UPDATED: Williams’ injury to test Razorbacks’ running back depth

UPDATE: Arkansas senior running back Jonathan Williams will have surgery today to repair the left ankle injury he suffered Saturday in the Razorbacks’ scrimmage, head coach Bret Bielema said Monday.

Williams will miss the entire regular season. A pin is being placed in his foot and would need to be removed before he could play again. Bielema said that it would likely be in Williams’ best interest to enter the NFL Draft next spring rather than seek a hardship year, unless his draft rating declines to a great degree.

What seemed to be an overall positive scrimmage Saturday became the Arkansas Razorbacks’ first opportunity to overcome adversity on Sunday when head coach Bret Bielema announced that senior running back Jonathan Williams suffered an injury to his left ankle that will keep him off the field for an extended period of the forthcoming season.

Williams, who led the Razorbacks in rushing with 1,190 yards and 12 touchdowns last season, will be missed not only for his running ability on the field but also his leadership as a true student-athlete everywhere else. Simply put, the Allen, Texas native did things the right way and is one of the most respected players on the team for doing so.

The Razorbacks may have enough depth at running back for his injury not to be a severe stumbling block, but leaders of Williams’ caliber are cultivated and rarely just pop up on the radar when needed. The loss of Williams, who will have surgery, is an issue that will have to be mitigated across the spectrum of the team’s internal dynamics.

Though the Razorbacks didn’t practice Sunday, they were in the weight room where Williams was known as a “beast” for his tireless work. His diligence and studious nature will be missed in position meetings and around the program in general. He’s a player other players look up to and respect. He’s a player who helped work the program from rock bottom to its current position as somewhat of a preseason media darling. As one of three seniors, Bielema chose to represent Arkansas at SEC Media Days, Williams will be missed as one of the squad’s spokesmen to the general public.

Fortunately the Razorbacks have on-the-field options at tail back. Williams’ fellow 1,000-yard rusher from last season Alex Collins (5-11, 215) is a talented performer in his own right, perhaps more talented than Williams. However, Collins has faltered in one area Williams excelled, consistency. The team always knew what they were getting performance-wise with Williams. Collins has always played hard, but at times Bielema has questioned the level of his dedication. As recently as last week, Collins endured a slap-on-the-wrist public punishment for not arriving early enough for a meeting. In the spring, Bielema touted Kody Walker as a co-second teamer with Collins in an attempt to light a fire under the talented junior.

With Williams out of the picture for now, Collins needs to mature not only into the team’s best tailback but also into a teammate. The young man, who is beloved by the Razorbacks fan base, likely has the ability to fill some of the leadership void, but the big question is will he. As unfortunate as the injury is for Williams, this could be the opportunity Collins needed to grow into the best player and teammate he can be.

Throughout his head-coaching career, Bielema has featured at least two tailbacks in his hard-nosed offense. Williams and Collins each rushing for over 1,000 yards last season wasn’t a foreign occurrence for his teams. For the Razorbacks to meet their own expectations and those of fans, Collins isn’t the only Razorbacks runner who needs to have an outstanding season. Spring-practice standout Kody Walker and true freshman Rawleigh Williams III appear to be the most likely prospects based on Saturday’s scrimmage.

Williams III showed power and speed working against the second-team defense, leading all rushers with 15 carries for 104 yards, including a 63-yard touchdown around the left side. It was a nice debut for a freshman who has the opportunity to garner major playing time this season. He showed explosiveness, good balance and vision as well as the patience to use his blockers.

Walker (6-2, 256) a power back who has great feet, according to Arkansas offensive coordinator Dan Enos, carried 6 times for 32 yards and a touchdown. Before being beset by injuries as a freshman, Walker was a short-yardage and goal-line specialist under head coach Bobby Petrino, but since then, injuries relegated him to spot duty most of his career. He, too, should have every opportunity to help the Razorbacks as a blocker and a runner. Sophomore Denzell Evans (5-11, 222) of Houston also has more of an opportunity. He carried 8 times for 32 yards on Saturday.

Only time will tell what each of these runners will make of this opportunity.

