Tom Murphy is a reporter for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. A graduate of Louisiana Tech University, he is a member of the Football Writers Association of America, and voter for the Heisman Trophy and AP Top 25 football poll.
Arkansas backs see nice gains
Arkansas' Jonathan Williams drives downfield in the fourth quarter during their game Saturday, Nov. 9, 2013 at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium in Oxford, Miss.
FAYETTEVILLE - Joel Thomas has never overseen a running backs corps that he wouldn’t have liked to be deeper and stronger, but Arkansas’ second-year assistant coach was mostly all smiles when speaking of his crew Tuesday.
“It’s better, more well known than it was last year at this time,” Thomas said after the Razorbacks’ first workout following an 11-day hiatus for spring break. “Last year, I’m finding out about Jonathan [Williams]. I knew nothing about him.
“We were trying to find out who the guy was going to be last year, versus now, where we feel like we have four pretty solid running backs who are coming in.”
The Razorbacks are piling up players at the running back spots in their second year under Bret Bielema. Here is a look at the running backs roster:
PLAYER CLASS RUSH-YDS YPC TDS
Alex Collins So. 190-1026 5.4 4
Jonathan Williams Jr. 150-900 6.0 4
Korliss Marshall So. 7-146 8.6 0
Kody Walker Jr. 6-32 5.3 0
Denzell Evans RFr. 0-0 0.0 0
Patrick Arinze Sr. 0-0 0.0 0
Chris Jones RFr. 0-0 0.0 0
NOTE Walker, Arinze and Jones are fullbacks
Running the ball wasn’t a problem area during Arkansas’ 3-9 season, as the Razorbacks ranked third in the SEC with 208.7 rushing yards per game in 2013.
Alex Collins, the SEC freshman of the year who rushed for 1,026 yards, and Williams, the starter who ran for 900 yards, combined for a strong 1-2 punch at tailback, while Korliss Marshall provided a speed element on toss plays, averaging 8.6 yards on 17 carries for 146 yards.
Replacing hard-hitting fullback Kiero Small will be a challenge. The Razorbacks have moved big back Kody Walker to the spot to compete with walk-ons Patrick Arinze and Chris Jones.
Collins spent a week on suspension initiated by Coach Bret Bielema over the winter, and there was Internet talk during spring break that Collins was unhappy.
“You’ll have to ask him that,” Thomas said. “That’s the first I’ve heard of it.”
Collins, who was requested for interviews each of the first two weeks of spring practice, has not been made available to speak to the media.
Thomas said Collins made progress in Tuesday’s work.
“He had a good practice today,” Thomas said. “We have to take it all day by day and keep on feeding information and the guy - people forget he’s been on campus nine months. This is our time we get to execute our technique, where usually during the season it’s more of a scheme and a play-call deal to get him ready to play.”
Bielema said at the end of Arkansas’ first week of spring practice that Collins was doing some “very good” things.
“He’s very explosive and has some tremendous upside to him,” Bielema said at the time. “We made a consistent effort of him trying to, on certain plays, hit it up in there no matter what he sees. Just kind of hit it and get three yards, get four yards and be happy. He did a good job of that.
“I thought it was a good starting point.”
Williams has taken on more of a leader’s role during the spring.
“I kind of feel like I’m the veteran in that group, so whenever I see anybody messing up I’ll try to point them in the right direction,” Williams said.
Thomas has taken note of Williams’ progress.
“He’s separating himself,” Thomas said. “Playing the game today, he’s a one. He’s worked on the things, his deficiencies that we’ve identified during the course of last season, and it’s showing up on film right now.”
Marshall wavered between wanting to play safety or tailback last season after starting his freshman year as a reserve in the secondary.
“As of now, I’m starting to run every single play instead of just toss plays,” Marshall said. “You know they’re utilizing me in A gaps, B gaps, screen plays. I’m really all over the place right now, and I’m feeling pretty good about that.”
Marshall said he’s gained about 12 pounds up to 200 and hopes to start the fall weighing at least 215 pounds.
“I mean, you notice you’re not the fastest person in D-I football, so you can’t beat everybody with speed,” Marshall said. “So you’ve got to run inside a little bit. I’ve got to get away from that outside, because you get hit pretty hard out there.”
Marshall said the decision to stick at tailback came after a discussion with Bielema.
“Coach B was telling me I needed to be on the offensive side and they wanted me on the offensive side of the ball,” said Marshall, who also emerged as the Hogs’ top kickoff return man late last fall.
“He told me like a year or two down the road, maybe if I wanted to play safety, like I could help us in the long run.
“I’m going to think about that here in a minute, but I think I’m going to stick at running back.”
That is Thomas’ preference.
“It’s been a battle since the minute we really wanted to get him on board with us,” Thomas said. “I really like him as a running back. I think he’s really bought into playing the position. It’s been really cool.”
Sports, Pages 15 on 04/03/2014