Prior to addressing the Pine Bluff Razorback Club Monday evening at the Pine Bluff Country Club, University of Arkansas head football coach Bret Bielema offered his opinions on several local Hog players.
Some players from southeast Arkansas who are currently on the Razorbacks’ roster include senior safety Josh Liddell (Dollarway High School), junior walk-on linebacker Josh Harris (Watson Chapel High School), sophomore tight end Will Gragg (Dumas High School), junior offensive lineman Johnny Gibson (Dumas High School) and sophomore defensive tackle Austin Capps (Star City High School).
Former White Hall Bulldog Jeremy Sprinkle was also recently drafted in the 5th round of the NFL Draft by the Washington Redskins, while incoming freshman defensive back Chevin Calloway out of Dallas has family in Pine Bluff.
In five years in Fayetteville, Sprinkle became the school’s all-time leader in receiving touchdowns with 11. His role expanded greatly in his final two seasons, when he caught six touchdowns to lead the SEC as a junior and four to tie for the lead as a senior. Unfortunately, a shoplifting incident led to his suspension for the Razorbacks’ bowl game against Virginia Tech in December, costing him the final game of his career.
“Jeremy Sprinkle did a lot of great things for us,” Bielema said. “And I’d like for him to be remembered for all the things he did great, not the one he did wrong. That’s what I told the NFL teams, and I think he’s off on a good path right now.”
The coach called Liddell “one of the more enjoyable stories of my career.” He recalled offering Liddell a scholarship in late January of 2014, just days before National Signing Day.
“His mom is a music teacher in high school there in Dollarway, and you probably know the story of his father’s passing,” Bielema said. “And just to see the reaction of him and his mom, I knew I had something special. I didn’t know what it was gonna be, [but] I knew I had something special. And for him to be a multi-year starter now, and progress and he’s probably playing as good a football as he’s ever played. [He] will be probably in a three-man rotation in the safety position. But, just a truly, truly good story about what goes on.”
He called Harris, an undersized, walk-on linebacker at 5-foot-10 inches who coaches have talked up as earning some playing time in 2017, “impressive since day one.”
“I remember literally when he came in as a redshirt freshman as a walk-on, he started making plays,” Bielema said. “So I watched a practice where he was the number one scout linebacker going against our first-string offense, and he had something like 32 tackles. Now they were tag-off tackles, we weren’t bringing ’em to the ground, but just to get involved in that manner, I knew that he was gonna be okay. And he’s been a mainstay for us on special teams. I think he knows that at certain points, there’s limitations, and he knows where to avoid those situations. But a guy that’ll be very, very good.”
Gragg arrived in Fayetteville in 2015 as one of the most highly recruited tight ends in the country out of Dumas High School. He redshirted his first season and failed to get on the field in 2016 as part of a deep tight end corps. Bielema expressed optimism about Gragg’s progress heading into the fall.
“[He] probably just completed playing as good a football as he’s played for us,” Bielema said. “He’s really snapped in. I think the first two years didn’t go exactly how he wanted, and I think he knows these next three want to go the way that he’s always dreamed of, and I think that’ll happen.”
After walking on for his first two seasons, Gibson earned a scholarship in 2016 after a strong stretch of play in which he started the last five games of the season at right guard. Gibson ran into trouble with Bielema this spring for what coaches called a “team issue,” and was initially ruled out of the rest of spring. But he started with the first team offense in the team’s spring scrimmage two weeks later after Bielema suggested Gibson had made improvements.
The coach on Monday called Gibson “probably another good surprise this spring.”
“Finished up his last two weeks, I called him last night, I’d gotten back some academic reports and different things that he’d been doing really well, and I called him and let him know,” Bielema said. “Talked to his dad after that. Just, I could tell they’re excited about where it’s going, so maybe the negatives he went through become positives in the end.”
Star City defensive tackle Austin Capps has been mentioned as a potential starter at nose tackle in the fall for the Razorbacks, who are transitioning from a 4-3 defense to a 3-4 front after a horrendous defensive showing last fall.
“Austin really was having a pretty good spring,” Bielema said. “Unfortunately, Frank pushed him over a pile and bruised his butt. So that’s slowed down his progress a little bit the last two weeks. But a kid we’re very excited about. I tell ya, that whole baseball thing, he’s got extremely fast hands, so he can do some things inside in that nose guard position that are very uncommon. Some things that I think bode well for him in the future.”
Calloway was the highest-rated recruit in Arkansas’ 2017 signing class, and Bielema said family ties to Pine Bluff factored in to his decision despite living much of his life in Texas.
“I think it played a part,” Bielema said. “First it might have been a little bit of a negative, and then it became a positive, because I know he had grown up with this environment. He actually was committed to another school early on, and was a guy high on our board early on. And as the process evolved, those Woo Pig relatives came out more and more.
“All the sudden he came to campus more and more,” the coach said. “The first time he maybe had a hat and a t-shirt. The next time he was Razorback head-to-toe. And then he just came to town this past weekend, looks great. I think, again, a young man’s gotta come to it on his own terms, it can’t be forced. He was aware of it, and then when he began to see it first hand and feel it, that’s when it became real.”