As recruiting enters the calm before the storm, we sit down with one of the most informed reporters in the business
He's got the resume: Three straight Big Ten titles, .739 winning percentage, etc.
He's got the assistants: the addition of wide receivers coach George McDonald earlier this week further solidifies what could turn out to be, top to bottom, the most reputable staff Arkansas has had since Frank Broyles' days on the sideline.
And he's got the respect.
But can Bret Bielema recruit in the SEC? For all his strengths, the new Hogs coach was never able to attract high-end classes to Wisconsin and if he can't do so at Arkansas, many fans fear the Razorbacks will continue to fall short of championships.
We spoke with Rivals.com national recruiting analyst Mike Farrell about what Bielema's arrival means for the Hogs going forward, about the crop of junior college players who signed Wednesday, and - of course - about North Little Rock's own super recruit, Altee Tenpenny.
ArkansasExpats: Arkansas signed five junior college players this week and addressed some immediate needs. What was your impression of the class and how much can they help the Hogs?
Mike Farrell: They brought in some guys that physically are ready to contribute right away. That's always the goal with JUCO kids. It's kind of high-risk, high-reward, boom or bust. You hope you're getting a physically ready player, you hope you're getting men, and you hope they've put whatever led them down the junior college route - whether it was grades or behavioral issues - behind them.
Obviously (John) McClure is ready. Physically, he's a man, he's huge, and he's road grater. He'll be able to get on the field quickly.
(Tiquention Coleman) at safety is kind of a project, there are some questions about his speed, but Carroll Washington is a big CB, he could even play safety, and in the SEC when you're going up against 6-3, 6-4 wide receivers, you need that size.
Overall, it's maybe not a sexy group, but they're guys who can contribute early and that can help.
BIELEMA THE RECRUITER
Expats: One of the few knocks on Bielema is that he was never able to attract big-time recruiting classes to Wisconsin. Why is that, and what should Arkansas fans expect from the new coach on the recruiting trail?
Farrell: You're not going to get top-25 classes out of Wisconsin, they just don't have the talent in the state or in the neighboring states. You have to go into enemy territory constantly and bring the talent back. It's similar in Arkansas. There's maybe more talent there than there is in Wisconsin, but it's pretty top heavy, so to get that depth that he's going to need to look elsewhere. He's going to have to go into the deep south. He's going to have to go into Louisiana, Tennessee, he's going to have to protect the home state, and he's going to have to hit Texas.
It's no different than at Wisconsin, except that it's a lot more cut throat. The further south you drive the more and more competitive it gets for those recruits, and I find it interesting that this is guy who was complaining about Urban Meyer's recruiting tactics when he first came into the Big Ten; now he's got to deal with a whole league that recruits that way.
But I like the staff he's putting together. McDonald, who they just hired (Wednesday), that's a guy who can recruit. Bielema seems a little like a fish out of water, but it depends on who he surrounds himself with. In recruiting, the head coach is the closer. That's his role. He isn't the one who's keeping in contact with the kids or making all the visits or at the games most of the time. His job is to stay on campus and then seal the deal.
Bielema's personality maybe isn't the best fit to recruiting SEC kids, so he might have to change some things, but again, the big thing is who he surrounds himself with.
THE TEXAS QUESTION
Expats: Texas is always at the forefront in the minds of Hogs fans who follow recruiting. Given Bielema's lack of well-established connections in the talent-rich state, what can Arkansas expect to get from Texas?
Farrell: At this point, Arkansas can't really expect to have success with the 4- and 5-star kids that Texas, Oklahoma, LSU, and even USC and Oregon are fighting over. Even when they were winning 10 games a year under Petrino, Arkansas wasn't having much success in Texas with those types of recruits.
And the Texas A&M move to the SEC also hurts Arkansas' recruiting more than it hurts any other school. That's a Texas school that's going recruit at a high level and that now has the SEC brand to sell.
What Arkansas is going to have to do is identify talent, and Bielema's good at that. That's what he did at Wisconsin. He's a good talent evaluator. Winning will solve a lot, and it can help you attract those bigger recruits, but as long as you're getting the right guys and spotting that talent and coaching them up, that's the biggest thing. I believe you can have a team full of three stars and you can compete in the West. They've done it before. West Virginia has done that for years, Wisconsin has done that, Virginia Tech. And Arkansas has been one of those. There's no doubt in my mind that some of Bobby Petrino's teams at Arkansas were not as talented top to bottom on their roster as a lot of the teams they were beating, but they had guys who fit their system. Great coaches can overcome, I wouldn't say a lack of talent, but a division in talent.
THE HOME STATE
Expats: What can a team like Arkansas, with fewer in-state players to choose from, do to keep up with the LSUs, Alabama, Floridas and Georgias of the world?
Farrell: There's no queston Bielema is moving into a better talent pool than what he had at Wisconsin. I think Arkansas has top-end talent. Altee Tenpenny is right up there with the best running backs in the country, and obviously, Hunter Henry is just a special talent. There's just not as much depth in the state year to year as you have in some other places.
It's not that much different than Oklahoma. The only difference is that there's maybe a little more depth in Oklahoma. But what OU has done is they've created a brand and they go into the Texas. That's what Arkansas needs to do. And they were about to start cashing in on some of those 10-win seasons Petrino was having when the whole motorcycle incident occurred, and with Bobby on the sideline, I think this year's team would've been competitive in the West. And that's what you need to do - roll together three or more good years and you'll start seeing the payoff in recruiting.
Expats: Arkansas has let a lot of those top-end players get away in recent years. What are the chances the Hogs can flip Alabama commit Altee Tenpenny?
Farrell: They're definitely trying to flip him. I think he's the first priority on the board, the first thing they wrote down when they got there was "we've got to get this kid."
And for Tenpenny, the home state has got to be attractive, especially with Bielema coming in and all the success he's had with running backs over the years. The only problem is he's committed to a program that does it even better.
But the good thing for Arkansas is they don't have the same stable of backs that Bama's got: TJ Yeldon, Kenyan Drake, Dee Hart, Derrick Henry's going there, Alvin Kamara might go there. If you want to be the man, Arkansas offers the opportunity to be the man. If you want to win the national championship, obviously, Alabama's the better place to do it.
Follow Mike Farrell on Twitter @rivalsmike. Follow ArkansasExpats' Brent Holloway @thebholloway.