Recruits startled by Petrino firing
Texas WR Austin Bennett decommits after move, others plan to wait and see
After an 11-2 season and a recruiting haul that saw Arkansas sign five four-star prospects in the 2012 class, things were looking bright for the Razorbacks football program on and off the field.
But now recruits have more questions than answers after Bobby Petrino was fired on Tuesday night for what Arkansas athletic director Jeff Long called "manipulating and deceiving behavior."
“Arkansas was a team on the upswing and making major headway in the always-competitive SEC recruiting wars, but now the Razorbacks will have to contend with Petrino's departure in recruiting, and the first effects of the firing have already been felt.
Uncertainty is their biggest enemy right now. Keep in mind, the head coaches cannot go out on the road in the spring and all coaches can't go out for another close to two weeks, which buys some time. This is a good job and a program on the rise with a lot going for it.” -- Senior National Analyst Tom Luginbill
Receiver Austin Bennett of Manvel, Texas, confirmed to ESPN.com via text message Tuesday night that he is backing away from his commitment to the Razorbacks for the class of 2013. The Razorbacks' other commitment in this recruiting cycle, running back Jamel James of Katy (Texas) Cinco Ranch, declined to comment on the news.
Several recruits who signed in February as part of Arkansas' 24-player 2012 class expressed disappointment and surprise at Petrino's firing. The Razorbacks finished 11th in the SEC recruiting rankings, but eight conference programs ranked in the top 25 nationally, and many believed this was one of the better groups Arkansas signed under Petrino.
"It's a shock what has happened these past few days with the news stories breaking and losing my head coach before I start my college career," defensive end Taiwan Johnson of Alvin (Texas) Manvel said.
"Coach Petrino was a big reason I chose Arkansas, and the direction he put our team in was great. All in all, I hope everything gets better for Coach and his family. My class is still going to get to Arkansas, work hard and grind to become national champs. We'll see how everything plays out, and all I can really do now is go with the flow and wait to see what happens. Losing Coach Petrino is a hit, and I hope he and his family can get through everything."
Another member of that class, Memphis Ridgeway defensive end Brandon Lewis, said he's disheartened by the news but he signed with Arkansas for the school, not because of its coach.
"I am still going to be a Hog," Lewis said. "I picked Arkansas because of the great fan base and the coaches. My primary coach was Tim Horton. I built a great relationship with him and coach [Steve] Caldwell. What happened with Coach Petrino is just unfortunate. I was really hoping he wouldn't leave, but I can't do anything about it. I am sticking with Arkansas."
While the 2012 class is signed, the Razorbacks might feel the biggest pinch over the coming weeks and months.
One of football recruiting's most important cycles starts Sunday when the spring evaluation period kicks off. That's when assistant coaches can visit high schools to make in-person evaluations of prospects and also make one phone call before the period ends on May 31.
Still, the initial response from many of Arkansas' targeted recruits was positive, especially considering the circumstances.
Arkansas is one of a handful of SEC programs that has offered a scholarship to junior college standout wide receiver Jonathan Rumph of Holmes (Miss.) Community College. He still likes the Razorbacks as long as they still like him.
"They are the one school that keeps in constant contact with me," Rumph said. "I am a loyal person, and they have been loyal to me. If they are still in my corner, I would love to attend their school and play football. I just hope their new coach wants to recruit me, and I hope they continue to throw the ball. He made a mistake, and I understand what happened. I still have high hopes for Arkansas."
Arshard Jackson of Hampton (Ga.) Lovejoy is a tight end prospect that Arkansas offered close to six months ago. While he has not yet visited the Razorbacks, he has gotten to know Petrino through the recruiting process.
"This will complicate things a little bit," Jackson said. "He was recruiting me, and we built up a little relationship. This whole thing came on fast, and I guess I was looking for this to happen. But I don't think it will change my outlook. It's Arkansas. They throw the ball and use the tight end. And you know they will get a really good coach."
Some targets feel Arkansas will rebound quickly.
"It's a bad deal, but I am still interested," said linebacker recruit Nick Ramirez of Lee's Summit (Mo.) West. "The Razorbacks will bounce back from all this and still be a top program."
Bob Przybylo and Damon Sayles contributed to this report