While the Razorbacks do have depth, another running back injury might force another player to be moved to pick up the slack. A candidate could be Damon “Duwop” Mitchell. The 6-2, 207-pound junior receiver had a few carries last season, and the former quarterback has the speed and size to be effective as a runner, but he has been playing very well at receiver, and it might be difficult to lose him at that position.

The Razorbacks have two weeks of practice to sort through their running back depth. It’s fortunate that the first two games against Texas-El Paso and Toledo should give Bielema and his offensive brain trust the opportunity to test all three of the backups with carries before the schedule amps into power conference mode.

Scrimmage Thoughts – Aug. 15, 2015

Saturday’s scrimmage was not a particularly sharp one for Arkansas starting quarterback Brandon Allen. He completed 10 of 22 passes for 110 yards and an interception. A stat line like that in SEC play generally comes with a loss.

The Razorbacks do expect and need better play from Allen when the season starts, but to be fair, the longer practice goes on the more the odds are stacked against Allen in a scrimmage. Arkansas has at least a solid defense. That’s a conservative estimate. In fact, it looks like Robb Smith’s shock troops have picked up right where they left off dismantling Texas last season in the Texas Bowl, even without defensive standouts Trey Flowers, Darius Philon, Martrell Speight and Tevin Mitchell.

Allen faced pressure and was forced out of the pocket often, and when he had time, receivers were often blanketed. On occasions he threw high, low and away to avoid interceptions. Facing such situations will only make him better and more prepared for SEC play this fall. By this point, though, the defense does have a clue of the plays they’re seeing, which is no doubt incredibly helpful.

Often the results of scrimmages are neither as good nor as bad as they seem at first glance.

*Alex Collins, who weighed around 230 pounds last year, is 15 pounds lighter, and he seemed to have more of a burst and explosiveness than last season. Collins broke the line of scrimmage several times last fall but was caught from behind. Saturday that was not the case on a 43-yard touchdown bolt. He wasn’t going to be caught.

*Freshman receiver JoJo Robinson has earned plaudits from his coaches for his work and effort in practices, and it showed Saturday. Robinson (5-11, 190) took a 10-yard toss from second-team quarterback Austin Allen and turned it into a 38-yard touchdown reception. A subtle swivel of his shoulders froze defender Santos Ramirez just long enough for Robinson to whisk past him.

*Junior college transfer Jeremiah Ledbetter (6-3, 280) showed outstanding closing speed from his defensive end spot on a rollout pass attempt by Austin Allen. Ledbetter shucked his blocker and was in Allen’s face before the sophomore quarterback could react. No doubt Allen is thankful quarterbacks were off limits from contact.

*Fayetteville freshman Dre Greenlaw (6-0, 229) has made an impression in just one week of work with the Hogs to move into the backup spot at weakside linebacker to fellow Fayetteville native Brooks Ellis. Greenlaw picked up the nickname “Big Play Dre” as an underclassman at Fayetteville High, and as hyperbolic as the moniker sounds, he deserved it. In 25 years of covering high school sports, I don’t remember witnessing a defensive player who made more of an impact on the game week in and week out than Greenlaw. Whether it was forcing a fumble, making a stunning hit or intercepting a pass and taking the ball back for a touchdown, Greenlaw was a player who kept teams on alert. It’s a huge leap from high school to major college football, but keep an eye out for this young man this season and going forward.

*Following the scrimmage, Arkansas coach Bret Bielema took a few minutes to address the Razorback Foundation members who turned out for the scrimmage in the south end zone. After he thanked the fans and gave a few initial impressions on the scrimmage and the team, he jokingly said he had to go “deal” with the media and added that he would stay and visit if anyone wanted to take his place.

A young fan of an estimated age of 7 shot his hand in the air and yelled, “I’ll do it.”

Not missing a beat, Bielema, who had been speaking into a microphone, walked over the to the child, put the mic up to his face and asked the boy what he would say to the media.

With no hint of bashfulness, the child shouted, “That the Razorbacks are awesome!”

Bielema just about doubled over in laughter.