FAYETTEVILLE — If the first two games of the season are any indication, Rocket Sanders has emerged from a deep stable of running backs as a true workhorse for Arkansas football.
Head coach Sam Pittman said multiple times throughout fall camp that the sophomore had established himself as the No. 1 guy, but exactly what that would look like remained a mystery — especially considering how the Razorbacks distributed carries the last two years.
Sanders has seemingly answered those questions, as he ran for 156 yards on 24 carries — both career highs — and found the end zone twice in Arkansas’ 44-30 win over South Carolina at Reynolds Razorback Stadium on Saturday.
That followed up a 117-yard performance on what was then a career-high 20 carries in last week’s win over No. 23 Cincinnati.
“He’s getting better, isn’t he?” Pittman said. “I think he’s becoming an all-around back a little bit more. He’s blocking better in protection, he’s running the ball, falling forward better.”
Prior to this season, an Arkansas running back had 20-plus carries just three times in 23 games — all by Trelon Smith. Only once have the Razorbacks ran someone more than Sanders’ 24 carries against South Carolina, with that being Smith’s 26 against Missouri in 2020.
Unlike Smith, who was listed at 5-foot-9, 190 pounds, Sanders is built to carry that kind of load. He bulked up this offseason, adding seven points to his 6-foot-2 frame, and is now listed at 227 pounds.
“Man, it’s good for me to not have to tackle him this time,” teammate and safety Simeon Blair said. “It’s good for somebody else to have tackle him. He definitely had a good game. You can see a lot of improvement from last year to this year. I feel like he’s more shifty. He’s very much in shape and he’s a load to tackle.”
A Dominant Performance vs South Carolina Football
South Carolina fans are probably sick of seeing Arkansas running backs wearing No. 5. He wasn’t quite as dominant as Darren McFadden — who ran for 187, 219 and 321 yards in three career games against the Gamecocks — but Rocket Sanders was still very good.
The sophomore was the first Arkansas player with 150-plus rushing yards and two touchdowns against an SEC team at home since Knile Davis did it against Ole Miss in 2010.
“He’s playing more confident now,” quarterback KJ Jefferson said. “His confidence is through the roof. He’s comfortable back there. He’s seeing signals faster, he’s getting lined up. Sometimes if I run, he gets to where he’s telling the O-line what to do, so he’s grasping this system.”
Had it not been for a penalty that erased a long run late in the third quarter, Sanders would have approached 200 yards against South Carolina.
That play was actually the only negative Pittman could think of from his performance. It looked like a breakaway touchdown, but Sanders clearly ran out of gas and was chased down at the 1-yard line.
“I thought he got tired after that long run down the sideline when Warren Thompson got the holding call,” Pittman said. “Other than that, I thought he played really, really well.”
Sanders admitted he was tired on that run, and he ended up adding only another five yards on three carries, but he told reporters that he felt he was handling the increased workload well.
“I feel good, actually,” Sanders said. “I take everything serious outside of football as well as in like treatment. I’m in there everyday, so I know what’s in front of me and I’ve just got to attack it.”
Making the outing even better for Sanders was the fact he also got involved in the passing game, catching three passes for 30 yards. Two of those receptions resulted in first downs.
On the first, Jefferson checked down to him in the flats and he took it 17 yards to get into South Carolina territory on Arkansas’ first possession of the game. The other came in the second quarter when he picked up 11 yards on a shovel pass.
Last season, Sanders averaged less than a reception per game, finishing with 11 catches for 109 yards. He’s already about half way there, with six catches for 42 yards through two games.
“He’s always had great hands,” Jefferson said. “When he first came in, he was kind of a receiver a little bit and then he went to running back, so we always knew that he had great hands. Just being able to just get him out wide, most defenses forget about the running back.”
Razorbacks Running Wild (Again)
It wasn’t just Rocket Sanders gashing the South Carolina defense. Quarterback KJ Jefferson did his thing, picking up 67 yards on 19 carries — which would have been 79 yards without a couple of sacks. AJ Green added 43 yards on nine carries, while Rashod Dubinion chipped in 15 on eight carries.
Each of them also scored touchdowns, with Dubinion’s being the first of his career. The five rushing touchdowns were the Razorbacks’ most since scoring five against Mississippi State in 2016.
Throw in contributions from wide receivers Matt Landers (6 yards on 1 attempt) and Jadon Haselwood (5 yards on 2 attempts), plus an 8-yard run by versatile weapon Malik Hornsby, and Arkansas would have finished with exactly 300 rushing yards had it not lost five on the final kneel down.
At 295 yards, it was still the Razorbacks’ fourth-best rushing output during the Sam Pittman era, behind only three games from last season — 353 against Penn State, 350 against Ole Miss and 333 against Texas.
That was the plan coming into Saturday’s matchup with South Carolina. Right tackle Dalton Wagner said the coaches called out both the offensive and defensive lines earlier in the week and said the game would be won in the trenches.
“The O-line took it really personally this week to make sure we could run the ball,” Wagner said. “Talked all week about spots because they were going to try to give us some exotic looks, run the safeties down and try to fit some runs a little weird. We were prepared for it.”
Winning at the Line of Scrimmage
A perfect example of that came on the first play of the fourth quarter. With the Razorbacks facing a third-and-goal from the 2 and trying to extend their 21-16 lead, they called on their big quarterback and he punch it in — something he failed to do on a fourth-and-1 on the previous possession when Pittman passed up an opportunity to push their lead to eight with a field goal.
“I’d already told them, ‘If we don’t make it here, I’m kicking a field goal. We’ll go up 8,’” Pittman said. “I was challenging (them). He said, ‘Don’t worry about it, call the extra point team on.’ And he did. He pretty much can take over the game when he wants to.”
Arkansas had one of the top rushing attacks in the country last season. In fact, its 227.8 rushing yards per game ranked seventh nationally and first among Power Five schools.
It might be even better this year. Through two games — against a top-25 opponent and an SEC foe — the Razorbacks have 519 yards on the ground. That means they’re on pace for 3,374 rushing yards in a 13-game season, which would rank fourth in school history behind the 2007 (3,725), 1975 (3,523) and 1989 (3,456) teams.
Arkansas is also trying to average more than 250 rushing yards per game for just the second time since joining the SEC in 1992, joining the Darren McFadden-Felix Jones-Peyton Hillis backfield that averaged 286.5 per game in 2007.
Sanders, Jefferson and the other running backs will play a big role in the Razorbacks’ efforts this season, but the offensive line — which, from left to right, features Luke Jones, Brady Latham, Ricky Stromberg, Beaux Limmer and Dalton Wagner, with Ty’Kieast Crawford rotating in — is also critical and it was excellent against the Gamecocks.
“It’s a line of scrimmage game in this league,” Pittman said. “It depends on if you want to make it that or not, and we do. We want to make it a line of scrimmage game. It feels good, to be honest with you.”
Check out highlights from Arkansas football’s win over South Carolina:
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