FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas running backs coach Tim Horton stood outside the Broyles Center late last week, checked his watch and waited.
A few minutes later, a prospect and his parents walked through the parking lot, up the flight of stairs and were greeted by Horton. Then the program’s recruiting coordinator led the way as they disappeared into the building.
The Razorbacks are in an unenviable position in the ultra-competitive world of college football recruiting. They don’t have a head coach after Bobby Petrino was fired earlier this month and the remaining assistants don’t exactly know what the future holds.
But Horton said in a phone interview Tuesday night the uncertainty hasn’t slowed the staff as it tries to sell the program to prospects.
“We’ve just got to stay in the game and keep nurturing relationships and keep reaching out to players and coaches and keep trying to get kids on our campus and get kids to our football camps and all those things that you do to recruit at this level,” Horton said.
Arkansas will continue this weekend, when it welcomes roughly 45 prospects to campus for Saturday’s Red-White Game in Razorback Stadium. Some of them will get their first look at Arkansas. Others already are familiar with the program.
Either way, Horton knows they’ll all have plenty of questions.
It’s only natural after Petrino was fired on April 10 after failing to disclose he had a extramarital affair with Jessica Dorrell, who had been hired as the student-athlete development coordinator. Dorrell was showing recruits around campus before the scandal broke, but resigned Tuesday after being placed on administrative leave last week.
“I think the first thing you must do, always, in recruiting is be honest,” Horton said about Arkansas’ plan without a head coach.
“Hey, we don’t know. We don’t know who is going to be the head coach. We don’t know a lot of the answers that they might ask. But don’t sugarcoat it. Just be honest.”
Scott Kennedy, who is the director for scouting for Scout.com, said Petrino’s spring firing has placed Arkansas in a “tough” spot as it enters “the most important part of the year” in the recruiting season. The NCAA’s spring evaluation period began last week and runs through May 31. Then come summer camps.
But Kennedy added it isn’t a “death blow or anything by any stretch of the imagination.”
“It’s definitely tough. It’s hard,” said Kennedy, who stressed the Razorbacks can survive a mediocre recruiting year as long as the program makes the right head coaching hire. “It’s where you really count on your support staff. Get (prospects) on campus and show them why Arkansas is a great place.”
That’s what Arkansas is doing, although there were repercussions to Petrino’s dismissal.
Arkansas had gained oral commitments from two 2013 prospects — Manvel (Texas) High wide receiver Austin Bennett and Katy Cinco Ranch (Texas) High running back Jamel James — before Petrino was fired. Both players changed their mind afterward, reopening the process.
“It just depends on if Arkansas is going to keep one of the staff members or are they going to bring in a whole new staff,” Bennett said last week. “I still love the school.”
Horton and the Razorbacks aren’t panicking, though. There’s good reason: He has experience working through an awkward situation.
Horton was key to helping Arkansas secure its 2008 class after Houston Nutt was replaced by Bobby Petrino. Horton worked the recruiting roads, while Arkansas went through the hiring process. He kept commitments on board.
The class, in the end, relied on plenty of in-state talent which set the foundation for success under Petrino. Tyler Wilson, Joe Adams, Jarius Wright, Greg Childs and Chris Gragg were all members of signing class.
“It was really key to sell Arkansas pride to the Arkansas kids and they all bought in,” Horton said. “And once they bought in, they became our best recruiters.”
Kennedy believes the in-state talent will be key to Arkansas’ hopes for the 2013 recruiting class once again as it moves into a new era.
There are talented prospects like Pulaski Academy tight end Hunter Henry, Fayetteville quarterback Austin Allen, and North Little Rock running back Altee Tenpenny, who has made an oral commitment to Alabama.
“It’s even more important to take care of your home state,” Kennedy said. “There are eight or nine guys in the state of Arkansas that can play at a BCS level and Arkansas doesn’t need to be losing guys like Tenpenny to Alabama.”
Horton said he and the rest of the staff are confident their recruiting efforts through the uncertainty will be rewarded eventually.
“The one thing we have going for us is signing day is the first Wednesday in February,” Horton said. “It’s not May 15.
“If it was May 15 we’d be in trouble, but it’s not. So we’ve just got to stay in the game.”
Arkansas News Bureau correspondent Jimmy Carter contributed to this report