Sneakily Quiet Fix Helped Hogs’ Rushers Set Bowl Game Record, But Greater Things in Store for 2023

AJ Green, Rocket Sanders, Arkansas football, Arkansas fall camp
photo credit: Nick Wenger

In the era of NIL and the transfer portal, what Arkansas football has managed to do with its running back room has grown increasingly rare.

The Razorbacks have seen a couple of reserves leave the program in recent years, but have otherwise kept the core of the position in place.

Rocket Sanders is back as a preseason first-team All-SEC selection, but so are former four-star recruits AJ Green and Rashod Dubinion after splitting the backup duties last year. Arkansas will also add Dominique Johnson – who ended the 2021 season as the starter – back to the mix, while also working in four-star freshman Isaiah Augustave.

“We all know if we wanted to go somewhere else, we could play,” Green said. “But why do that when we have the best players right here that’s going to push us to our potential? … And we’re brothers. We don’t hate on each other like, ‘He’s getting this many carries,’ this and that. We’re just pushing each other to be the best we can.”

Green pointed to running backs coach Jimmy Smith as a key factor in keeping everyone happy despite there being too many mouths to feed with only one football.

Not only has he avoided any public discontent with major departures, but Smith has managed to keep things running smoothly behind the scenes, as well.

“A good coach keeps his players out of my office,” Arkansas football coach Sam Pittman said. “Jimmy does a great job. They respect him. Obviously we haven’t gone in the portal there, so that means two things to me: We’re recruiting really well there, and, two, there’s no conflicts in there. There could be, because you’ve got some good players in there.”

Of course, there are still decisions to be made when it comes to who plays and how many snaps each running back gets. With arguably the deepest position on the roster, that’s quite the challenge for Smith. It’s one he relishes.

“From the outside it looks difficult but for me it is fun,” Smith said. “I’ve got 1A, 1B, 1C, and I’ve got Dominique and Isaiah on the way. It ain’t difficult for me. It’s fun.”

Whether you say it’s ‘difficult’ or ‘fun,’ there will be a starter and that’s likely to be Sanders, who ran for 1,443 yards and 10 touchdowns last season. The biggest question is who will emerge as the No. 2 running back.

Distributing Arkansas’ Reps at RB

Don’t expect a 1-5 pecking order on the depth chart, though. Going into each game this season, Smith said he’ll have a set rotation for the first two running backs. Beyond that, there’s no set plan.

“The first two guys know when they’re getting in,” Smith said. “They know who’s going to start, who’s coming in second and when they’re coming in. After that, it’s more of a feel.”

Smith made sure to point out that none of those roles are set in stone for the season – even at the top. While neither of them had quite the success as Sanders did in 2022, both Rakeem Boyd and Trelon Smith entered the 2020 and 2021 seasons, respectively, as clear starters, only to lose their jobs midway through the year.

Boyd was surpassed by Smith and then Smith was surpassed by Dominique Johnson. Johnson also didn’t maintain his starting role the following year, but it was because of injury, as he tore his ACL.

“They know it could be Tuesday and you have a horrible practice, you better have a good one on Wednesday,” Jimmy Smith said. “That’s what pushes Rocket so hard is because he learned when he first got here that there’s a starter for a week. There’s not a starter for a season, there’s a starter for a week. Everybody’s got to earn their keep every week.”

Stat Correction Further Illustrates RB Depth

The Razorbacks got a taste of life without Rocket Sanders in the Liberty Bowl when he went down with an injury early in the game. They didn’t skip a beat, rushing for UA bowl-record 396 yards.

Quarterback KJ Jefferson led the way with 130 rushing yards, but Rashod Dubinion ran for 112 and AJ Green added another 101.

“We were in two-back personnel and we only had two backs,” Jimmy Smith said. “We still stayed in it because we trust those guys so much.”

The latter of those running backs was originally credited with “only” 99 yards, but a correction made after Dec. 28 gave Arkansas an extra two rushing yards – both of which were credited to Green.

Two yards doesn’t seem like much, but it gave Green his first career 100-yard game and was the difference in Arkansas achieving a relatively rare feat.

It was just the seventh time in school history that three players hit the century mark on the ground in the same game and first since 2007, when Darren McFadden (138 yards), Felix Jones (132) and Brandon Barnett (105) did it against North Texas.

The last time Arkansas did it against a Power Five program was 2001, when Fred Talley (113), Matt Jones (110) and Cedric Cobbs (100) did it in the seven-overtime win at Ole Miss. The Razorbacks had never done it in a bowl game before.

Making it even more impressive is the fact that Arkansas accomplished it without their All-SEC running back, as Sanders was shut down after gaining 17 yards on three carries.

Meet the Running Backs for Arkansas Football

Rocket Sanders – Jr. | 6-2 | 242

The first thing you notice when looking at Rocket Sanders on the roster is the fact he weighs 242 pounds. That is 15 pounds heavier than his listed weight last season, but he still managed to gain speed over the offseason, as well.

