FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. — Chase Hayden took the handoff and charged toward a hint of an opening in the offensive line.
When he reached the line of scrimmage, his lane was narrowing. A defender was closing in, poised to stop him for a short gain. Would-be tacklers were circling like vultures, and it appeared Hayden was out of options.
Until he created his own.
The true freshman bounced off an initial hit and cut a few yards to his left, avoiding a second defender. As Hayden glided outside toward the first-down marker, he hit another gear and burst down the sideline.
There was only one defender left for Hayden to beat — a cornerback with enough speed and the right angle to knock him out of bounds. But the newcomer wouldn’t be denied. He fought off the final defender and tiptoed along the sideline for the final steps of a 74-yard touchdown run against the first-team defense.
It was the sixth carry of his first scrimmage with the Razorbacks.
“I would say it’s instincts,” Hayden said. “You don’t really plan that going into the play. You’ve just got to kind of feel it.”
He’s been well prepared by his father, Aaron, a former running back who played at Tennessee in the 1990s and spent four seasons in the NFL with San Diego, Green Bay and Philadelphia.
“This is like a culmination of years and years of conversations and planning,” Aaron said. “My buddies that played in the NFL and played with me in college were always sharing stories and telling him what to expect. He’s been talking to college coaches and former pros for a long time.”
Andre Lott and Charlie Garner are two of the former pros who have mentored Chase, and he still frequently taps his father for advice. He talks with Aaron on the phone most nights, going over practices and what to expect going forward.
“My dad can tell me about the little things,” Chase said. “He’s been through the college process, he played in the SEC and then the NFL. Just the little things like preparing, working hard, doing extra stuff, studying the playbook. Those are the things he’s taught me.”
Aaron has also always made sure Chase is aware of a virtual football certainty — playmakers get playing time. Chase saw that approach work in high school and is attempting to do the same at the college level.
“I don’t think there’s a coach out there that won’t play somebody they think can make explosive big plays and help them win games,” Aaron said. “And I feel like that’s what he’s doing. I think he’s out to prove people wrong but do it the right way.”
Chase received scholarship offers from schools such as Florida, Michigan and Tennessee, but he felt like Arkansas placed a higher priority on securing his commitment. Some schools didn’t believe he could make an impact as a running back and instead recruited him to play slot receiver or cornerback because of his size (5-foot-10, 189 pounds). Other programs pushed too hard for his commitment right away and made him wonder if they had his best interest at heart.
Although Chase ranked among the top performers at Nike’s The Opening finals the summer before his senior season, he didn’t receive an invitation to the Under Armour or U.S. Army All-American games. This, despite racking up more than 7,000 yards and 92 touchdowns in high school.
“I always teach him to find different reasons to have a chip on his shoulder so that once you step between those lines, you’re angry,” Aaron said. “So, I think that plays a lot into why he’s so focused. And I think he does play with a chip on his shoulder.”
Aaron was listed at 6-foot, 216 pounds during his NFL days and prided himself on having a bruising running style. Similarly, Chase is determined to defy anyone who thinks someone his size should avoid contact. He intends to make an impact right away for the Razorbacks.
“Chase Hayden is a guy that belongs on the field,” Arkansas head coach Bret Bielema said. “He’s a guy that stands out.”
Such efforts aren’t typical for a true freshman. But those who know Hayden best aren’t surprised. He’s been rising to the occasion for years.
It started with AAU basketball. The Memphis native began playing when he was 8, and Aaron served as his coach for the Memphis War Eagles. The team regularly played in major tournaments, including three national championship game appearances that resulted in one title.
Chase wasn’t the tallest kid on the team. But what he lacked in height, he made up for in fearlessness as a two-way point guard. Before he made football his primary sport, he was seen as a potential top basketball recruit.
While playing in high school at St. George’s Independent School, a small private school in Collierville, Tenn., he was twice named Tennessee’s Division II-A Mr. Basketball. He averaged 24.4 points, 6.5 assists and 2.8 steals per game as a senior.
On the football field, he earned a starting spot on the high school varsity as an eighth-grader. Four years later, he led St. George’s to the Tennessee Division II-A state championship, rushing for 266 yards in the title game.
“One of my [AAU assistant coaches] called him ‘Bright Lights Bob’ and that was one of the things coaches always said about Chase growing up,” Aaron said. “When the lights are on, he tends to kind of step up his game, and he meets the challenge. He’s been doing that for a long time.”
Back in high school, Chase would pull a sled twice a week after practice to work on his speed. He ran hills on Saturdays, even during football season after playing the previous night. On Sundays, he would do sprint work with a track coach to improve his acceleration — then head to the gym for a basketball workout.
“Chase Hayden is a guy that belongs on the field. He’s a guy that stands out.” — Arkansas head coach Bret Bielema
Until now, that sort of commitment also made him an outlier. Not many of his peers had the same vision and focus on improvement.
Chase said that isn’t the case at Arkansas. When he first arrived at school in early June, he admits he felt a little homesick. Those feelings were alleviated as he bonded with similarly motivated teammates. He’s become fast friends with fellow freshmen such as wide receiver Koilan Jackson and defensive backs Chevin Calloway and Kamren Curl.
“He’s having a ball up there,” Aaron said. “He came home for a weekend and he was ready to go back after one day. He was like, ‘Dad, you know I love y’all, but I’ve kind of gotten used to being at Arkansas.’ We knew Arkansas was the fit for him because of Coach [Bielema’s] personality. But I think it’s important he’s also found a fit socially as well.”
There is little doubt Hayden will fit with the Razorbacks on the playing field. When he gets his first carry against Florida A&M on Aug. 31, don’t look away too soon. He might just make something out of nothing.
“To me, the definition of a great running back is when you can make something out of nothing,” Bielema said. “When it breaks down, what are they going to do? Chase has the ability to make something out of nothing in a hurry.”