As Arkansas suddenly morphed from doormat to darling in 2021, Treylon Burks played the superstar role to the hilt.
The Warren product capitalized on the hype rather than shying from it. His Arkansas tenure began with a torturous year under Chad Morris, catching plenty of balls but none for scores.
Sam Pittman’s arrival heralded Burks’ anticipated ascent to stardom, and he delivered. Two years of highlight-reel grabs like these symbolized the program’s rapid rebirth.
When Burks streaked across the field and blew past a hapless Missouri defensive back last November, Arkansas football fans likely knew it would be the last they’d see of No. 16 streaking away for six (and happily, I caught a decent clip on my own):
The buzz after his 1,100-plus yards and dozen total touchdowns was simply too loud. He opted out of the Outback Bowl and then, in April, became the Razorbacks’ highest-drafted wide receiver ever.
That Outback Bowl presaged a 2022 without Burks and Kendal Briles showed no reservations about renovating the offense on the fly. KJ Jefferson threw only 19 passes in the game; meanwhile, he amassed a career-high 110 rushing yards — the first UA quarterback to hit the century mark since Matt Jones in 2004 — as the team racked up 353 yards on the ground.
Burks’ playmaking may be gone, but Briles deployed a variety of weapons in small doses again to open the year. Jefferson, ever the model of efficiency, completed 18 of 26 targets and had three touchdown passes.
But the 31-24 win over Cincinnati evoked the Penn State win eight months prior, as Briles again leaned on the running game harder and harder. Thanks to Rocket Sanders’ record-breaking 117-yard effort, more dashes by Jefferson, further development of AJ Green and the revelation that is Rashod Dubinion, the Hogs again beat a Midwestern foe doing what those teams traditionally do best: maul the opponent.
Jefferson Hopes to Lead Throwback Steamrolling of Carolina…
Any conversation about the Hogs’ best backfields usually pivots around the 2005-07 trio of Darren McFadden, Felix Jones and Peyton Hillis. You’ll not hear any token argument here about its standing.
There’s no question that South Carolina fans remember them, too. The Gamecocks coming to Reynolds Razorback Stadium Saturday were preschoolers when McFadden’s SEC-record 321 yards spearheaded a wild Saturday night win in November 2007.
Arkansas doesn’t employ the same offense, even remotely, 15 years later. But Briles, owing in part to Burks’ defection, now has the pleasure of shifting the play balance more toward the run.
As he did in the bowl game, Briles took full advantage of Jefferson’s rare combination of brawn and elusiveness against Cincinnati. The junior quarterback’s rushing output (62 yards on 18 carries) took a dent in the second half on back-to-back sacks, and a fumble he frankly didn’t deserve.
Yet he still notched eight runs of 6 yards or more, including four of at least 10 yards. And since he is most assuredly not a Casey Dick type of QB, Jefferson keeps defenses honest with those quick feet.
Jefferson’s composure matters most, though. He’s amassed 851 career rushing yards despite college rules deducting lost yardage from sacks. And while he likely won’t threaten Matt Jones’ program rushing record for a QB (2,535 yards), he’s every bit as capable of a long one, and less apt to a mistake.
Trey Knox, the most immediate beneficiary of Burks’ absence in the passing game (6 catches for 75 yards and two touchdowns), recognizes the leadership on display.
“He knows how to handle himself and handle the whole offense,” Knox said. “I know what he’s thinking, and I know if he pulls the ball that he’s going to run right behind me.”
…With Tailbacks Upon Tailbacks Behind Him
Jefferson’s 664 rushing yards led the team in 2021. Considering that Arkansas ranked top 10 nationally in total rushing yardage and per game average, the balance of last year’s squad was commendable.
Two of the three running backs with 500-plus yards also are back, and Sanders’ explosiveness and Dominique Johnson’s knee woes have made the former a default starter. Johnson sat against Cincinnati, but could return to action against the Gamecocks.
Sanders’ capabilities no longer seem in question, as he posted his second career 100-yard game in the opener. Johnson, however, promises to leech a few carries away here and there, as he rang up seven scores and six yards per rush as a sophomore.
It’s a loaded running back room, as anticipated. And now, there’s Rashod Dubinion, the Georgia product who seems to have nudged past last year’s hyped backfield recruits a bit.
Dubinion’s three touches against the Bearcats yielded two big highlights. He showed vision and elusiveness that pairs well with the more forceful style of his backfield mates.
AJ Green’s impactful moments as a freshman cannot be forgotten, either. He had three carries for 18 yards Saturday, and still boasts one of those “shining moment” reels from the charmed 2021 campaign:
Any of these four backs might be a full-time workhorse anywhere else. Here, Pittman and Briles have them charged with being ready at any given instant.
Can Committee Approach Elevate Hogs?
Arkansas’ legacy of great tailbacks notwithstanding, the Hogs haven’t had a 1,000-yard rusher in Pittman’s first two years. It’s highly possibly they will not in 2022, either.
But will that matter? Sanders, Johnson and Jefferson each have 100-yard rushing games under their belts. Dubinion’s explosive nature makes it likely that he will, too, in a game where he finds a crease.
Arkansas could, accordingly, repeat in leading Power 5 conferences in rushing in 2022. In the opener, Briles ended up calling nearly twice as many run plays (KJ did take off on a couple of scrambles), even with Johnson sidelined and Jefferson taking some withering hits.
Notably, Malik Hornsby saw little action, too. As he did against Texas and Penn State last year, he’ll bring occasional big-play potential.
There have been pointed, and fair, criticisms about the narrow victory over the Bearcats. The secondary took some obvious abuse, and Jefferson’s still sorting out chemistry with a new-look receiving corps.
Neither of those things should be an impediment against South Carolina, though, if the Hogs keep penalties down and stay ahead of the chains.
With Johnson returning, and others emerging too, the ground game is primed to outstrip last year’s squad. Through the decades, nine Razorback teams have surpassed 3,000 rushing yards, and last year’s bunch settled in at No. 10 with 2,961 yards. Briles assuredly has that number targeted, and with this arsenal, taking down that 2007 squad’s program record (3,725) doesn’t seem absurd at all.
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