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FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. (AP) — Bret Bielema could feel the momentum in recruiting begin to build about the same time he finally won his first Southeastern Conference game.
The Arkansas coach reaped the rewards of several late-season wins when he announced a class of 24 players on national signing day Wednesday, a group that came largely from inside the state and is made up of nine linemen.
The Razorbacks capped their first winning season in three years with a win over Texas in the Texas Bowl in December. The dominating 31-7 win put the finishing touch on a 7-6 season that saw the end of the school's 17-game SEC losing streak, one that included back-to-back shutout wins over LSU and Mississippi.
Bielema credited the turnaround with aiding in the recruitment of several players, including Florida offensive lineman Jalen Merrick — who signed with Arkansas over offers from nearly every top school in the country, including national champion Ohio State and SEC champion Alabama.
"Here's a kid that has every Florida offer in his hand," Bielema said of Merrick. "Everybody's trying to get him to go there, and he decides to come to Arkansas, but we had to start winning to make that happen."
Ten of the Razorbacks signees were from inside the state, including standout quarterback Ty Storey and tight ends CJ O'Grady and Will Gragg.
Arkansas added a trio of in-state playmakers in La'Michael Pettway, Dominique Reed and Deon Stewart. Reed chose Arkansas over offers from Auburn, Texas and Oklahoma, among others.
Bielema also continued to mine the state of Florida, where Arkansas followed up last year's six signees with five more players this year — including Merrick and fellow offensive lineman Josh Allen. Both Merrick and Allen are already on campus as two of six early enrollees for the Razorbacks.
The Razorbacks signed five defensive linemen, including Danish standout Hjalte Froholdt, who played last season at the IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida. They signed 11 players overall to a defense that improved from 76th to 10th nationally last season.
It was an area of recruiting emphasis for Arkansas following the graduation of All-SEC defensive lineman Trey Flowers and early departure for the NFL draft by Darius Philon.
National Rankings: Scout 22; Rivals 25
Best in class: CJ O'Grady, TE, Fayetteville (Ark.)
Best of the rest: Ty Storey, QB, Charleston, Ark.; Jalen Merrick, OL, Hutchinson (Kan.) CC; Hjalte Froholdt, DL, IMG Academy., Bradenton, Fla.; Jamario Bell, DL, Junction City, Ark.
Late addition: Willie Sykes, S, Spring HS, Houston, Texas.
One that got away: K.J. Hill, WR, North Little Rock, Ark. (Ohio State)
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