Ready or not, it is almost time for Arkansas football once again — kind of. Spring ball is set to begin March 9, which marks the unofficial start to Year 4 of the Sam Pittman era.
To help get you acquainted with the 2023 squad, Best of Arkansas Sports will preview the team position-by-position. We’ll take a look at the biggest questions, key players and newcomers that will define the Razorbacks’ upcoming season.
Our series continues with a deep dive on the running backs…
Biggest Question Facing Arkansas Football at RB
Are there enough reps to go around behind Rocket Sanders?
The Razorbacks return one of the best running backs in the country in Rocket Sanders, who proved he can handle a pretty hefty workload in 2022. That is great news, but it creates quite the conundrum for head coach Sam Pittman, new offensive coordinator Dan Enos and running backs coach Jimmy Walker.
Running back just so happens to be arguably the deepest position on the 2023 Arkansas football roster. Including Sanders, four of the Razorbacks’ five scholarship running backs were four-star recruits in the 247Sports Composite. The lone outlier is Dominique Johnson, who spent the back half of the 2021 season atop the depth chart.
Needless to say, with Isaiah Augustave essentially replacing James Jointer Jr. and Javion Hunt, Arkansas has five legitimate SEC running backs — not to mention one of the best running quarterbacks in the country — with only one ball to go around. That will make for quite a challenge to sort out this spring.
Last season, Sanders got 17.1 carries per game and accounted for 56.8% of the Razorbacks’ total running back carries. AJ Green and Rashod Dubinion averaged 6.7 and 5.5 carries, respectively, while Johnson was limited to 8 total carries because he was slow returning from a torn ACL and then re-injured it after only a few games back.
That injury will keep Johnson out of spring ball for a second straight year, so we probably won’t get complete clarity on the running back rep distribution in these 15 practices, plus things will probably continue to evolve in fall camp, but they will at least get the process started.
Do the Razorbacks want to ride Sanders as heavily as Enos did Alex Collins in 2015 (20.8 carries/game, 63.5% total RB carries)? Can Green or Dubinion make a jump and emerge as a true 1a option instead of No. 2 back? How quickly can Augustave grasp the offense and adjust to things like pass protection? Is it possible for Johnson to get back to his pre-injury level of play or will he end up being a situational back?
These are all questions Enos must answer that essentially boil down to how reps will be split up amongst the talented group of running backs.
The Star: Rocket Sanders
Much like at quarterback, where KJ Jefferson is back as a fifth-year senior, Arkansas has the luxury of having a proven superstar at running back in Rocket Sanders. In fact, Pro Football Focus tabbed him as the No. 3 returning player at the position for 2023, behind only Michigan’s Blake Corum and Ole Miss’ Quinshon Judkins.
That’s not much of a stretch, either. Sanders was a first-team All-SEC selection after finishing second in the league — and 13th nationally — with 1,443 yards. He also had 10 touchdowns and did it all on just 222 carries. That gave him an impressive 6.5-yard average, which was the eighth-best mark among 39 FBS running backs who reached 1,000 yards.
Well into the season, Sanders was putting up numbers comparable to only Darren McFadden in school history. However, he fell off pace with back-to-back tough games against Liberty and LSU when the Razorbacks didn’t have much of a passing threat thanks to an injury to Jefferson. Missouri also limited him in the regular-season finale and then he got hurt early in the Liberty Bowl. Even with those games, Sanders’ rushing total still ranked fourth on the UA single-season list.
If he simply replicates his numbers in 2023, Sanders would jump from 18th to fourth on the school’s career list, behind only McFadden, Alex Collins and Ben Cowins. However, if he adds just 240 more yards — or less than 20 per game, including the bowl — Sanders would rank second on both the career and single-season lists, behind McFadden.
Newcomer to Watch: Isaiah Augustave
When he committed to the Razorbacks, Isaiah Augustave was a relatively unknown three-star recruit. However, not long after his June 7 pledge last summer, he shot up the rankings.
Ranked as the No. 42 running back in the nation by the 247Sports Composite, he ended the cycle at No. 21 in the position rankings and with a four-star rating. For those who have followed Arkansas football recruiting through the years know how rare it is for a player to make that big of a jump *after* committing to the Razorbacks.
If that wasn’t enough to tell you how talented Augustave is, consider the fact that Sam Pittman had legitimate concerns that Arkansas would be able to hang on to him after Jimmy Smith got on him early.
“When (Smith) gives an evaluation, it’s darn good, and we hit the jackpot on this one, too,” Pittman said. “You can tell a lot about a kid when he stays loyal to you, too, and there was everybody coming in there. … When a lot of people start beating down your door and you’re going, ‘No, no, no, no, no,’ that’s a pretty special kid.”
As for what he specifically brings to the table, Pittman described him as both a “slicer” and a “slasher” who has a physical running style. Listed at 6-foot-2 on signing day, Augustave is the same height as Rocket Sanders, so he’ll be a bigger back, too — especially when he gets into an SEC weight program.
In a normal year, a player of Augustave’s caliber would almost certainly have made our list of the top five most impactful freshmen, but the aforementioned depth at the position makes it difficult to project just how much he’ll play in 2023. That said, he has the talent to contribute immediately, either because of injuries or outright surpassing those ahead of him on the depth chart.
Arkansas Football 2023 Projected Depth Chart
1. Rocket Sanders — junior
2. Rashod Dubinion — sophomore
3. AJ Green — junior
4. Isaiah Augustave — freshman
5. Dominique Johnson — redshirt junior
6. *Emmanuel Crawford — freshman
Behind Rocket Sanders in the top spot, you could almost draw names out of a hat and make a case for why that is what the running back depth chart will look like in 2023.
We actually predicted Rashod Dubinion would surpass AJ Green as the backup last season and even though that never quite came to fruition, the pair weren’t too far apart. With another year under Dubinion’s belt, we think that will happen this season.
Then the question becomes whether or not Isaiah Augustave can also jump Green. It’s entirely possible, but Green has the experience edge and has shown some glimpses of why he was so highly regarded coming out of high school.
That leaves Dominique Johnson at the bottom of the depth chart, which could be dangerous on our part. He’s already proven the doubters wrong once by climbing into the No. 1 spot during Arkansas’ fantastic 2021 season that ended with a top-25 ranking. Although he was very good that year, Johnson will be coming back from tearing his ACL twice, so there’s no guarantee he’ll be the same player as he was before getting hurt.
2023 Arkansas Football Spring Preview Series
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