On a national scale, Arkansas high school football has always hit above its weight. And for nearly a century, the state’s best punch has been its running backs. Consider that in 1925, Pine Bluff High churned out 8,588 yards, a single-season national record that lasted for 73 years. More than eight thousand of those yards were on the ground.
In more recent decades, individuals have also stood out. In 1964, Parade magazine selected running back Bobby Kinkaid of Little Rock Hall to its All-American team. Eleven of the following 30 Arkansans selected to the same team were running backs. Who’s next? Try Razorback commit Braylen Russell, a Hot Springs phenom would is already on par with Darren McFadden and Jerry Eckwood in terms of high school production after a spectacular sophomore season.
We don’t know if Russell will continue to put up good enough numbers to stamp himself as an all-time great. But, for consideration, we do know who he’s competing with:
Wynne, ℅ 2002
5-10, 217 lbs
In 2001, rushed for 2,204 yards and 34 touchdowns, averaging 10.4 yards per carry;
In 2000, rushed for 1,044 yards and 14 TDs
DeAngelo Williams had great shiftiness and resilience. He bounced back from a severe injury when a foot injury cost him most of his sophomore season. By the time of his senior season playoffs, though, he had never been better, racking up 939 yards and 14 touchdown in four games while helping deliver a title.
In 2002, Williams chose nearby Memphis over the likes of Arkansas and Ole Miss. He left four years later with 6,026 rushing yards, fourth all-time in NCAA history. Williams put together the most successful NFL rushing career of any graduate of an Arkansas high school. In his first few seasons, he joined Jim Brown as the only NFL players to average at least 5 yards per carry on 1,000 career attempts.
|DeAngelo Williams NFL highlights and awards|
|Pro Bowl (2009) Second-team All-Pro (2008)2× NFL rushing touchdowns leader (2008, 2015)|
|Career NFL statistics|
[Pulaski Oak Grove, ℅ 2005]
[6-2, 210 lbs]
[In 2003, rushed for 2,027 yards and 19 touchdowns, averaging 9.9 yards per carry]
[In prep career, rushed for 4,871 yards and 59 TDs, averaging 9.8 ypc]
If only college production is considered, McFadden is hands down the greatest running back in Arkansas history. By now, the accolades are nearly lore: two-time Heisman Trophy runner-up, two-time Doak Walker Award winner and one of only two SEC running backs to run for at least 1,000 yards in each of his first three college seasons.
Nearly one third of McFadden’s school-record 1,830 rushing yards during his junior season came after initial contact. He never stopped showing the same desire to punish he’d flashed as a hard-hitting safety at Pulaski Oak Grove. His senior team lost 31-7 to Alma in the quarterfinals of the Class 4A state playoffs.
Injuries hampered him in the pros, but making it a decade in the NFL as a running back is an accomplishment in an of itself.
|Darren McFadden NFL statistics|
[Conway, ℅ 2004]
[In 2003, rushed for 2,631 yards and 29 touchdowns, averaging 10.1 yards per carry]
On offense, Peyton Hillis had a more dominant prep career than McFadden. As a junior, the fullback racked up 1,427 yards and 17 touchdowns, averaging 6.4 yards a carry. Then, a senior season that included nine runs of at least 55 yards and a run to the state 5A semifinals, where Conway lost 28-27 to West Memphis.
In college, Hillis took a backseat to McFadden and Felix Jones in terms of rush attempts. Although his contributions didn’t headline the box scores, they were no less important: 52 knockdown blocks in 2007, for instance, paved the way for a school-record 3,725 rushing yards.
His turn in the pros was relatively short-lived but glorious, featuring a spot on the cover of a Madden NFL video game.
Peyton Hillis NFL statistics
[LR Christian, ℅ 2009]
[5-9, 215 lbs]
[In 2007, ran for 2,710 yards and 28 TDs, averaging 9.7 yards per carry]
[In career, ran for 8,097 yards and 84 TDs, averaging 8.4 ypc]
The numbers speak for themselves. Dyer finished his high school career No. 1 in career rushing yards in the Arkansas Activities Association record book. His sophomore season still ranks sixth among best seasons in state history. That year, LR Christian lost 27-6 to Greenwood in the 5A state finals.
At Auburn, Dyer rushed for 1,093 yards on 182 carries and five touchdowns, breaking the Auburn record for most rushing yards by a freshman, previously held by Bo Jackson. He also took home the MVP award in the national title game. It was a lot of rough waters after that, with Dyer suspended for an Auburn bowl game and revelations that he smoked synthetic marijuana in college. He ended up transferring to Arkansas State and Louisville, and then like Tyler Wilson had a cup of coffee in the pros with the Oakland Raiders.
His success in the pros came as part of the Champions Indoor League.
Michael Dyer in indoor football
- First Team CIF Southern Conference (2017)
- Second Team CIF Southern Conference (2017)
- All-CIF Team (2017)
- CIF Rookie of the Year (2017)
- CIF champion (2017)
[Osceola, ℅ 1998]
[6-0, 219 pounds]
[In 1997, ran for 2,227 yards and 38 TDs]
[In career, ran for 6,714 yards and 88 TDs, averaging 9.2 yards per carry]
Before Dyer, Adams was the most heralded running back in Arkansas State history. He led Osceola to three consecutive title games with his most gutty effort coming last. On a sore right ankle, he ran for 131 yards in a 28-27 win against McGehee for the 2A state title.
By winter 1997, many major programs including Alabama and Arkansas wanted Adams, then the state’s all-time leading rusher. But ASU was only an hour away from home. Adams averaged 4.5 yards per carry while tallying 17 touchdowns in four seasons. His 3,005 career rushing yards is fourth-most in ASU history.
Decades later, his son briefly ranked with Treylon Burks as the most spectacular receiver in the natural state:
[Pine Bluff, ℅ 1991]
[6-0, 190 pounds]
[In 1990, ran for 1,596 yards and 28 TDs, averaging 7.6 yards per carry]
These days, the question of “What if?” seems to entangle so much of Shabazz’s legacy.
What if he could have played football immediately after high school instead of pursuing an ill-fated pro baseball career? What if, along that path, he hadn’t been been caught with a handgun and marijuana while visiting friends at UCA? It’s not our place to delve into these questions here. Instead, let’s focus on what Shabazz was: the greatest athlete in Arkansas prep history. And of the four sports he seemed to effortlessly dominate, it was football where his potential most tantalized.
After rushing for 782 yards as a junior, all the pieces came together during Shabazz’s senior year: the record-shattering track speed, the field awareness and the power. He returned kickoffs nine times, averaging 46 yards per touch while totaling three touchdowns that way. He saved his best for the 4A state final against Texarkana, which entered with a 13-0 record while allowing 4.2 points per game. The tailback rushed for 171 yards and five touchdowns on 20 carries, throwing in a 77-yard TD kickoff return for good measure. Wadie Moore, who covered prep sports for decades for the Arkansas Gazette, said Shabazz’s elusiveness made him the best running back he ever covered.
This has been Part 1 of a list of greatest Arkansas native running backs ever. Part 2 will publish soon. Don’t miss it. Sign up notifications of future stories by scrolling to the very bottom of this webpage and putting your email in the “Stay in Touch” sign up section.