Dudley E. Dawson is a reporter for Hawgs Illustrated. A graduate of the University of Arkansas, he is a voter for the Heisman Trophy.
Traylor's running back room filled with talent
NWA Democrat-Gazette/J.T. WAMPLER Arkansas' Rakeem Boyd looks for running room against Tulsa Saturday Oct. 20, 2018 at Donald W. Reynolds Razorback Stadium in Fayetteville. The Razorbacks beat the Golden Hurricane 23-0.
FAYETTEVILLE Unlike during the spring, Arkansas running backs coach Jeff Traylor is feeling like a man with a wealth of riches this summer.
Traylor only had one healthy back during spring practice in junior Chase Hayden, but has five during this preseason camp.
Hayden (5-10, 205) joins junior Rakeem Boyd (6-0, 213), senior Devwah Whaley (5-11, 212), junior T.J. Hammonds (5-10, 184), freshman A’Montae Spivey (6-1, 192) and Arizona State transfer Trelon Smith (5-9, 184), who has to redshirt this season.
Boyd rushed for a team-high 734 yards last season in his first season as a Razorback while Whaley (1,419 career rushing yards) and Hayden (577) have both dealt with injuries among flashes of productive play.
“I don’t know how many coaches in the country, Power 5, have their top three backs returning so I’m extremely blessed,” Traylor said. “And not that they’re returning on the depth chart, all three played major, major important minutes last year.”
Traylor is excited about how his group has performed through Thursday’s 12th practice of August.
“Chase had a great spring and he’s back and looking really good,” