FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. — New Arkansas coach Bret Bielema walked into Wednesday's signing day news conference wearing a sweat suit and flip flops, hardly looking like a coach worried about last-minute recruiting drama.
Twenty-two names of prep standouts were on the recruiting board to Bielema's right, all having already sent in their national letters of intent. It was the empty 23rd spot that held all the suspense.
That spot was reserved for one of Bielema's top targets, running back Alex Collins, who verbally committed to the Razorbacks on Monday night. The Florida standout canceled a news conference early Wednesday at which he was expected to sign with Arkansas, and he had still not signed with the school by late afternoon.
Bielema couldn't comment directly on Collins because he had yet to sign, but he did say he hoped the recruiting class would "grow by one in the next 24 hours." The former Wisconsin coach also did his best to go with the flow on a day that has become anything but predictable.
"It's national signing day," Bielema said. "You're going to get surprises, good and bad. You're going to get curveballs thrown at you that you have to adjust to. The thing that's neat about the signing period is this: It's a day when you have to adjust and adapt. There (are) things that are going to come up."
ESPN reported that Collins' mother, Andrea McDonald, refused to sign her son's National Letter of Intent during a ceremony at South Plantation High School in Plantation, Fla., a suburb of Fort Lauderdale. NCAA rules require a signature on the letter of intent from a parent or legal guardian for all prospective student-athletes under age 21.
The Miami Herald reported that Collin's brother, Johnny Collins, said the family hoped the running back would reconsider Miami (Fla.), where he had committed until reopening his recruitment in November. Wisconsin was one of a handful of schools Alex Collins was still considering when he announced Arkansas as his choice on Monday night. He was also mulling offers from Miami, Florida and Florida State.
With or without Collins, Bielema had nothing but praise for the class he and his new staff with the Razorbacks put together since his hiring on Dec. 4. The group included some of the state's top prospects and a host of offensive linemen — with the intent on quickly rebounding from a 4-8 season marred by last spring's firing of coach Bobby Petrino.
The class was ranked No. 26 by Rivals.com, 12th in the ultra-competitive Southeastern Conference. It included a national, and international, feel — with signees from as far away as Hawaii, New Jersey and even a punter from Australia.
Three of the signees, without Collins, were from Florida — a recruiting hotbed Bielema often targeted while with the Badgers. It was also an area very familiar for Arkansas linebackers coach Randy Shannon, who previously was the head coach at Miami for four seasons.
"We kind of just built this recruiting class off of past relationships, not only with recruits but also with high school coaches throughout the country," Bielema said. "So, it was really a culmination today of a lot of different scenarios, a lot of different stories working together to get to where we are."
Five of the Razorbacks signees came from the junior-college ranks as Bielema looked for immediate improvement for a team that was last in the SEC in pass defense last season, allowing 285.8 yards per game through the air. They included safety Tiquention Coleman, who had originally committed to Wisconsin, and cornerback Carroll Washington, who like the other junior-college transfers are already enrolled and will go through spring practice.
Another transfer, Johnathan McClure, was one of four offensive linemen signed by Arkansas — an area of desperate need. The Razorbacks were last in the SEC in rushing offense last season, averaging just 118.7 yards per game on the ground, but Bielema expects several in the group to compete for immediate playing time.
Arkansas had plenty of help in securing its class from a handful of in-state signees who committed to the school even following Petrino's firing and throughout the transition between interim coach John L. Smith and Bielema.
One of those was quarterback Austin Allen, one of three players to sign with the Razorbacks from neighboring Fayetteville High School. Allen and teammates Brooks Ellis, a linebacker, and Alex Brignoni, a safety, each worked tirelessly to build bonds with many of their fellow recruits on official visits — a move that paid off in the form of tight end Hunter Henry and offensive guard Reeve Koehler, among others.
Henry, listed as the 4th-best tight end in the country by Rivals, committed to Arkansas in July. The Little Rock standout admitted to wavering during the difficult season for the Razorbacks, especially while waiting on the announcement of who the long-term head coach would be, and he said schools such as Alabama, Vanderbilt and Georgia continued to recruit him throughout.
Bielema's first phone call after being introduced as Arkansas' coach was to Henry, a move that paid off.
"I needed to make sure whoever the staff was the right fit for me, and if it wasn't, then I needed to go somewhere else," Henry said. "But everything worked out in the end, and I feel like everything's falling into place now."
Allen, who was also recruited by Oklahoma State, Mississippi, Vanderbilt and Tennessee, also said Bielema's "laid-back" approach was a key factor in his decision to stick with Arkansas — where his older brother, Brandon, already is already a quarterback and his father, Bobby, is the school's director of high school operations.
"Once I met (Bielema), it was a big relief," Austin Allen said. "He was in flip-flops and had reggae music on, so I felt comfortable with him and it was a fun time."
Arkansas had a difficult time recruiting while facing an uncertain future under Smith. With Bielema and his staff on board, however, the class came together quickly — even with Wednesday's bit of suspense surrounding Collins.
"I think (this class) is absolutely amazing," Razorbacks offensive coordinator Jim Chaney said. "It truly is. We got in there, I don't know when it was, about the middle of December, and we hit the ground running and haven't stopped since."