FAYETTEVILLE — Doug Gatewood has coached in South Florida for years.
So South Plantation High’s coach has worked with his share of athletes who have been coveted by college programs. He has watched recruiters come and go, making sales pitches to coaches, administrators, prospects and families alike.
But there was something Gatewood said he has never seen in South Florida.
“I had never met a coach from Arkansas as long as I’ve coached down here,” Gatewood said in a phone interview last week.
That has changed this winter. New Arkansas coach Bret Bielema and his staff are putting the finishing touches on their 2013 recruiting class, which should have a distinct South Florida flavor by the time national signing day wraps up.
Three prospects – including elite running back Alex Collins (South Plantation High) – are expected to sign national letters of intent with the Razorbacks. A fourth could join the group if Miami Booker T. Washington High offensive lineman Denver Kirkland chooses the Razorbacks over Florida State and Miami this morning.
It’s new territory for a program that had plucked only one high school player – lineman Michael Aguirre in 2005 - from the college football recruiting hot bed since 2002, according to the Rivals.com and Scout.com databases. But it’s just the start for the Razorbacks, who have made it clear they plan to consistently mine for talent with defensive line coach Charlie Partridge and linebackers coach Randy Shannon.
“This is a recruiting base for them and they’ve made an effort, a personal effort, to make their presence known in South Florida,” said University School coach Roger Harriott, whose former player – Devin Gaulden – signed with Wisconsin in 2011.
That effort stretches back roughly 15 years. Gatewood said he first met Bielema when he was a young assistant at Iowa. The Hawkeyes were making the transition from legendary coach Hayden Frye to current coach Kirk Ferentz and Bielema was assigned to recruit South Florida. Gatewood said he “beat the bushes,” eventually stocking Iowa’s defensive roster with players.
His relationship with high schools coaches, administrators and others in the area evolved over the years as an assistant and then Wisconsin’s head coach. Gatewood said while other programs “cherry pick” in South Florida in hopes of landing an occasional prospect, Wisconsin was a constant in the area.
“That’s why we as head coaches down here have always been familiar with him and his coaching abilities and style,” Gatewood said of Bielema.
Bielema said in mid-December, during his last interview session with local media, those relationships are key in recruiting any area. It just happens that South Florida has been one of his most successful spots to this point in his career.
“I had never been to South Florida ever, ever in my entire life before I went there and started recruiting almost 16 or 17 years ago,” Bielema said. “I had never been there. You walk in, you’ve got a great personality, you’ve got a great school to represent, you do your work, you can outwork people in certain areas.”
Bielema isn’t on the road much anymore because of NCAA rules that limit a head coach’s opportunities visit prospects. But his assistants are no strangers.
Shannon grew up in Miami and has spent most of his life there. He was part of three national championship teams as a player and coach with the Hurricanes and Miami’s program has always been stocked with local talent.
Wisconsin routinely signed players from South Florida, too, thanks to Partridge, who has actively recruited the area since he was a young assistant at Eastern Illinois in 2002. Partridge was part of a Pittsburgh staff that signed 22 high school players from South Florida from 2003-2007 before joining Bielema’s staff at Wisconsin.
The success continued there even though Partridge was often asked how he could get South Florida kids to leave home for somewhere “this close to the North Pole.” Wisconsin signed 14 high school players from South Florida over a five-year span (2008-2012) and there were 11 Floridians total on the Badgers’ 2012 roster.
Partridge said he had a hand in recruiting each and will be equally active in finding players who now want to leave South Florida to play in the SEC at Arkansas.
“There is an important part in assimilating,” Partridge said in early January. “They need to come here and become Hogs, period. We don’t need a group of the kids from that area that that’s all they are. They need to come here and become Arkansas guys.
“That’s important in who we recruit and how we recruit them. Their background. Their character. We’ll make sure that’s the direction we go. We will not forsake character for our research for a fast 40 time. We won’t do it.”
Arkansas has found three players to fit their plans for the 2013 class so far, beginning with Miami Northwestern High’s De’Andre Coley and Suncoast High’s Ke’Tyrus Marks. But the Razorbacks’ really made a splash Monday night, when Collins chose Arkansas over state programs Miami, Florida and Florida State.
Collins didn’t consider Arkansas until Bielema and Partridge, who had recruited him for Wisconsin since he was a junior, left the Badgers. He made Arkansas his final official visit and will become the biggest name in Bielema’s first class today.
“It just takes a couple to start getting that pipeline established,” said Jeremy Crabtree, the senior coordinator of recruiting for ESPN’s RecruitingNation.com. “A great example is what we saw at Louisville with Charlie Strong. Louisville had some success in Florida, but had not really focused on South Florida before Charlie Strong got there. They landed a couple of kids from Miami Northwestern and the rest is kind of history so to speak.”
Keith Niebuhr, who is a national recruiting analyst for 247Sports, said Collins will boost Arkansas’ reputation in South Florida even more with a solid career as a Razorback. He used Clemson, which convinced former running back C.J. Spiller and wide receiver Sammy Watkins to leave South Florida, as an example.
“It doesn’t seem like 1,000 miles away when a kid that went to your school or that kid you used to play against went there and played there,” Niebuhr said. “So if Alex Collins is the real deal and turns out to be a fantastic player there, that visibility, people from South Florida are going to be watching their games and say, ‘I know that kid. He’s from my backyard.’ That is invaluable. I can’t stress that enough.”
Arkansas hasn’t ignored all other areas to simply focus its efforts on South Florida, though. In-state players remain the first priority. Texas, Oklahoma, Louisiana and other Southeastern states also play pivotal roles in Arkansas’ recruiting success.
That is evident some in the Razorbacks’ expected signing class, which includes high school players from Arkansas (seven), Texas (three), Colorado and Hawaii (one each). Six junior college prospects have signed or committed as well.
But there’s no doubt Arkansas football is digging into South Florida for the first time under Bielema. And South Florida high school coaches won’t be surprised to see several more players Calling the Hogs in the near future.
“Those guys have a great reputation here,” Harriott said. “And with that dynamic, you’ll see a handful of South Florida kids on Arkansas’ roster in the next few years.”