Arkansas football, at its high and low historical points, has had extended periods where its identity was in crisis.
Smashmouth, option-heavy attacks were chic when Frank Broyles, followed by Lou Holtz and Ken Hatfield, deployed that approach. When the program transitioned to the SEC in the early 1990s, grinding between the tackles and then pitching to the edges wasn’t going to work anymore.
Houston Nutt complicated the modernization of Arkansas offense by spending all but a fraction of his decade-long tenure calling his own plays. Nutt, to his credit, didn’t mind jazzing up the attack when the personnel allowed, but he was too staid even when he had weapons.
Accordingly, Jeff Long’s hiring of Bobby Petrino, followed less than five years later by his retention of Bret Bielema, only frustrated whatever alleged process might’ve existed. We needn’t address the two-year vacuum known as the Chad Morris era.
If anything, though, Arkansas tailbacks over the years served as the linchpin even in down years. Regardless of philosophy, Arkansas football coaches historically find salvation in a backfield weapon. The hope for 2021 is that a Florida product, Raheim Sanders, might emerge as an incoming sensation.
With a nickname like “Rocket,” he arrives with flair and swagger aplenty. But the presence of Trelon Smith and a couple of other incoming competitors means that he’ll have to validate it on the field.
Rocket Sanders’ Position Change Bodes Well
Sanders earned four-star (according to some services, high three-star in others) status that trended upward before and after he signed with the Arkansas football program. At Rockledge High School, east of Orlando, he had developed into one of the nation’s top athletes, rushing for 317 yards and four touchdowns while making 24 catches for 391 yards (16.3 ypc) with four touchdowns.
Sanders enrolled early and at 6’2″ and, at a chiseled 225-plus pounds, bears similarities to Treylon Burks in stature and agility.
Trouble is, Burks sits atop a fairly crowded field of potential receiving options. Hence, the Razorback staff directed him straight into the running back room.
We commonly view young players changing positions cynically. But Sanders had jack-of-all-trades value at Rockledge High in South Florida. In his junior year, he might’ve taken off as a linebacking prospect after posting six sacks.
His ball instincts clearly must’ve been too good to neglect, though. As a senior, Rocket Sanders ran for an eye-popping 16 yards per carry, with his totes limited because of his impact as a wideout.
His modest production stemmed from the limited eight-game slate and the team’s run-oriented offense. The speed and shiftiness proved useful in special teams play too: Sanders returned only four kicks all year, but accounted for a whopping 237 yards, including a 94-yard score.
Arkansas needs that kind of electricity paired with size. Smith’s an indisputably hard runner who can and will be a workhorse, but he’s of a slight build comparatively.
Sanders is anything but slight. And that nickname? He possesses track speed, as you can clearly see below. But his shiftiness and cutting ability are perhaps more useful assets in a Kendal Briles offense.
There are Arkansas Football Rocket Boosters, too
Sanders seems to have loads of untapped on-field potential. If he can’t seem to synthesize it, Javion Hunt, Josh Oglesby, and AJ Green seem like they’re prepared to get some usage.
All these touted prospects have incredible speed, but lack Sanders’ raw muscle. TJ Hammonds’ sixth year portends to be his best, as he’s healthier and more mature, and he seemed to give the offense spark late last year.
Sanders’ sheer heft may win out, though. He outweighs all other backs on the roster save for sophomore Dominique Johnson, who clocks in at 235. And Johnson shows promise as well, to be sure.
The ideal Sanders fit, in terms of role, would be the 2005 Felix Jones. While Darren McFadden commanded more touches for obvious reasons, Jones became equally indispensable.
A well-regarded and well-rounded Oklahoma product, Jones frankly rates as the coup of Houston Nutt’s recruiting history. In-state products like McFadden, Cedric Cobbs, Matt Jones, and Shawn Andrews stayed here partially out of brand loyalty.
Jones, however, committed during a fairly uncertain period for the program. He also couldn’t be stopped when he got the ball in his hands.
Felix Jones averaged 6.3 yards on only 99 carries across an 11-game slate. He caught eight passes for another 100 yards, but shined much more in the return game with a 100-yard score and nearly 32 yards per return.
That outlandish special teams performance made Jones an All-American in several publications. He kept that up with three more returns for scores the next two seasons.
Trelon Smith has been quick to praise Sanders in practices. “I feel like Rocket is a quick learner. Big guy, very strong, fast, Smith said. “I really believe Rocket will have a great future here once it’s his time.”
If his time as a supplemental star is this fall, that could be the kind of “X” factor that helps Arkansas get the six needed wins for a bowl appearance.
Rocket Sanders: Ready for Launch
Jones’ proficiency as a returner probably cannot be replicated, particularly in this era. Kickoffs now rank among the more watered-down events in a college game.
Plus, Sanders will see few chances in that department if De’Vion Warren is healthy. The senior receiver’s return from his debilitating injury against Florida is a big storyline this fall.
With Warren among several players vying for the No. 2 receiver role, Sanders thankfully is settled in the backfield for now. He does, however, stand a chance to get more looks as a receiving option than Jones did in 2005.
That leaves the run game production. This offensive line, long deemed a trouble spot, boasts experience and modestly improved depth. Smith’s due to get 25 to 30 touches per game but Briles loves to spread the wealth.
K.J. Jefferson’s growth depends greatly on the effectiveness of the ground game. And if Rocket takes off, the Arkansas offense will simply get all the more explosive.
More from Trelon Smith in a recent press conference on Rocket Sanders and the rest of the Arkansas running backs:
“Rocket is a guy who when he was in high school, they pretty much just gave him the ball and he made plays. He’s great with the ball in his hands, but he needs to understand all the ins and outs of being a running back. He played receiver so much. He’s a sponge. He’s learning. But he has a little more learning to do.”
AJ [Green], I think he played running back for a long time, so he understands it so it makes a little more sense to him when you give it to him. He’s got a calmness about himself for being a freshman. You’ll find that he’s just always calm. Nothing rattles him.”
“Javion Hunt, oh man, he keeps his nose down. He just works. He doesn’t really say much. He’s really a quiet guy. But he’s just going to work and try to prove what he can do on the field. He’s going be a real good back as well.”
“When his number is called, I feel like Javion will be ready to step up to the plate and perform. All three of them, overall, I’d say man, these guys are going to be some great football players. I believe that.”
“I feel like it is rare for a young guy (to be this calm),” Smith said. “Just to see it coming out of AJ Green, man, that’ll let you know that this Arkansas team has a great future ahead of them with Rocket and Javion as well. Since AJ Green came in, he’s just worked and worked hard.”
“He’s been picking up on plays very well and I feel like he’s getting a handle on things very quickly and I’m surprised about that. I actually like that about AJ Green, that he comes in and works. He knows what he’s here for and he knows what he wants to do. If he can play this year, that’s what he’s going to try to do. AJ Green has been busting his tail on and off the field every day.”
Josh Oglesby also offered up his thoughts on the trio of freshmen running backs.
“From my perspective, all three are workhorses,” Oglesby said. “They work hard and a lot of freshmen don’t come in with that mentality. In the running back room, we’re a hard-nosed room and all those guys work hard. AJ is kind of similar to me, a fast guy, quick guy, makes quick cuts.”
“He sees the hole very well. Rocket sees the hole very well, made great cuts. Javion, also. They all bring different things to the table and they’re all doing what they need to do and they’re coming along very well.”
Analysis of Arkansas Football’s First Preseason Scrimmage
After Saturday’s scrimmage: