Fearsome threesome

UA running backs a reminder of previous stars

By: Tom Murphy
Published: Tuesday, August 26, 2014
Arkansas running backs (from left to right) Alex Collins, Jonathan Williams and Korliss Marshall pose during the Razorbacks' media day on Sunday, Aug. 10, 2014 in Fayetteville.
Photo by Michael Woods
Arkansas running backs (from left to right) Alex Collins, Jonathan Williams and Korliss Marshall pose during the Razorbacks' media day on Sunday, Aug. 10, 2014 in Fayetteville.

FAYETTEVILLE -- Darren McFadden, Felix Jones and Peyton Hillis set the statistical bar so high with their performances at running back in the mid 2000s that it is difficult to imagine anyone bettering them.


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But seven seasons after McFadden, Jones and Hillis moved on to the NFL, the Razorbacks are unleashing another big three when they open the 2014 season at Auburn.

Running backs glance

RETURNING STARTER Jonathan Williams

LOSSES Kiero Small

WHO’S BACK Alex Collins, Korliss Marshall, Kody Walker, Denzel Evans, Patrick Arinze

WHO’S NEW Juan Day, Tyler Colquitt

WALK-ONS Chris Jones, Connor McPherson, Kohl Slaughter

ANALYSIS Arkansas could sport one of the best running back combinations in the country if Collins, Marshall and Williams remain healthy. The backs should also increase their production as pass catchers this season. The coaching staff did not see the kind of thumper lead-blocking fullback, like Kiero Small, they wanted in camp. Combo back Kody Walker is the top option there.

Junior Jonathan Williams and sophomore Alex Collins combined for 1,926 rushing yards and eight touchdowns last year, and the late-season emergence of homegrown speedster Korliss Marshall has the Hogs thinking this bunch could be something special.

"They're all very talented," Arkansas Coach Bret Bielema said. "I tell you what, every one of them knows about the other guy, too, so that tends to make each one of them that much more focused."

Williams, who started all 12 games last year, rushed for 900 yards and averaged 6.0 yards per carry, while Collins ran for 1,026 yards and averaged 5.4 yards per carry.

Marshall, who began last season as a safety, carried 17 times during the final eight games, but averaged 8.6 yards per run.

If all three stay healthy, they'll likely receive plenty of touches in Arkansas' power-run offense, but they have their work cut out to equal the exploits of the last decade's stars.

"They're the standard, those three guys -- Jones, Hillis and McFadden," Arkansas running backs coach Joel Thomas said. "That's what we're trying to match and surpass.

"That's the goal. That's why I came to Arkansas to coach in the SEC. It wasn't to be worse than them or the same. We want to get better than that trio right there."

Said Collins, "We push each other because we're not satisfied just for being great. We want to be the best. That's what we're striving for."

McFadden was a two-time Heisman Trophy runner-up and holds school records for rushing yards in a career (4, 590), season (1,830 in 2007) and a game (321 against South Carolina in 2007). Jones finished with 2,956 career rushing yards, fifth on the Arkansas list, and Hillis finished with 2,627 yards of total offense and 23 touchdowns.

Williams said it's an honor to be compared to players like McFadden, Jones and and Hillis.

"Those guys accomplished a whole lot in their time at the University of Arkansas and they're still accomplishing a lot," said Williams, a 6-0, 225-pounder from Allen, Texas. "They're a unique group and we're trying to set our own trends, trying to have our own name."

Collins hit campus last year from Fort Lauderdale, Fla., hyped last summer as perhaps the top signee in Bielema's first signing class. He rushed for 100-plus yards in his first three games, the first freshman to do it since Oklahoma's Adrian Peterson in 2004.

Marshall, of Osceola, had been committed to Central Arkansas before his eligibility issues firmed up, and tight ends coach Barry Lunney Jr. was insistent that the Razorbacks make a pitch for the versatile skill athlete.

Marshall, 6-0, 205 pounds, didn't hit the field until Arkansas' fifth game last season, but his ability to take toss plays and fire around the edge was immediately evident. He had an 87-yard kickoff return to set up a touchdown against Auburn and added long touchdown runs in the spring and fall camp.

"He's been known to burn a lot of people on our own team," Razorbacks quarterback Brandon Allen said. "He's one of those freaks of nature that when you think he's at top speed, he's got another gear he just kicks it in."

Marshall said he's feeling faster now than he did last year, and motivated to bump his production way up from the 146 rushing yards he gained in 2013.

"I use that to motivate myself every day, because a lot of people are not looking for me," Marshall said. "I plan to shock the world this year."

Williams, who came onto the scene as a freshman with two long receiving touchdowns in a 49-7 rout of Kentucky in 2012, suffered a mild hamstring injury in Arkansas' first scrimmage, allowing for the two sophomores to split up a heftier portion of reps in practice for a couple of weeks.

Collins picked up roughly 12 pounds to reach 218 pounds for camp. Bielema said the coaching staff's tape study showed Collins left as many as 300 yards "on the field" last year.

"There's some things where he felt comfortable getting to the line of scrimmage and bouncing stuff, whereas some of the scheme might have been directed more downhill," Thomas said. "That's been a point of emphasis this camp, and the extra reps helped him with that."

All three of the backs have slightly different skill sets.

"I would say Alex is the vision/cut guy like I've never seen," Marshall said. "I've never seen anyone with vision like he has.

"And Jonathan is just strong, man. I have never seen anyone run with the intensity and power that he ran with. I'm just basically the speed guy, north-south."

Williams had a catch against Texas A&M on which he broke a couple of tackles and pulled off a spin move to score a 19-yard touchdown. The catch and run was so inspiring that Thomas called it one of his all-time favorite runs, one he'd keep with him wherever he goes to teach players about desire.

"People ask me what kind of runner is he? He runs like a grown man out there," Thomas said. "To me, that effort ... and the enthusiasm that kind of run creates with the crowd, that's what I want our room to be recognized as."

Thomas said having three high-profile tailbacks is a great problem to work through.

"As you go through the history of running backs, you're three plays away from playing a fourth-string guy," he said. "I had a situation where I had to play a backup tight end at running back, so it's not a tough situation at all."

Sports on 08/26/2014

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