FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. — Bret Bielema has never gone a season as a head coach — with the Wisconsin Badgers or Arkansas Razorbacks — without at least one running back reaching the 1,000-yard mark.
Last year, then-sophomore Rawleigh Williams III led the SEC in regular-season rushing yardage and looked like he would enter his junior season as one of the better backs in the SEC. Then, a second scary neck injury inside two years forced him into early retirement.
Now, it’s Devwah Whaley’s backfield. If any Arkansas running back is going to continue Bielema’s 1,000-yard tradition, the odds are in Whaley’s favor.
“I went from having one of the more experienced groups on the team to now having one of the least experienced groups on the team,” running backs coach Reggie Mitchell told SEC Country.
“I think the guys we have here are talented. It’s just a matter of them being able to mature and play in SEC-level games.”
Today, we continue SEC Country’s look at every position — and every player — on the 2017 Arkansas football roster. We will examine a different position group each day until the start of fall camp.
We began the series on Wednesday, July 19 with quarterbacks. Here’s a look at Arkansas’ running backs and fullbacks:
1. Devwah Whaley — sophomore
Glance: Whaley was one of the most highly touted running backs nationally in the 2016 recruiting class. The Beaumont, Texas, native signed with the Hogs over offers from the likes of Alabama, Georgia, Nebraska, Notre Dame, Oklahoma, Stanford, Tennessee, Texas and Texas A&M.
He carried the ball 110 times for 602 yards and 3 touchdowns as a true freshman in 2016, serving as the Hogs’ No. 2 back. The biggest problem that prevented him from playing more early in his freshman season was that he struggled in pass blocking.
Now, he steps into the spotlight as Arkansas’ clearcut No. 1 running back entering 2017. He certainly showed flashes of his immense talent last season, but the Hogs will need more than flashes from Whaley if they are to make a serious leap forward in the brutal SEC West.
What Mitchell says: “The culture of the running backs here at the University of Arkansas is such that when a guy comes into that room, they understand their responsibility to the program, as far as being a leader and being mature and those types of things. I think Devwah is gonna take it and run with it. … When he got here, you could see that he was a very talented guy. Some of his runs last year, he would stick his foot in the ground and you could just see what was gonna be there.”
2. David Williams — senior
Glance: Arkansas added David Williams — a graduate transfer from South Carolina — this summer to help add some experience and depth to the running back room following Rawleigh Williams’ retirement. A former 4-star prospect, David Williams rushed for 794 yards and 5 touchdowns over three seasons at South Carolina.
He never quite developed into the star, No. 1 back South Carolina expected him to be, but his experience and talent should make him a nice one-year addition to the Hogs’ running back room.
It will be interesting to see if David Williams becomes the Hogs’ No. 2 back behind Whaley or if one of the true freshmen overtakes him, but I’ll leave him at No. 2 for now because of his experience.
What Bielema says: “It’s really a marriage made in heaven and a great addition to campus. … I knew I wanted somebody with a little bit more maturity in the room. That presented an opportunity to talk to David.”
3. Maleek Williams — freshman
Glance: Maleek Williams enrolled early and went through spring practices — a fact that, in hindsight, following Rawleigh Williams’ injury, seems like a real blessing for the Hogs. He made a big impression on his new coaches and teammates during the spring semester and his particular set of skills could earn him some early playing time. He is a big, bruising back who also has deceptive speed.
What Mitchell says: “When Maleek came in, he was 233 pounds. He was overweight. The thing for Maleek is that he had a high-ankle sprain his senior year, so he didn’t practice. He just played in games. So, one of the things that probably dropped off for him was just a little bit of the work ethic and things like that, but once he got here and got in [strength coach Ben Herbert’s] program, he bought in to losing weight and getting his body right. Now, he’s about 216.
“Even though Maleek is 216 pounds, he probably plays like he’s 230 pounds.”
4. Chase Hayden — freshman
Glance: Hayden is a very talented dual-threat running back who was a 4-star prospect out of Collierville, Tenn. His father, Aaron, played running back at Tennessee and in the NFL.
Hayden was one of the Razorbacks’ top-rated 2017 signees and is certainly talented enough to force his way into playing time as a true freshman. But he is likely to begin fall camp behind the experienced David Williams and fellow true freshman Maleek Williams, who enrolled early and went through spring ball. That’s not to say he can’t make a quick jump up the depth chart. He certainly could.
Hayden has never been the type to rely purely on his athletic ability, so don’t be surprised if he is earning playing time right out of the gate.
What Mitchell says: “Just looking at Chase from high school film, he’s gonna be a change-of-pace guy. I think he’s gonna be physical enough. … I need to see him here, but I think he’s tough enough to be a guy that’s on third down, but he’s a guy who can make you miss and do all those other things.”
5. T.J. Hammonds — sophomore
Glance: Hammonds is only listed here because the possibility remains that he could see some action in the backfield. A former 4-star prospect from Little Rock, Hammonds moved to slot receiver during the spring.
He is an extremely talented player and probably should have redshirted last season. His biggest impact in 2017 will probably come at receiver, but don’t be surprised if he gets some carries out of the backfield, too.
What Mitchell says: “He’s a slot receiver, but he has tremendous ability. He’s an explosive guy with the ball in his hands. We’ll find some ways to get him the ball, whether that’s in the backfield or at slot receiver. … He did running back for a year, so now it’s just a matter of him learning how to play receiver. He can always go back to playing running back.”
6a. Connor McPherson — senior
6b. Justice Hobbs — RS freshman
Joint glance: A lot would have to happen for these two walk-ons to receive much playing time in 2017. McPherson’s only game action of his career so far came in a rout of Alcorn State last October.
McPherson is from The Woodlands, Texas, and scored 18 touchdowns during his career at College Park High School. Hobbs — from Farmington, Arkansas — redshirted last season. He had a successful career at Farmington High School, rushing for 1,538 yards and 20 touchdowns as a senior.
1. Kendrick Jackson — junior
Glance: Jackson appeared in all 13 games last season with 2 starts. He played linebacker as a freshman before switching to offense last season and seemed to lock down the first-team fullback job — for now, at least — with an impressive 2017 spring.
What Mitchell says: “Last year, he started off at linebacker and we moved him. He has improved 100 percent. He’s a physical guy. He’s an athletic guy. He has great ball skills. He’s what you want in a fullback. He’s an SEC fullback.”
2. Hayden Johnson — sophomore
Glance: Johnson started 7 games last season after a strong fall camp performance made him one of the most impressive true freshmen entering 2016. Aside from an early October arrest, Johnson had a nice freshman season.
Johnson is expected to also play some tight end as a sophomore.
What Mitchell says: “Hayden Johnson is a smart guy and that’s why you can play him in multiple positions. … Hayden has changed his body a little bit. He went from playing at Rock Bridge in Columbia [Missouri] to going against Auburn. What prepares you for that? Now, he’s more physical because he’s stronger. His improvement from where he was at the end of the game against Virginia Tech to now is night and day.”