It’s a little heavier than Arkansas probably wanted him, but Sam Pittman joked that he’d have to shed skin to get any lighter because he has no body fat remaining.

“It’s kind of surprising,” Jimmy Smith said. “Honestly, we had certain weights we wanted them to be at. His was 235. I talked to him and he said the only way to get to 235 is to lose muscle. We don’t want him to do that so he stayed where he was.”

Coming off a monster season, expectations for Sanders are through the roof. If he simply replicates last year’s rushing total, he’d rank fourth on the UA’s all-time list, behind only Darren McFadden, Alex Collins and Ben Cowins.

Despite that, Smith said he still practices as if he’s “eighth-string or something” and that he’s constantly trying to improve, which included becoming more vocal over the offseason.

“He’s not a talkative person, so it’s kind of hard for him at first, but now he’s doing it even more because the guys are looking to him for it,” Smith said. “He’s taking on that role.”

AJ Green – Jr. | 5-11 | 205

Considering Rocket Sanders was originally projected to be a wide receiver, AJ Green actually joined Arkansas football as the more heralded running back.

In two years, he’s shown glimpses of what made him a four-star recruit while racking up 641 yards and four touchdowns on 134 carries. However, he has lacked consistency.

Thankfully for the Razorbacks, Jimmy Smith said Green has made one of the biggest offseason jumps he’s seen and is expected to be more of an all-around back in 2023.

“He’s very fast and athletic, but now he is starting to trust himself and trust his speed,” Smith said. “He’s evolved into a college running back now. Before, I had to put him in special situations because I thought, ‘He might be able to do that, but he might not be able to do this.’ Now he trusts himself.”

Rashod Dubinion – Soph. | 5-10 | 216

There was quite a bit of talk last offseason about a stud freshman out of Georgia who could make some noise in his first year of college ball because of his ability to stop and cut on a dime.

It probably didn’t go as Rashod Dubinion had expected, but he still ran for 293 yards and five touchdowns on 71 carries. That could just be the start for the four-star recruit, who now has two summer weight programs under his belt.

“R-Dub had his best summer by far,” Pittman said. “He’s in shape. There’s a power of being in shape. It’s powerful. It fills (you with) a lot of confidence being in shape, and he’s in good shape.”

The key for Dubinion was simply learning that the weight room is important – something he didn’t believe in high school.

“Rashod is a football player,” Smith said. “He loves football, but when he first got here, the weight room was something he had to do, not something he wanted to do. As time went on, he started lifting weights and saw his body changing. Now he knows and he’s started enjoying the weight room.”

Dominique Johnson – R-Jr. | 6-1 | 252

Coming off a torn ACL in the Outback Bowl, Dominique Johnson didn’t return to the field until a few weeks into last season and then that return was cut short when he tore it again.

Although he’s been fully cleared by the doctors and training staff, Arkansas is working him back slowly. He isn’t doing much team stuff early in fall camp, but will gradually do more as the season gets closer. He is, however, doing all of the position drills.

Johnson stuck around through all of his personal adversity and gained the respect of his teammates in the process. He also benefited from it by keeping his mind sharp.

“He was doing a good job of when he wasn’t playing, he was staying involved,” Smith said. “I had him on the other field, kind of coaching the guys up and staying involved so he’d know what to do so when he did come back, he wouldn’t have any setback mentally. Gotta get his body going back like it was before, but he’s doing a great job of knowing exactly what I want him to do.”

The biggest question mark is how he’s doing physically. He was listed at 235 pounds when he had his breakout 2021 season, but is now up to 252 around which Johnson was last year. It’s due to muscle gain and not body fat, a fact that Smith noted when talking to reporters.

It remains to be seen if his other abilities will return to the level they were pre-injury.

“Dominique is a big back that doesn’t always run that way,” Smith said about Johnson’s skillset. “He’s kind of deceptive when he changes direction. He can stop and change direction really well for a big guy.”

Isaiah Augustave – Fr. | 6-2 | 208

When he committed to Arkansas football, Isaiah Augustave was still a relatively underrecruited back out of Florida. He evolved into a blue-chip prospect though, and stuck with the Razorbacks despite getting pursued by many big-name schools.

As a summer enrollee, Augustave is starting to pick things up. Pittman said he wasn’t sure how steep the learning curve will be, and that will likely go a long way in how much he plays as a true freshman.

It helps that Isaiah Augustave gained about eight pounds of muscle over the offseason and has a desire to learn, which has led quarterback KJ Jefferson to think he’ll help out this year.

“With Coach Enos being the offensive coordinator, I feel like we can scheme some things up to have Isaiah in the backfield with me,” Jefferson said. “Also, he’s in a great room. Those guys in there are coaching him up, teaching him.”

2023 Arkansas Football Position Previews

Tight End

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Check out running backs coach Jimmy Smith’s full interview during fall camp:

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