Division-I talent walks-on for Arkansas Razorbacks

By EFN Staff
Published: 02/17/2015

The mark of a strong college football team is not necessarily measured in star rankings but how strong their walk-on program performs. Arkansas head coach Bret Bielema is a throwback coach opting to win the game in the trenches, smash the opposition with a strong running game, and play assignment football on defense but get to the ball carrier with an attitude. Another important element to a trademark Bielema team is the walk-on program.

The Arkansas Razorbacks closed the door on a strong 2015 recruiting class but more impressively added Byron Keaton to their walk-on program – a player that fits the mold of Bret Bielema’s vision for the Hogs going forward.

Keaton, 5’10”, 172 pounds, was widely considered the top cornerback in the state of Arkansas for the 2015 class becoming a 5A Defensive Player of the Year finalist. If that was not enough, he also played quarterback for Camden-Fairview High School helping lead the Cardinals to an 8-4 record last season.

On his way to an All-Conference and All-State senior year performance Keaton racked up 64 tackles, 4 interceptions, 2 forced fumbles, 1 blocked field goal, 5 tackles for a loss, 1 fumble recovery, and a ridiculous 14 pass breakups.

On offense Keaton had 35 carries for 318 yards with three scores and was 26 of 44 passing for 422 yards with three touchdowns. Cardinals head coach Mike Cox did not start fully utilizing his star player until late in the season under center.

Schools showing interest in Keaton’s talents included Arizona, Central Arkansas, Dartmouth, Memphis, Missouri, Princeton, and Tulsa. Eastern Illinois and Cornell extended offers and Kent State made a last weekend push for him before National Signing Day but by January the lifelong Arkansas fan knew he wanted to be a Razorback.

College football snobs will look at Keaton’s offer sheet in an effort to dismiss his talents – don’t. He’s a great cover corner with good hips, comes off his receiver to play the ball well, and has great speed in spurts to cover out of the breaks. His shiftiness with the ball in his hand screams for an opportunity one day as a punt returner for the Hogs. Make no mistake Keaton has the talent and ability to be a key contributor for the Razorbacks one day.

In an Elite Sports Network exclusive interview Byron Keaton sat down to talk about his senior season, his recruiting process, and gearing up to play college ball for the Razorbacks.

Byron, walk us through the 2014 season. You guys finished 8-4 and made it to the second round of the playoffs, how did the Cardinals’ season shape up?

“We lost our head coach and defensive coordinator right before the season started. Our senior class was just trying to adjust to the new coaches (Mike Cox from Hamburg). We were still trying to figure out the offense and who was going to play where once the season began. Towards the end of the year we started gelling better. By Week 8 or 9 I started playing quarterback. In the playoffs we just had a bad game against PA (Pulaski Academy 44-6).”

What are your strengths on the field at cornerback?

“I can read and diagnose plays very quickly. I can get off blocks quick. I’m great in zone and man coverage, and I feel like I have great ball skills.”

What about at quarterback?

“I was fast and I could make something out of a dead play and I had a decent arm.”

You did enough on the field as is but did you ever participate in the return game for Fairview?

“My junior year I messed up my ankle in the return game (high ankle sprain). With me doing so much this year they kept me off of the return teams to avoid another injury.”

How did the recruiting process go for you?

“I had offers from some D-II schools, a D-I AA Eastern Illinois and Cornell. The last week of the recruiting process Kent State offered an official visit but I knew where I wanted to go so I turned that down.”

Who all showed recruiting interest in you?

Arizona, Central Arkansas, Dartmouth, Memphis, Missouri, Princeton, and Tulsa were the main schools showing interest.”

When the college coaches talked to you about your game, what did they tell you they liked?

“All the coaches said they really liked my ball skills and how well I read things. They liked that I’m fast, smart, and how well I pick up on the plays. They also like the way I come out of my breaks and how well I covered people in man and zone coverage.”

Byron, I believe you have D-I talent, was it frustrating for you to not get that D-I offer that you may have wanted?

“It was disappointing but it just wasn’t in God’s plan so I have to go a different route.”

How did the preferred walk-on offer from the Razorbacks come to you?

“I did real well at both of their camps. They were talking to me throughout the season. In late December I was asked to call them and they offered me as a preferred walk-on. I left it on the table if I needed it.”

Who was your lead recruiter?

“Coach Barry Lunney (tight ends coach) was my lead recruiter.”

What was Coach Lunney’s pitch to you that made you excited about being a walk-on for the Hogs?

“Being from Arkansas, I already wanted to play for them. Bielema has a history of putting walk-ons on scholarship. I talked to Josh Harris (Watson Chapel), the scout team defensive player of the year for the Hogs. He helped convince me walking on was a good decision.”

When do you report to campus?

“I report May 26. I’m just ready to get up there and compete and be with everyone else that is up there already.”

You received All-State, All-Conference, and 5A Defensive Player of the Year honors, did you receive any more accolades?

“I was on the USA Today All-Arkansas team. I think that’s it.”

Besides football, do you play any other sports for Fairview?

“I’m the starting point guard for the basketball team.”

How is the season going for you so far?

“We have to win the next three games to get into the playoffs – we’re on the edge.”

What kind of stats are you putting up?

“I think I’m averaging 8-9 points a game, around 5 rebounds, and about 7 assists.”

Any plans to walk-on to the basketball team at Arkansas?


Are there any NFL players you enjoy watching the game or learn something from when seeing them play?

“I really like Joe Haden (Cleveland Browns) and Tyrann Mathieu (Arizona Cardinals), when he was in college (LSU). Mathieu wasn’t even that fast, wasn’t even that big for his position but he got to the NFL. With Haden I like how he comes out of his breaks, he plays at a very high speed but in control and stays with receivers the entire time.”

Who has made the biggest impact on your football career so far?

“My dad (Edwin Keaton), my mom (Valerie Keaton) and my defensive coordinator (Darrell Burnett) from last year have all had the biggest impact on me. Each one of them helped me realize I needed to change positions to have a chance to play college football because of my height. I learned a new position in less than two years going from quarterback to cornerback. I let quarterback go after my sophomore year.”

What is your favorite part of playing football?

“I like the competitive spirit and physicality of the game.”

Coach Bielema has a lot of success stories going from the high school gridiron to Wisconsin and Arkansas, and then off to the NFL. Arguably his most famous former player is Houston Texans defensive end J.J. Watt.

Watt was a walk-on at Wisconsin coming out of Pewaukee High School (Wisconsin). Much like Keaton, Watt was First-Team All-State, All-Conference, and all everything honoree his senior year but ended up at Central Michigan on a full-ride. Choosing to leave a scholarship opportunity on the table in Mount Pleasant after his freshman season, the future NFL first round draft pick decided to walk-on for Bielema’s Badgers. The rest, as they say, is history. Watt was a Second-Team All-American, All-Big Ten First-Team selection, and was the team’s MVP in 2010. Imagine what he could have done during his senior season had he not been an early NFL draft entry.

For as long as Bielema coaches in the college ranks, Watt will be a go-to calling card for recruiting purposes and for the media touting Bielema’s abilities to turn a walk-on into a first round NFL pick. Keaton, like Watt, has talent, has ability, and thus has a chance to do great things at the next level.

No one expects Keaton to become a First-Team All-SEC player by his junior season thus the pressure is off. Displaying heart, drive, and passion for the game, one can bet Keaton will become a known name among Razorback Nation before his playing career is finished at Arkansas. What more could be asked from a Division-I talent walking onto the Razorback program?

Photo credit:; No. 12 Byron Keaton.