FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. — By the time Michael Smith had accepted Arkansas’ wide receivers coaching job in January 2013, it was a little too late for his Louisiana connections to make a difference in that year’s recruiting class.
But Smith immediately began working to get Razorbacks coach Bret Bielema more acquainted with the Bayou State.
Smith knew an abundance of often overlooked talent existed in his home state, and his familiarity with The Boot’s nooks and crannies gave him an innate roadmap to go find it.
He was convinced that the state of Louisiana could be an absolute gold mine for Arkansas football.
“I think over the years, Bret has understood the ramification that the state of Louisiana could have on our program,” Smith told SEC Country in a recent interview.
Since Smith’s arrival in Fayetteville, Arkansas has become a hot destination for standout Louisiana high school football players, and in particular, those without scholarship offers from LSU.
Beginning with the 2014 class, the Razorbacks have signed nine players from the state, with three more already committed for 2017.
That’s a stark contrast to the four years prior to 2014, a stretch when Arkansas signed only four players from Louisiana.
Zero Louisiana prospects were part of the 2013 class, which signed just two weeks after Smith joined the Arkansas staff.
Things began to change, though, the very next year. Smith became Arkansas’ primary recruiter in the state of Louisiana, and his intimate knowledge of the area made an immediate impact.
That Smith is from New Orleans and was himself an overlooked college football prospect gives him a special credibility with the players he’s recruiting. Smith left his home state after being lightly recruited out of Jesuit High School, walked on at Kansas State and became a two-time All-Big Eight receiver.
“I think the culture is a big deal,” Smith said. “I’m able to communicate with these guys. They know exactly where I come from.”
In his first full year on Arkansas’ staff, Smith signed cornerback Henre’ Toliver and linebacker Dwayne Eugene from Archbishop Rummel High just outside of New Orleans — beginning a fruitful relationship with that school — and inked receiver Jared Cornelius and safety Santos Ramirez from Shreveport’s Evangel Christian.
Each of those four players started at least once last season, and all are expected to play even bigger roles in 2016.
The success of those players helped open up the floodgates. In February, Arkansas signed four more Louisiana prospects, including 4-star Archbishop Rummel defensive tackle Briston Guidry.
One of the Razorbacks’ 2017 commits — linebacker Derrick Munson — is also a Rummel Raider.
“Michael Smith is a great recruiter,” said Rummel head coach Jay Roth. “And he’s from New Orleans, so he’s one of us.”
Another thing most of the recent Cajuns-turned-Arkansans have in common is a lack of serious interest from LSU, which often gets its choice of the state’s most prominent blue-chip talent.
That’s a card Smith freely acknowledges playing when he recruits some of those overlooked Louisiana kids.
“So long as I’m here, I’m gonna sell that pitch,” Smith said. “‘There’s a place right up the road that will take you in a heartbeat and develop you just as good as anybody in the country, if not better.’
“What we have here to sell is second-to-none in my opinion.”
De’jon Harris likely spoke for many snubbed Louisiana prospects when, during an interview last month with SEC Country, he admitted the lack of attention from LSU used to bother him.
A two-way star at John Ehret High in Marrero, Harris led his school to its first state championship game appearance in three decades last season.
While a scholarship offer never came from the SEC school in his home state, Harris got loads of attention from LSU’s rival to the north.
And when asked why so many Louisiana prospects are flocking to Fayetteville, Harris offered a simple answer.
“It’s Coach Smith,” Harris said. “It’s Coach Mike. He’s from down here, so he knows a lot about the area.
“LSU doesn’t want a lot of us guys. Coach Smith knows what’s down here and knows where to go.”