FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. — No player in recent memory has evoked so much animus from Arkansas fans toward Arkansas coaches as T.J. Hammonds.
A man who has 40 career carries and 350 career yards is the most talked-about offensive player on the Razorbacks roster. Hammonds, a Little Rock native, carries the distinction of being a local product, thereby ensuring a large individual fan base by default. Throw in his occasionally dynamic on-field production, combine it with a disapproval of all things Bret Bielema and it made complete sense why the clamor for Hammonds reached a fever pitch in 2017.
He’s due a fresh start in 2018. Part of it is a shame, too. Feels like it’s coming later than it should for Hammonds, who, in a perfect world, would have redshirted his freshman year. Instead, new Arkansas coach Chad Morris gets the playmaker without a position for just two whole years. Or, if you prefer, Hammonds is the playmaker with multiple-positions.
Right now, Hammonds is a running back. For the final few games of last season, he was Arkansas’ best running back. Devwah Whaley wasn’t producing. David Williams was standard. Chase Hayden was hurt. Maleek Williams was redshirting. The opportunity was ripe to get Hammonds loaded up on experience.
Bielema declined. Instead, the man who ultimately ran for more than 8 yards per carry saw 18 of his 32 rushes come against Ole Miss and Coastal Carolina. Bielema didn’t use him much at all in the final three games of the season. Hammonds logged 3 carries, 3 carries and 1 carry in the final quarter of the Razorbacks season.
The question is not only whether Hammonds will stay at running back full time, but where he fits in the pecking order. He brings an element to the backfield neither Whaley or Maleek Williams bring. Those two are more power backs than fleet ones. Hayden is somewhat similar, but Hammonds’ sleeker build differentiates him there a bit, too (Hammonds’ perception is more as a speedster, while Hayden’s is more as shifty). It’s hard to imagine Arkansas running backs splitting carries close to equally among three running backs again in 2018, especially when it worked out so poorly in 2017.
Hammonds need not win the job outright, though. Backup tailbacks in this day and age get run, as the saying goes. They get playing time. Consider, too, Hammonds has long been labeled as a “potential Percy Harvin,” and the opportunities begin to flower. Morris is far more likely to run exotic packages centered around a dynamic perimeter-best skill player than Bielema was. Under the former coach, Hammonds did thrive (in two games, anyway), but it was usually as a traditional running back. So much more seems to linger under the surface, yet untapped potential.
That’s why he is our choice for Arkansas’ breakout player to watch in 2018 at running back. Hammonds won’t just be there, not if he’s finally used to maximum ability. He will be lined up at various places on the field, a consistent threat to get the ball and break the game open. Hammonds may not — probably won’t — be an every-down player, at least, not an every-down back, but he is far too talented and brings so many alternate skills than anyone else on the roster, Morris and offensive coordinator Joe Craddock will have to find a place for him.