FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. — Manipulated. That’s how at least one member of the Springdale Five describes his freshman experience at Arkansas.
In the 2006 class, Springdale (Ark.) High School produced five highly touted recruits. Four of which — 5-star quarterback Mitch Mustain, 4-star wide receiver Damian Williams, 3-star tight end Ben Cleveland and 3-star wide receiver Andrew Norman — signed with the Razorbacks, who were coached by Houston Nutt at the time.
“We’re going to protect what’s ours, first and foremost,” Nutt told Scout.com in May of 2005 regarding the five standouts. “We’ll protect them right up here 15 miles away.”
Protect them they tried, but the outcome ultimately wasn’t what anyone wanted. And how it all eventually played out with the Springdale Five still upsets many in Northwest Arkansas.
But until then, Springdale coach and current Auburn coach Gus Malzahn was hired by Nutt in December of 2005 to serve as the Hogs’ offensive coordinator, the local stars were planning to head elsewhere.
“(Arkansas) got out-recruited,” Cleveland told SEC Country in a recent interview. “They thought they could get us just by being right down the road. They kind of just took it for granted by thinking Arkansas kids are just going to go to Arkansas. But that doesn’t happen all the time. We wanted to be loved on and secure, and they did not show us those things. That’s why we committed elsewhere, and when Malzahn came he said he would take care of us, and we trusted him.
“It was one of those things where it was hurtful because everyone put pressure on us to come and they didn’t know the inside facts.”
Had none of the Springdale bunch ever arrived in Fayetteville, all parties involved would’ve almost certainly been better off from a football standpoint.
“We were watched out for for the wrong reasons,” Cleveland said. “We were very manipulated into being somebody that we weren’t. We wanted to come to Arkansas because we wanted to make the program a winner. And now we got to Arkansas and there are other kids from down the road and they’ve heard all about us. They’re humans, too. They want to have the limelight. They want to have their name in the paper and it was these Springdale kids. The locker room was torn from us.”
All this while the 2006 Hogs began the season 10-1. Eight of those wins came with Mustain as the starting quarterback, leading to what remains their most-recent appearance in the SEC title game. But behind the scenes, Nutt and Malzahn were reportedly at odds for much of the season over their differing offensive styles.
Malzahn left to become the offensive coordinator at Tulsa in January of 2007. Mustain and Williams transferred to Southern Cal soon after, and Norman headed to Tulsa to join his coach. Only Cleveland remained.
“Obviously, it didn’t turn out the way we would’ve like with everyone leaving besides me,” Cleveland said. “There are some hard feelings from the other guys. There are some hard feelings with me.
“But for all the life lessons I’ve learned from, I wouldn’t change any of it. I can’t speak for the other guys. I wish it had been better from a football perspective. But as a human, it’s made me a better man than I would be if I didn’t go through that situation.”