story by David Rice, photos by Mark Wagner
Editor’s note: Tusk to Tail was a special “web reality” presentation of the tailgating experience as organized, performed and perfected by a group of Hog fans who have been tailgating together for more than a decade. They survived possibly the most awful season of their lengthy tailgating experience. Members of the Tusk to Tail Team are Sean Casey, Jack Clark, Dale Cullins, Greg Houser, Craig May, David Rice and Mark Wagner. Link here for the explainer story and the photos and “stats” of the core Tusk to Tail crew. Tusk to Tail is managed by The City Wire and sponsored by Preferred Office Products.
Follow the crew on Twitter — @TuskToTail
When it comes to opinions on recruiting, Tusk to Tail runs the gamut. Our Godfather of Tailgating Craig May subscribes to multiple recruiting news services. He lets us know if a given recruit wore a rival team’s colored cummerbund to the school dance. The Rookie, Sean Casey, refuses to be validated by the decisions of teenage boys, most likely dating back to his days of being spurned in 4H ribbon ceremonies.
The rest of the gang falls somewhere in between. All of us understand the importance of new players to the future of the program, especially following the disastrous 4-8 season theoretically coached by John L. Smith that Tusk to Tail calls “the season from L.”
But as P.J. O’Rourke once wrote of a summit conference, recruiting is “as interesting as a second cousin's wedding. Some stuff goes on that we might like a peek at, but it goes on behind locked doors.”
The “locked door” aspect of recruiting is one of the biggest reasons Tusk to Tail convenes in Little Rock for “Signing Day in the Rock” each year. Thursday marked Tusk to Tail’s third trip to the event, which had been a fairly subdued program of propaganda for the University and the young men who had committed to Bobby Petrino the past two years.
A very similar program is now offered in Fayetteville, but Dale Cullins and Greg Houser chose to drive down for an evening of comradery with approximately a dozen Tusk to Tailgaters that was kicked off by happy hour at Cregeen’s Irish Pub in downtown North Little Rock.
Attendance has continued to climb each year, causing the event to move from Little Rock’s Statehouse Convention Center across the river to Verizon Arena. This year, an additional tier of tickets was sold that allowed visitors to sit in the arena seats for cheaper than those eating a catered barbecue dinner on the floor level. These non-reserved seats worked perfectly for Tusk to Tail, allowing us to have another round while others finished eating.
The lights went down, and a video started from the point of view of inside a pickup truck. As the virtual truck came to a stop, a gigantic tailgate lowered as a band kicked into a song about drinking beer and other game day celebrations, accompanied by flashes of smoke and fire. The feeling inside the arena was as electric as I have ever witnessed there at any concert or sporting event.
Next came the introduction of Athletic Director Jeff Long, who led a raucous Hog Call before turning the show over to “Voice of the Razorbacks” Chuck Barrett. Barrett introduced the entire staff of assistant coaches, from coordinators to graduate assistants, with the exception of running backs coach Joel Thomas, who was allowed to stay home with his wife and newborn son who arrived Monday, two days before signing day.
You can tell the assistants have been living on the road. Their faces show the wear of late nights, and many of their physiques appear to be molded by junk food and the homemade cookies and pies served in the living rooms of recruits. Offensive Coordinator Jim Chaney edges offensive line coach Sam Pittman and Coach Bielema himself as the person you would least like to follow into the men’s room after five minutes.
Of course, these guys were not hired for their looks. They are here to sign big-time recruits, and in the case of stud running back Alex Collins, find a guardian who will agree to sign for him. The coaches earned high marks for the class they were able to assemble in such short time.
The difference in personalities of the current and past head Hogs was on display from the get-go. Whereas Petrino treated public speaking opportunities like he was filmed for a hostage video, Bielema basked in the spotlight. Petrino would quickly pass the microphone to his assistants, but our new head coach narrated the entire show before taking questions from the audience.
I feel confident that Petrino never considered audience participation. The predominantly male audience most likely wasn’t worth his time. The difference between the two coaches was never more clear than when Bielema replied to an audience question, “Once you get to know me, you will realize I don’t need a motorcycle.”
