By Otis Kirk
FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas has a talented stable of running backs which has been assembled by Jimmy Smith and the staff.
Arkansas led the Power 5 schools in rushing last season when they totaled 2,961 yards. Smith had three running backs go for over 500 yards on the ground last fall including Rocket Sanders (578) and Dominique Johnson (575) who are back this season. Smith, who coaches the group, talked about how, in a perfect world, he would like to see carries distributed since he also has AJ Green and Rashod Dubinion set to get reps this season. Green rushed for 227 yards last season and Dubinion is a true freshman.
“The funny thing about it is what you try to do is get the best out of every guy and you go from there,” Smith said. “I think this year, Rocket, because of how he’s playing right now, he probably should get more carries. If I had to do it right now, he probably would get more carries. It wouldn’t be him getting 50 percent then him getting 50 percent. It wouldn’t be 25, 25, 25, 25. It would be him getting a little more right now. But as the season goes on you never know what happens. Other guys look really good. Whoever is doing the best, that’s who will play. I tell my guys all the time, you don’t get a starting job for a season, you get it for a week. Earn your job for that week. If you earn it for that week and you’re the best person out there, On Monday you have to do it again. It’s not like you can say ‘next week I got the start so I’m going to start this week.’ So, it’s important to continue getting better and better.”
Johnson is still mending from an injury suffered last season. Smith talked about how he keeps him involved in the gameplan even though he’s not practicing right now. Sam Pittman also said Johnson may not be available for the season opener on Sept. 3.
“Yeah, I talk to him every day about it,” Smith said. “I give him responsibilities for our room, I give him responsibilities and tell him what they’re supposed to do for each other. It’s a family, a great group of guys. They take care of each other. He’s always having fun and coaching the guys. He’s in good spirits right now, he knows what I expect of him and he does it.”
The four set to get reps in games along with another true freshman, James Jointer, are here for this season, but could also all return for 2023. That is also a factor in why Arkansas will only sign one running back in this class. They have Naples (Fla.) four-star Isaiah Augustave committed for the Class of 2023.
“It’s a good feeling to have your guys, to know you have time to get him to his best,” Smith said. “I tell my guys all the time ‘Don’t be good, be great.’ So they strive to be great. The longer they can play, the better they’re going to get.”
Smith talked about how beneficial it is to have all but Trelon Smith back from last season and of course next season all the backs currently on campus will be eligible to return.
“It makes it easier, because what happens is at the beginning you teach them what to do” Smith said. “You teach them how to do it, and when they know how to do it, you teach small details. The better they get, the more they know when they come out there, the better they get at the next level up. The smallest details, guys can get it because now you’re not teaching them what to do anymore. Everybody knows what to do. Film session looks totally different now. Instead of watching film on strips and telling them what to do, we go over details like ‘OK, you need to get your hand on the inside, your eyes are in the wrong place.’ It’s more details. So when the games start, you feel relaxed as a coach. No matter what they throw at you, you’re like ‘OK, we’re going to be alright.’ Last year, I was like ‘I hope they don’t do this, because I don’t know if he knows it that well.’ Now it’s like ‘it doesn’t matter, we’re ready for it, we’re going to be alright.'”
Of course in 2022 it’s a transfer world and just as Trelon Smith transferred following last season, it could happen with some of the current running backs. Jimmy Smith talked about how he keeps his group happy.
“It is simple communication, man,” Smith said. “It won’t stop it from happening, but it will make you feel okay if it does happen. As a coach, I am real open with my guys. I tell them all the time that ‘I will not lie to you. You can ask me anything.’ I tell the guys where they are at. I tell them where they are at. I tell them what I need from them. If I don’t think you are good enough to be in the room and you need help to go somewhere else, I will help you. Whatever you need. Same thing with the classroom.
“I want them to sleep at night. I am always with those guys. I am going to go over everything they do. I have a sheet that tells you what your goals are, what my expectations are, my priorities. If it is now happening, how do we fix it, can we fix it and go from there.”
Sanders came to Arkansas at midterm, 2021, with many projecting him as a wide receiver or even safety. After two springs and a full season at running back he talked about how he’s now better.
“With me, I feel like coming in and picking up from last year, definitely coming in from spring and now, it’s just reading it more and being patient,” Smith said. “Just waiting on the snap. I feel like that’s a big thing that I’ve been working on this year to help me find a better hole than what it was last year.”
Green talked about leading all Power 5 schools in rushing in 2021 and how that was an accomplishment as a team.
“I would say it shows we have weapons we have on the field,” Green said. “Like KJ (Jefferson) being our leading rusher. And Trelon last year, Dominique, Rocket, me I mean it just shows that we have weapons to us altogether on offense.”
Jefferson rushed for 664 yards from the quarterback position. Sanders talked about the threat of Jefferson also to run making it easier on the running backs.
“Definitely as a running back,” Sanders said. “Just in general, with any team we play, they have to worry about both of us when it comes down to the run game. So it helps us on our running and it helps KJ, as well, on his faking.”
Arkansas will hit the practice fields on Sunday afternoon as they continue to prepare for the season opener against Cincinnati on Saturday, Sept. 3.