FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. — Bret Bielema has coached two 1,000-yard, true freshman running backs during his 10 seasons as a head coach: James White at Wisconsin in 2010 and Alex Collins at Arkansas in 2013.
White and Collins went on to spectacular careers, but Bielema thinks true freshman Devwah Whaley might have greater potential.
It’s a refrain Bielema has repeated during the last few months at fan events, booster gatherings, his trip through the ESPN “Car Wash” and at news conferences.
“Off of high school film and learning a kid through the process, I was as high on Devwah as I’ve been on any running back I’ve had in my tenure,” Bielema said. “That is a lot of good players, but I think he’s fitting that mold pretty well.”
Whaley — a 4-star prospect from Beaumont, Texas — made a big statement during his first game-like opportunity inside Donald W. Reynolds Razorback Stadium. At last weekend’s scrimmage, he carried the ball 13 times for 95 yards.
On one of those carries, he broke free of a few first-team Arkansas defenders, then plowed through another one at the goal line for a tough 11-yard touchdown.
But performing that way in a scrimmage is one thing. Can a true freshman running back really be a star — or even a leading rusher — in the SEC?
Recent history says yes.
Two years ago, Georgia’s Nick Chubb and LSU’s Leonard Fournette each rushed for more than 1,000 yards as true freshmen.
Todd Gurley rushed for 1,385 yards and 17 touchdowns as a Georgia true freshman in 2012. That same year, Alabama true freshman T.J. Yeldon eclipsed 1,000 yards while sharing carries with Eddie Lacy.
In 2010, Marcus Lattimore (South Carolina) and Michael Dyer (Auburn) were each true freshman 1,000-yard rushers.
Arkansas’ Collins rushed for 1,026 yards during his true freshman season in 2013. In 2005, Darren McFadden recorded 1,113 rushing yards and 11 touchdowns during his first year in Fayetteville.
Bielema said consistency is a common trait among successful true freshman running backs.
“Devwah’s demeanor, I mean, nothing really rattles him,” Bielema said. “He can have the greatest play in the world, and he’s gonna come back and have the same look on his face as if he had a bust that cost a sack.”
Standout freshman running backs often share backfield carries.
Wisconsin had two other star running backs when White rushed for 1,052 yards and 14 touchdowns in 2010. Montee Ball rushed for 996 yards and 18 scores that year. John Clay added 1,012 yards and 14 touchdowns.
Collins had Jonathan Williams (900 yards) in 2013. In 2005, McFadden shared carries with true freshman Felix Jones, who had 626 rushing yards and 3 scores.
Whaley is paired with sophomore Rawleigh Williams III. Williams had a nice scrimmage last weekend and is considered a potential 1,000-yard back, too.
“If he’s not one of the better backs in the SEC, I’d be surprised,” Bielema said of Williams.
In each of Bielema’s 10 seasons as a head coach, he’s had a 1,000-yard rusher. He’s had two players reach that milestone in the same season twice. In many other seasons, Bielema’s second-leading rusher gained at least 700 yards.
“It’s the way we recruit,” Bielema said. “I think a lot of guys that we compete against in the recruiting world talk about, ‘Yeah, you’re gonna be the man. You’re gonna be the guy.’
“We talk about the men in our room. It’s a two- or three-headed monster. I’ve never had success when it’s just one of them.”