Say what you will about National Signing Day's absurdist pageantry — you'd be right, in fact — but in Arkansas, there are some inescapable certainties that usually denote it.
For beginners, when was the last time some late-adolescent wunderkind sat at a table on the first Wednesday in February and plucked a Razorback hat out of an array of them? We've become accustomed to this trickery and yet we bite on it every time. Tyrie Cleveland from Houston went to Florida, per his high school coach, to play for a passing-oriented offense, paying no heed to the fact that Dan Enos was at the helm of one of the country's most lethal, varied and disciplined throwing attacks in 2015 while the Gators' attack was utterly nil once Will Grier got suspended. Later in the day, five-star cornerback Kristian Fulton of New Orleans went to LSU, an almost-preordained commitment given his ties to the region and program, but we all tuned in for the Periscope feed and clicked it off posthaste when the Louisiana product uttered those three letters.
Let's not kid ourselves: Arkansas, for all its incredible progress as a program the past two seasons, still sits in the second tier (or third, depending on how many tiers you like to construct) of the SEC. Bret Bielema and his staff are, without equivocation, the best nationwide recruiters that the program has ever employed. They work tirelessly, and it's plainly evident from the results, even if the rankings still suggest that the Hogs' classes are on the periphery of greatness rather than squarely in the center of it.
The real quality of the class, as always, will be measured in a couple of years, but Bielema's first forays out on the trail have yielded productive, stellar, disciplined players. The attrition has been minimal, and the development of lower-rated players into high-impact guys has been palpable. Alex Collins and Denver Kirkland are leaving, but their faith in this program assuredly had them tempted to return, and their ability to confidently embark into the professional waters shows that even as the new coaching administration took over in late 2012, with mere weeks to stockpile a slew of talent in the wake of a lost, John L. Smith-shepherded 4-8 wreck, it did so with fervor and purpose.
Because the actual event acts as a sort of endgame moment for the signing period (and it really isn't, but it's by far the climactic point), everyone gets to freak out when the likes of Cleveland and Fulton end their teasing and go elsewhere. It serves to obfuscate the dividends that months of toiling paid. To wit:
*Arkansas not only signed Hope defensive end product McTelvin Agim, the highest-rated defensive recruit in this state since the genesis of the rating systems, it got him on campus early. There's no question that inking him and bringing him onboard disposed of any needless signing day charades, but it also secured a gifted, Jadeveon Clowney-level player for spring ball. The impact of Agim's arrival cannot be glossed over.
*Devwah Whaley initially ditched us for Georgia, sure, but once Mark Richt was gone, he reversed course and spurned Texas and others. With Collins leaving, and with Rawleigh Williams' long-term health being a concern after the lick Auburn put on him months ago, getting a banner bellcow type of runner in the backfield was a priority. Whaley was, and is, the best of the bunch that Arkansas had targeted.
*Defensive tackle Briston Guidry is a monster in the making, and as one of four ESPN300 prospects to sign, he's got the chance to pair with Agim on the defensive line for three years or longer and be another adept run-stopper in the mold of Demarcus Hodge, Darius Philon, Taiwan Johnson, et al. But he comes in with a different sort of pedigree and level of appeal — the Hogs beat out the high-level SEC compatriots for his services, but also got the Louisiana product to spurn Big 12 and ACC appeal as well.
*This could be the deepest linebacking class ever brought to the hill, with Giovanni LaFrance doing a late switch to join Alexy Jean-Baptiste, Dee Walker and DeJon Harris in the fold. None of these constitute headliners at first glance, but LaFrance has impressive size already, and Harris in particular seems suited to become a dominant figure in the second level. With Dre Greenlaw and Brooks Ellis returning, along with reserves like Khalia Hackett and Dwayne Eugene preparing to break through, this is a sudden nucleus rather than a sore spot. Josh Williams also should come back healthy, and Jamario Bell was put on ice in order to ready himself better for Saturdays next fall.
In other words, as it always seems to be, reading between the lines gives one a better feel for this class and how it was designed. Arkansas didn't need to stockpile certain positions. Remember those days? Signing Day used to have this crippling fatalist sense to it — if Nutt didn't manage to get so-and-so or this-and-that, the apocalypse was night. Petrino showed so much attention to the offensive side of the ball that there was a prevailing belief that no high-end defensive prospect would bother. Bielema preaches balance on the field, so it stands to reason that the recruiting archetype should follow form.
That's what we've seen for three years, and the net result is that a hapless little 3-9, 0-8 team nudged above .500 and then became an 8-5, 5-3 squad through measured, proper rebuilding. The design is on securing solid over spectacular, meshing it all with minimal turnover, and taking that businesslike approach rather than making massive splashes and floundering at the end because gimmickry can't overcome disorder.
You know, like Auburn. #closeswithaburn