Heading into this season, most fans and analysts expected Hogs tailback Rakeem Boyd to have a great senior year. And why not? Boyd had already proven he was on track to be an All-SEC performer by finishing second in the SEC in yards per game in 2019 and toting the ball 15.3 times a game, good for fifth in the conference. He even talked about surpassing his mentor, Darren McFadden, to notch the greatest single season in program history.
Not everybody drank the Kool Aid, however.
Clark Brooks, who runs SEC Stat Cat, wrote that Boyd had a lot of red flags in his 2019 performance.
Pointing to advanced stats, he said Boyd was a lot less effective at breaking tackles than many believed: “Last year, Boyd delivered a mediocre Explosive Run Rate and Yards/Carry on a middling yards before contact clip versus SEC defenses, which matched his Expected Points Added within the conference.”
“His 39.2% Success Rate was a few points below the conference mean,” Brooks wrote. “With the ante upped in 2020, I’m bearish Boyd can improve in those spots especially with a bottom 4 Broken Tackle Rate among returning SEC backs.”
So far in 2020, Brooks’ assessment of Boyd has been depressingly accurate.
The would-be centerpiece of Arkansas’ offense is having his worst season as a Razorback so far.
Boyd has one 100-yard rushing game so far and is averaging only 3.8 yards per carry — less than 65% of what he was producing last season. With a long of 16 yards all year, it seems most of his explosiveness has fizzed.
No doubt, a slow recovery from a lower leg injury suffered in the season opener against Georgia is one culprit here. And some of the blame falls at the feet of an offensive line that is too often overmatched in the trenches against SEC foes.
As longtime Arkansas sportswriter Jim Harris puts it, “Arkansas has just a couple of problems that keep the offense from looking like the third quarter [against Tennessee] on a consistent basis: Its lack of talent at guard and at tackle. It’s talent, not coaching, when you’ve got this coaching staff but those four guys can’t figure out a basic twist stunt.”
Boyd did have a great run touchdown against Florida, in which he flashed his elite elusiveness of old, but for the most part he’s just not getting it done to the level expected of him. Fortunately, this year he has more help than ever before, not just from Feleipe Franks’ great quarterback play and Treylon Burks’ rise to regular Best Player on the Field status.
Here’s where Clark Brooks doesn’t look like such a Nostradamus in his 2020 season preview. His prediction that “Boyd won’t cede many carries to his backups barring injury or a sporadic breakout performance” doesn’t look so great considering what junior Trelon Smith has done.
Smith, Boyd’s top backup, has clearly been the more effective back so far this year, racking up 441 yards with an average of 5.7 yards a carry. Against Florida, he went for a career-high 118 yards including this 83-yard beauty:
“Smitty ran so hard,” interim coach Barry Odom said afterward “Our offensive line, they kept battling in there. I was hearing on the headsets them making adjustments, coach (Brad) Davis making adjustments with coach (Kendal) Briles on some things run-game wise and it kept working. You know 22 is a great competitor. He runs so hard and so tough and we can win games with this team. We’ve done it and we’re going to continue to do it.”
Clint Stoerner, the former Razorback quarterback turned SEC analyst, had already seen enough from Smith before the Florida game to get in his corner.
“Trelon Smith needs to be the featured back and whatever the workload is right now… you need to flip their roles and let Trelon Smith get the start and most of the carries, and then sprinkle Boyd in there,” he said on radio.
Speaking on the Buzz 103.7 FM, Stoerner laid out a couple of reasons for putting Smith ahead of Boyd:
While the Razorbacks have already put together a few near-complete games on defenses, they haven’t yet come close to playing near max potential on offense for a full game.
The most obvious example of that was against Tennessee, when Arkansas detonated for 24 points in the third quarter but went scoreless the rest of the game.
Given that Smith consistently produces more yards per carry than Boyd, it seems clear that the offense could stay on the field more if he went back to carrying the ball 14+ times a game, like he did earlier in the season.
Only this time he would have a healthier Boyd by his side. While Boyd didn’t produce the overall number of yards against Tennessee and Florida that Smith did, he did have standout performance in terms of yards after contact.
Against Tennessee, nearly three-quarters of Boyd’s 65 rushing yards came after contact (47 yards, 72.3%), compared to less than half of Smith’s 72 yards coming after contact (33 yards, 45.8%), according to Pro Football Focus.
Against Florida, only 21 of Trelon Smith’s 118 rushing yards came after contact, which is 17.8 percent. By comparison, Rakeem Boyd picked up 37 of his 56 yards after contact – or 66.1 percent. Smith, however, is closer to 60% when taking away the 83-yard run.
Still, it’s clear Smith usually hits the hole a lot faster than Boyd, which plays into Stoerner’s next reason.
Clint Stoerner said Smith simply has more giddy up in his go these days.
“Rakeem Boyd has the burst, the top end speed, the toughness. And he probably does have some good vision, but for whatever reason, Trelon Smith right now is seeing things. It looks like it’s really, really hard for Boyd to just break free, get any kind of open field and gain any momentum, get any speed built up. And it looks like Trelon Smith does it every time he’s been there.”
Stoerner likened Boyd, at this specific juncture in his career, to playing more like Knile Davis from the Bobby Petrino era. Davis was a prolific back, but more of a straight-line, track runner who could rely on effective offensive linemen to open up holes and create the room needed to get to top speed.
This year, Smith is hitting holes with a north-south velocity that Boyd hasn’t yet shown. To hammer home his point about the importance of vision, Stoerner told a story about his former Dallas Cowboys’ teammate Emmitt Smith, the leading rusher in NFL history.
“I got with the Cowboys in the first mini camp, or maybe it was training camp, and I’m sitting behind the huddle and they break the huddle and they run a little zone play. [Smith] puts his foot in the ground and gets north and south. And I’m thinking, ‘Damn, he’s fixing to run up the backside of Larry Allen.’ And I’ll be danged if when he got there he saw the crease that I didn’t see.”
“He saw it early and he hit that sucker. It wasn’t open a split second. He hit it. And went and got five or six yards, that is 100% vision. Now there’s patience, there’s a burst. All that kind of stuff is involved in there. But the one thing that I think that Trelon Smith could possibly have that Rakeem Boyd doesn’t, is elite vision.”
Smith has shown he deserves more carries than Boyd, but Boyd could emerge from his struggles at any time with one of this 60+ yard haymakers to win the hearts of Hog fans all over again.
A few weeks ago, Boyd was asked about Smith and their chemistry together. He said: “When y’all say Darren McFadden and Felix Jones… that’s kind of us,” Boyd said. “That 1-2 punch has been awesome, and it’s been giving teams problems. I can’t complain. I like him. Trelon’s a good back.”
Here, Trelon talks about his love for the game and relationship with Boyd:
And the latest from Sam Pittman: