State of the Hogs: Williams promises return of 'A' gap dominance

By: Clay Henry
Published: Wednesday, April 26, 2017
University of Arkansas running back Rawleigh Williams III tries to get past Florida defender David Reese in the 4th quarter Saturday, November 5, 2016 during the Razorbacks 31-10 win at Razorback Stadium in Fayetteville.
( Michael Woods)
University of Arkansas running back Rawleigh Williams III tries to get past Florida defender David Reese in the 4th quarter Saturday, November 5, 2016 during the Razorbacks 31-10 win at Razorback Stadium in Fayetteville.

— If you turn the calendar back 12 months for Rawleigh Williams, there was a lot of uncertainty.

After sitting out all contact last spring there was hope that his surgically repaired neck injury would hold up in the fall.

“I was in a different place,” Williams said Tuesday with an eye toward the last two practices for the Arkansas spring drills.

Football wasn't a given 12 months ago. The decision was made to take hits, but not tackle Williams to the ground until fall camp. The Arkansas doctors and trainers just wanted to give that neck a little more time following surgery to stabilize discs after the injury in the 2015 Auburn game.

Obviously, things turned out fine. Williams led the SEC in rushing during the regular season and finished with 1,360 yards. There were 12 touchdowns and an average rush of 5.6 yards per carry.

So where is Williams now? He isn't thinking of just being one of the best in the SEC. He's set his goals much higher.

“I want a break out season in 2017,” he said. “I want to try to be the best in the country. I want to be the best as far as ability to run the ball, short yardage, pass block and every other category you can name. I want to be the best.”

The 5-10, 226-pound junior from Bishop Lynch in Dallas looks you straight in the eyes when he lists those ambitious goals. He knows there are talented running backs scattered across the nation, but he also knows he's first got to prove he can be the best in his meeting room.

“We have very good backs,” Williams said. “First thing, I've got to be best here.”

Williams has been pushed by Devwah Whaley and Maleek Williams for first-team status. So far, he's been first this spring.

It's been a heated battle with all three taking a lot of contact. It's been a battle that should produce better results in the running game, something that was up and down last season.

It's been a spring that has been focused on getting the mojo back for the inside running game. It wasn't always there last year as the Hogs broke in a pair of new offensive guards.

When Bret Bielema came to Arkansas, one of the first things he announced was that the Hogs would own the 'A' gap, that space on either side of the center just inside the guards. The Hogs couldn't do that last year. The dive play was a bust over and over against Texas A&M when the Hogs ran almost one dozen plays inside the 2-yard line without scoring a touchdown.

“We had to get our attitude back, that we will run there,” Williams said. “I think that's what you have to have to be dominant in the 'A' gap, an attitude that it's yours.

"It's an attitude with the backs, an attitude of the offensive line. You have to get that attitude first. We've done that this spring.

“We've had a lot of inside run, a lot of middle drill. We've done it over and over. I don't know how many days, but a lot.

“I love the 'A' gap. I'm a downhill runner first. That's where you see that, in the 'A' gap. It's where you try to intimidate the other team. It's our bread and butter.”

It wasn't last season. Williams said that is going to be the most obvious change for the coming season. He said that the group as a unit — line and backs — know there were games when the Hogs could run it, then others against some of the elite defenses that the run didn't happen.

"We have to run the ball effectively against every defense," he said. "It can't be up and down.

“I know we have the offensive line to do it. We are more experienced. We've got Frank Ragnow at center. We've got Hjalte Froholdt and Johnny Gibson at the guards. Those guys want us to run in there. We've worked hard on that inside attitude.

“We've practiced it so much this spring. We've got a lot of new wrinkles. Because we are so much more experienced — especially with Austin Allen at quarterback — we are going to carry more offense. But it starts with what we can do in the 'A' gap. It all begins there.”

The ability to dominate in the 'A' gap sets up everything else. But Williams said there had to be other things about the team's attitude change before the Hogs could get on the field to work in that dark alley that is the 'A' gap.

"We had to get things right in the offseason and we did," he said. "We were on time for every single thing. There was not one guy late to anything and it's been like that all the way through the spring. We've got an attitude that we are going to do things right.

"I think it starts with leadership. There is great leadership throughout the team."

Williams isn't a senior, but he said that hasn't stopped him from stepping up.

"I think I am one of the voices of this team," he said. "Of course, we've got seniors on offense to do it. Austin Allen, Frank Ragnow and Jared Cornelius are voices. But if I need to talk, I do it. I definitely am the voice in our (meeting) room."

Defensive back Kevin Richardson provided confirmation.

"Rawleigh is one of those guys on offense that gets the guys going," he said. "I am one of the leaders on defense and there are times you need to say something to the other side, get something across that you see. I know Rawleigh is one of the guys you can go to and get it done.

"Those guys Rawleigh mentioned are standouts. They are going to be heard by the guys on that side of the ball. We definitely have leadership on this team and Rawleigh is one of the best."

It's more than just being a voice. It's being one of the best players. Richardson was aware of his teammate's goal to be a bright star on the national stage.

"I see that," Richardson said. "He's practicing like that. He's got to be one of the best players in the nation with the way he's practicing. He could be the best. I believe that. He's bringing great effort. I wouldn't be surprised if he isn't the best running back in the country. He looks like it to me."

Williams thinks part of his development in the last few months comes from Reggie Mitchell, the Hogs' second-year running backs coach.

"It's the first time I can remember having the same coach two years in a row," Williams said. "I think I had a different running backs coach four straight years in high school. So Coach Mitchell is my first returning coach. He's a great coach."

Mitchell, a 30-year veteran, has sent six running backs to the first round of the NFL draft. That wasn't mentioned by Williams this week. But if he has a breakout year, maybe that's around the corner.

"Right now, I just want to finish spring strong," Williams said. "This is definitely so much better than last year. I'm getting the ball. I've had good practices. I'm getting the contact. I'm getting the speed of the game. I'm trying to be the best I can be."

No, he's trying to be the best anywhere.


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