POSITION PREVIEW: Razorback running game loaded with weapons this season

Arkansas sophomore Raheim Sanders was named to the watch list for the 2022 Doak Walker Award. (UA Athletics photo)

It may or may not come as a surprise to learn that the Arkansas Razorbacks not only led the SEC in rushing last season but the entirety of the Power 5 conferences with an average of 227.8 yards per game.

In days gone by that would have been the hook that Arkansas Media Relations would have hung their campaign flag on for football publicity, and it might just end up that way this season. However, in today’s age, it’s the flash of the passing game that seems to snare most of the headlines and eyes.

Quarterbacks who can put up the most passing yards in the flashiest of fashions garner the most plaudits and internet hits.

Take for instance last week’s SEC Media Days in which Arkansas returning starting quarterback K.J. Jefferson, a rising junior, who led the Razorbacks to a 9-4 season last year as a first-starter — the school’s best record in a decade — was relegated to also-run status by the media as maybe fifth, sixth, or seventh-best quarterback in the SEC.

That’s better than a year ago when one pundit tabbed Jefferson as the worst quarterback in the league going into the season.

Of course, that prognostication fueled Jefferson last year, and no doubt the slight of being ranked so low in the league pecking order will be put to good use by him as motivation again this season.

But football is still football.

As pass happy as it has become, the game still can be won down and dirty in the trenches, and the old truism that the team that can run and stop the run has the best chance of winning is still as valid philosophy as ever.

Last season Arkansas head coach Sam Pittman’s Hogs proved they could run the football with aplomb in offensive coordinator Kendall Briles’ offense, and Razorback fans should expect nothing different this season.

Jefferson, who completed 67 percent of his passes for 2,676 yards and 21 touchdowns, also was the Razorbacks’ leading rusher with 664 net yards for an average of 4.5 yards per carry.

2022-23 Arkansas Razorbacks Football Schedule

Sept. 3 — Cincinnati, 2:30 p.m. (ESPN)
Sept. 10 — South Carolina, 11 a.m. (ESPN)
Sept. 17 — Missouri State, 6 p.m. (ESPN+)
Sept. 24 — vs. Texas A&M
Oct. 1 — Alabama
Oct. 8 — at Mississippi State
Oct. 15 — at BYU
Oct. 29 — at Auburn
Nov. 5 — Liberty
Nov. 12 — LSU
Nov. 19 — Ole Miss
Nov. 25 — at Missouri

Those numbers don’t tell the whole story of how effective a runner Jefferson was from the quarterback spot. His net total includes the losses he took in the passing game for being sacked (174 yards). He was rarely stopped behind the line of scrimmage of a pure rushing attempt.

Jefferson is a weapon running the ball; however, he’s not the only Hog who can push the pile. Junior Dominique Johnson (6-1, 228) rose to become Pittman’s favored ballcarrier because of his power and lean.

The big man from Crowley, Texas averaged 5.9 yards per tote and totaled 575 yards and 7 touchdowns on 97 carries. He missed spring practice recovering from an injury, but he is expected to be a big part of the Hogs’ rushing efforts this season.

As is sophomore Raheim “Rocket” Sanders (6-2, 221), who came to Arkansas as a receiver from Rockledge, Fla. but converted to tailback in the spring of his freshman year. Sanders rushed for 578 yards and 5 touchdowns on 114 carries for a 5.1 average per carry.

Sanders is a bit more shifty than Johnson, and has great hands. He will be a target out of the backfield in the passing game, but he proved as a freshman that he can be a physical runner as well.

AJ Green (5-11, 202) showed flashes last year with gains of 227 yards and a touchdown on 47 carries. He’s probably the quickest of the Hogs’ running backs, and with a year under his belt, the Tulsa product should be a stronger runner than last year.

Though he is just a freshman, Rashod Dubinion (5-10, 189) of Ellenwood, Ga. had a solid spring straight out of high school. After a summer in the weight room, it will be interesting to see how he progresses in fall camp.

With that much talent populating the Hogs’ backfield, preseason camp should be highly competitive on the Hill. Sanders looked more comfortable at running back in spring, but no doubt a healthy Johnson and a hungry Green will push him. Dubinion showed that he could be a factor, too.

It will be interesting to see how the playing time in parceled out. I’m guessing the Hogs won’t have one bell cow to lean on, but will work all four to keep the rotation fresh, and then attempt to pound opponents in the second half with a fresh back in the game all times. Honestly, we’ll just have to see what develops in season, but the Razorbacks have talented options.

Jefferson won’t be the only quarterback involved in the the running game, though. Sophomore signal caller/receiver Malik Hornsby (6-2, 190) is too fleet of foot not to get some carries in some form or fashion this year. Hornsby averaged 5.7 yards per carry on 24 rushes with a touchdown last year. Those numbers should go up this season.

Expect Briles to deploy Hornsby in any number of ways this fall to put the ball into his hands in space and let the fastest of all current Razorbacks fly.

With a veteran offensive line leading the way, things are stacking up for the Razorbacks to have a very potent running game this season. Opponents will have to stack the box in order to slow the Hogs down.

That should open things up in the passing game, and it could lead to some long runs, too.

The trouble with stacking the box with safeties against a running tea with the talent of the Razorbacks is if the offensive line fits it just right, and the back pops free to the second level.

Then it’s a race to the goal line, like Barry Foster against Miami in 1988, Fred Talley against LSU in 2002, and Darren McFadden against nearly everyone in 2006 and 2007.

With the type of talent the Hogs have in the backfield this year, I think we may see several long sprints to the end zone this season.