It is hard to argue with results. Tusk to Tail knew Bielema could recruit once we saw his smoking hot wife. Bielema continued to impress us as he assembled his coaching staff into a perfect engine, a recruiting machine. Several of the new Arkansas assistant coaches have served as recruiting coordinators at other universities, including Chaney and Defensive Coordinator Chris Ash.
The impact this regime has had on recruiting cannot be overstated. Following the firing of Petrino and the 4-win season from L, Bielema pulled in twice as many four-star commitments in little more than a month as Petrino could muster coming off a top-five final ranking and a sound defeat of Kansas State in the 2012 Cotton Bowl.
Among the first players signed were Australian punter Sam Irwin-Hill and offensive lineman Reeve Koehler from Hawaii.
“The recruiting hotbed of the Pacific,” Tusk to Tailgater Jack Clark proclaimed, fresh from his own Mexican vacation.
I think most of our crew is willing to scout the Caribbean or any other tropical climates for future athletes if the opportunity arose.
Koehler is a big dude, and one of the gems of this class. He measures 6'-3", 315 pounds, and looks even bigger on video. Bielema even commented how his “britches look painful” as they rode up his massive trunk.
Upgrading the line was clearly a priority as the Hogs traveled the land to add Butler Communty College’s Johnathan McClure, 6'-10" behemoth Dan Skipper from Colorado, and coveted four-star lineman Denver Kirkland from Miami.
One of Kirkland’s highlights was reminiscent of a scene from the film “The Blind Side,” as he continued pushing the kid he was blocking more than 20 yards down the field. Tusk to Tail hopes Kirkland is not flagged for “excessive blocking” like Michael Oher was in the movie.
Bielema’s recruiting strategy indicates that he wants to compete immediately. In addition to McClure, four more junior college players were signed and reported to campus in January.
The coach emphasized his sense of urgency Thursday, telling the crowd he had 21 hungry seniors who were disappointed in last season’s results.
“I didn’t come here to be great in three years. I came here to be great now,” Bielema said.
Based on highlights, one ju-co player worth watching is 5'-10" safety Tiquention Coleman. Bielema joked that Coleman “plays angry, like he wants to be 5'-11.”
Predicting which players will pan out this early is difficult. Based on expectations and analysis by the experts, offensive linemen Koehler and Kirkland should be great once they adjust to the speed of the SEC. Collins is short on experience, playing only two years of varsity football, but appears to have the size and moves to be our feature back.
Tight end Hunter Henry is the Arkansan most likely to make an impact, but keep your eye on Austin Allen, who may develop into a better quarterback than his brother Brandon, who will compete for the starting position next season.
The other quarterback from this class, New Jersey’s Damon Mitchell, brings great athletic ability and a nickname “Doo Wop” that could make him a fan favorite, even if he eventually changes positions to wide receiver or defensive back.
Yet perhaps the player Tusk to Tail finds the most intriguing is Korliss Marshall. Marshall was a two-star running back prospect originally committed to the University of Central Arkansas. Based on his 6'-0" size and ability to run the 40-yard dash under 4.4 seconds, we can only assume playing in the town of Osceola restricted his chance to be renowned as his classmates from larger divisions.
Marshall’s black and white highlight film certainly seemed to support this assumption.
“This video was shot in 1972," cracked Bielema, who signed him to play safety.
Marshall’s size and speed have us hoping he can rekindle the Razorbacks tradition of hard hitting safeties who excel at the next level. The tradition began with Steve Atwater, of course, but has been mostly dormant since Ken Hamlin.
Plus there is Marshall’s first name. Do the math, and you will realize that Korliss was conceived in the championship era of Razorback basketball, when “Big Nasty” Corliss Williamson took the Hogs to back-to-back championship games.
Will this Korliss reach the same heights on the football field? That remains to be seen, obviously, but this recruiting class looks to be the first step in recovering from the season from L.