The new walk-on strategy adopted by the Hogs can significantly benefit local players.

Arkansas coach John Calipari might not realize it, but he has inadvertently set up a potentially strong program quality that will get in-state players excited if he chooses to use it a certain way.


One of the big talking points to come out as spring drags on toward summer is this idea that Calipari wants nine players who will be the main focus while chewing up all the planned NIL money for the upcoming season. The rest of the team will be what he views as the new era of walk-ons, players he defines as guys who know they aren’t going to get playing time up front, but will have enough money cobbled together to get their college paid for while helping the team get better throughout the season.

Should they grow and develop into someone who can contribute on the floor, then eventually the young men can earn a slice of the planned NIL money, but overall their focus is to give everything they’ve got to make life hard on the anointed nine in practice in exchange for an old-school full ride. This is tailor-made for an Arkansas high school player.

The state is loaded with highly talented borderline players who spend years playing against athletes lauded by the AAU circuit who don’t quite grow into prime Power Four talent by the time they’re 18, yet have strong potential to develop as they evolve into men. Not only are they not intimidated by facing name players because many of them have done it before, the idea of wearing a Razorback on their jersey and doing something big in front of Hogs fans is a huge motivation.

These are guys who might normally go to Central Arkansas, Arkansas-Little Rock or maybe even Arkansas State or some mid-major out of state where four years from now fans look up and they’re contributing heavily to a team making a push for the NCAA Tournament. Except now, there theoretically is an option to take a full ride to Arkansas to grow under one of the best coaches in America while practicing against the best players the sport has to offer.

Everyone knows some of the best players to ever come through the football side started as walk-ons. It matters more to local players so they tend to focus a little more, work a little harder, and more or less force themselves into maxing out whatever they have inside them. Often, what is inside is as good or better than the highly sought players who end up on the team once a home grown Arkansas player’s approach has been allowed to compound over three or four years.

Plus, it’s good to have players from the state in the locker room who understand what Arkansas basketball truly means to the people watching in the stands. They can be a cultural influence who will keep things in perspective.

And it’s not like these players won’t wander into a little NIL money anyway. If a player from Warren develops into one of these prototypical talents and ends up at Arkansas as one of these new style walk-ons, there is going to be money sent his way.

Not only is that player’s voice going to be all over the local radio, especially in the local spots during Arkansas games, but his face is going to be on every other ad in the local publications also. There’s not going to be millions to be made, but if he needs money to grab a box of worms to snatch a few bream out of the local mudhole up in Northwest Arkansas and grab a Coke and a taco after, he’ll be able to do that in hopes that one day he’ll work his way up to drawing enough NIL money to add a boat to the mix so he can expand his options.

If this is the approach Calipari is willing to take, he’s going to find some diamonds along the way. Somewhere between the soybean and tomato fields of Southeast Arkansas and the peach tree farms of Northwest Arkansas is a highly talented player with a late growth spurt in him who just needs a good coach and training program. He’s probably spending hours in the heat on an asphalt court under an interstate overpass right now.

That’s the kind of player who can make this new approach of Calipari’s legendary. He can forge his nine anointed teammates into better players through non-stop effort and eventually become one of those 23-year old stars in the NCAA Tournament who makes life miserable for opponents who load up on younger high profile athletes.

Somewhere out there is basketball’s version of Drew and Grant Morgan, Hayden Henry and Brandon Burlsworth. Calipari has the opportunity to pull in a guy who is going to grind and be a huge difference maker by the time he is a senior.

Despite what a lot of people think, it’s a good approach if the right players are brought in. Arkansas fans will eventually get to see athletes they wouldn’t have otherwise gotten the chance to watch.

It’s also a chance to rebuild connections and trust in areas of the state where that has eroded. The dream of being a Razorback isn’t as strong in certain regions among players now, so this offers the chance to put that passion back together if handled correctly.

It may seem unorthodox, but Calipari may have stumbled upon a way to change Arkansas basketball for the better for years to come. How it plays out will be on him.

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