Napier. Napier was a hot name for many schools heading into 2021, but after another 11-win season at the helm for the Ragin’ Cajuns, it was time to move on for the 42-year-old.
Barry Odom is an interesting fit for the role of Napier’s defensive playcaller. After an embarrassing showing from Mullen and Todd Grantham, it’d do the Gators well to reinsert an emphasis on the defensive side of the ball.
Despite never having worked with Napier previously, Odom’s 13 years of experience within the SEC could do the young coach well as he looks to prove himself in a new conference.
Beyond that, despite a much better season at Arkansas, it is easier to find national attention in Gainesville than Fayetteville. Should Odom be looking to get back on the market as a top-level head coaching candidate then some success at Florida would go a long way in garnering interest.
The Ragin’ Cajuns have broken out at the national level since Napier’s hiring in 2018. Now with conference championship game appearances in each of his four seasons (the 2020 game was canceled after positive COVID tests), including a win in 2021, it’s safe to say that this is a pretty significant blow for the program.
As far as some potential replacements go, Alabama defensive coordinator Pete Golding seems like the man to beat. Golding has led the Tide defense since 2019, and despite not having time served as a head coach, does hold the experience you’d like to see in a candidate.
Some other options for the team include Dallas Cowboys QB coach Doug Nussmeier and current defensive coordinator Patrick Toney.
Less than two years removed from a national championship and arguably the greatest season in the history of the sport, former Razorback assistant Ed Orgeron and the Tigers split. Though Orgeron walked away with one final win, the Tigers lost out on their first choice to replace him.
With Lincoln Riley vehemently shutting down rumors that he’d be announced as LSU’s next coach, the Bayou Bengals quickly shifted their attention from Norman to South Bend. While Brian Kelly’s hiring came as a surprise to many, even more surprising was the heavy southern accent he was able to develop in less than 48 hours.
Notre Dame also made quick work in finding its replacement, and it seems as though it’s a universally loved hire. Marcus Freeman, the former Buckeye linebacker and Cincinnati defensive coordinator, became Notre Dame’s defensive coordinator prior to the 2021 season. It took just one year for his promotion.
Brian Kelly hastily left his team with a spot in the College Football Playoff very much still a possibility. That’s a not-so-great look that Freeman was able to counteract with the internet and, more importantly, his players on his side.
Last, but certainly not least, in all of this mess is the place where it all started. Immediately following the announcement of Riley’s departure, the team announced that legendary coach Bob Stoops would be taking over for the Sooners for their matchup with Freeman and the Fighting Irish in the Fiesta Bowl on Jan. 1.
While a heck of an interim option, Stoops has already paved his legacy at Oklahoma, and he’s not the long-term option for the team. That title goes to Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables.
Having been with the Tigers since 2012, a time when his offensive counterpart Chad Morris was actually considered a functional college coach, Venables has been linked to his fair share of head coaching jobs. The outlier here, however, is that none of those jobs were at top-level programs. As well as that, Venables spent 13 years in Norman from 1999-2011, a span in which he saw two nNational championship appearances (2000, 2008).
Venables will need to hire a proven, dynamic and innovative offensive coordinator for the new Oklahoma Sooners to reach their potential (at least before they get humbled in the SEC). Ole Miss OC Jeff Lebby has been named as a priority for Venables to bring over to his staff, but should Kiffin hold on to the man responsible for the nation’s fourth total offense, then Venables may look to Fayetteville to Kendal Briles. Lebby’s brother-in-law worked with Lebby under Briles’ dad, Art, at Baylor.
The deep roots that Lebby and Briles share in Texas will also appeal to Venables’ desire (like everybody else) to make even deeper inroads into Texas recruiting.
Pittman shouldn’t need to worry about the Sooners poaching Barry Odom, however. Arkansas’ defense has really flashed at points in Odom’s short tenure, and though a big-time position isn’t out of the question, Venables’ decade-plus of experience on that side of the ball probably warrants focus being given elsewhere.
Where Arkansas Football Stands
In this constantly moving Oklahoma news cycle, it appeared for a few days that Sooners were the big losers here.
Losing a top-level coach as a blue blood is tough for anybody to bounce back from, but it becomes even more difficult when said coach is actively trying to implode the program he left on his way out. Generally, it’s not a good look on a fanbase that rears its ugly head at a coach/player who decides the grass is greener elsewhere, but this case with Lincoln Riley absolutely deserves an exception.
Venables is a great step forward by OU Director of Athletics Joe Castiglione into replacing what Riley had built, but whether or not the bleeding of transfers and decommits has been stopped remains to be seen.
As far as some of the winners go, USC likely brought back their reign of dominance with the hiring of Riley and subsequent announcement that Oregon coach Mario Cristobal will be the next man up at Miami. California is a talent-rich state and being able to keep some of that home will prove a massive advantage for the Trojans in the Pac-12.
In a far less clear and obvious sense, the Arkansas Razorbacks should feel a whole heck of a lot better than they did two weeks ago. With Oklahoma and Texas likely forcing the SEC into pods of four, there’s now a strong possibility that 5-7 Texas, the corpse of Oklahoma and a Texas A&M team that Arkansas thoroughly dominated will soon be the immediate obstacles standing in the way of the Razorbacks’ SEC title dreams.
Beyond the SEC realignment aspect of things, Venables’ hire likely spares Pittman the headache of replacing one of the marquee coordinator duos in the country. Vacancies filling as soon as they have tends to be a positive sign, and with Arkansas’ rapid rise within the national ranks, who’s to say that any of the available jobs are a step up?
Most importantly, however, Haselwood’s decision may herald a trend: When uber-talented prospects leave a pipeline state’s flagship university, they could increasingly decide Arkansas is the place to rejuvenate their careers. Or, in Haselwood’s case, turbo-charge an already impressive career.
Landing someone with the talent of Haselwood is a major win for the staff. Arkansas football fans should see that as yet another sign that things are changing in Fayetteville. While nothing else is quite set in stone for the Hogs, I wouldn’t be surprised to see some strong pushes made towards other guys like Hasz or Williams.