Jeremy Sprinkle / ArkansasRazorbacks.com
A year ago, the Arkansas Razorbacks had a coveted stable of running backs returning that most figured would pound opponents into submission. Jonathan Williams and Alex Collins, both 1,000-yard rushers the previous season, were expected to give the Hogs’ a one-two punch out of the backfield that few teams in the nation could match.
On the other hand, the Razorbacks’ receiving corps held potential, but overall the group was deemed a bit suspect, except for heralded tight end Hunter Henry. There was talent there, but even the leader Keon Hatcher was known for making the difficult play, but sometimes letting the routine one escape him.
This season it’s just the opposite, except at tight end. Senior Jeremy Sprinkle is looking to pick up where Henry left off; however, Arkansas’ running backs do have much to prove this season, while Arkansas’ receivers showed by the end of last season that they are not only a dependable group but also a very talented and deep one.
If we learned anything from the 2015 season, it’s that football is a fickle sport, and that what we think we know in the preseason isn’t always the way things turn out.
Season-ending injuries to senior Jonathan Williams in the preseason and to freshman Rawleigh Williams at midseason made what we expected to be a deep position, one injury away from being a catastrophe last fall. Collins had an exceptional season as the team’s workhorse, while Kody Walker did a solid job of backing him up, but if either of them had gotten hurt in the last half of the season, Arkansas’ running game would have been wrecked.
Conversely, it was the Hogs’ wide receivers that overcame early season injuries to Hatcher, Jared Cornelius and Cody Hollister to have fine seasons as a group. Drew Morgan, Dominique Reed and Cornelius, when he returned, played so well that wide receiver is the position that’s considered the deepest on the field for the Hogs.
Adding healthy Hatcher and Hollister, who played very well in spring practice, back to the roster only bolsters the talent and depth that new starting quarterback Austin Allen will have to work with.
Hollister, Reed and Hatcher provide nice height with all of them standing at least 6-foot-2. Reed can truly stretch the field with his speed and height that Arkansas hasn’t always had at the position, and with Allen reportedly throwing a fine deep ball, it could be difficult for most opponents to crowd the line of scrimmage to stop the Hogs’ running game.
Morgan became one of my all-time favorite Razorbacks last season. His grit, tenaciousness and guts are truly admirable football traits. He stepped up for the team when the Razorbacks needed it most and fashioned himself an outstanding season.
Cornelius is speedy and strong. He bounced back from one of the more gruesome injuries in recent years when he broke his arm against Texas Tech in a condensed amount of time, but when he returned, he picked up right where he left off.
It never hurts to have tough guys who can make plays and also don’t mind doing the dirty work in the running game like the Razorbacks have this season. Downfield blocking by the receivers is always a key fixture in making the most of the running game.
Speaking of the running game, to me, running back is the most suspect position on offense. Yes, I know the Hogs are replacing three starters on the offensive front, but I trust that the group will come together under the tutelage of new offensive line coach Kurt Anderson. However, I’ve not seen enough of Rawleigh Williams to feel comfortable with him being the lead back. He appeared to be coming into his own last fall when a severe neck injury shelved him for the season.
By all accounts, he has fully recovered from the injury, but he has not taken live hits. Freshman Devwah Whaley joins the team with splendid credentials. Arkansas beat out Georgia and Texas for his services, but until he shows what he can do in SEC play, he remains a question mark to me.
Kody Walker has been a loyal and hard-working Razorback, but he’s not proven to be a top-tier SEC talent. Who knows, freshman T.J. Hammonds could step in and play a role for the Razorbacks this season? But that’s just it. It’s all just speculation about this group of backs, until they get more playing time.
Honestly, I think the running game will work itself out both with the backs and the linemen, and will become a strength of the Razorbacks, but none of us have a crystal ball. As last year showed, sometimes the more we think we know, the less we truly understand.