FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. — When they aren’t at practice or watching film, you can often find true freshmen running backs T.J. Hammonds and Devwah Whaley holed up in their dorm room with their faces in the playbook.
“We’re always in the playbook,” Hammonds said.
The roommates sometimes study separately, but Hammonds and Whaley are also regularly sitting together to go over the Arkansas offense, which they both hope to impact in 2016.
In each of Bret Bielema’s previous 10 seasons as a head coach — both at Wisconsin and Arkansas — he’s always had at least one 1,000-yard rusher. Those names have included the likes of Montee Ball, James White, P.J. Hill, Alex Collins and Jonathan Williams.
With Collins and Williams both beginning their NFL careers, one of the largest questions looming over the 2016 Razorbacks comes down to two words: Who’s next?
It could be Rawleigh Williams III, who showed flashes of his talent as a true freshman last season before suffering a frightening neck injury Oct. 24 vs. Auburn. He’s fully recovered and cleared to play.
Or it could be sixth-year senior Kody Walker, who missed a chunk of spring football because of yet another injury — this time a broken foot that needed surgery — but he is also back and fully cleared.
Quarterback-turned-receiver-turned-running back Damon “Duwop” Mitchell, a junior, is also in the mix.
And then there are the freshmen.
Hammonds and Whaley were each four-star prospects out of high school and considered top-250 recruits nationally.
Whaley, from Beaumont, Texas, chose the Hogs over offers from teams like Alabama, Georgia, Notre Dame, Oklahoma and Texas. His size (5-foot-11, 216 pounds) and speed combination make him a rare talent.
“He has the ability to be physical and run a guy over, then he can make a big play with his speed,” said Arkansas running backs coach Reggie Mitchell. “It’s not very often you get to work with a guy like that.”
But Hammonds also has generated some buzz in the early days of the Hogs’ fall camp. It was unclear at first whether he would play running back or receiver at Arkansas — and he still could end up as a wideout — but coaches have decided to start the 5-foot-10, 197-pound talent in the backfield.
“I tell you what,” Mitchell said, “T.J. has great feet. He can stick his foot in the ground and get north and south really quick. He’s got great change of direction. Great ball skills. He’s athletic.
“I think from that standpoint, he’s a little different from any of the guys that we have. I think that his acceleration is probably different than the other guys that we have.”
At this point, Mitchell said, Walker and Williams have a leg up in the running back battle just because of their experience. But Walker’s injury history and style of play — he’s big (6-foot-2, 240 pounds) and good for picking up a tough couple of yards — make him an unlikely candidate as an every-down back.
Arkansas has completed three fall camp practices so far, with the fourth coming Monday afternoon. During the periods of practice that have been open to the media thus far, Williams has taken most of the first-team snaps. But while he’s just as competitive as anyone and wants to be the main guy, he said several backs could have a role in 2016.
“There’s definitely a lot of talent,” Williams said. “Those young guys can play. Duwop can play. He’s come into the running back room and made us a better group.
“I think we can all come out and do big things this year.”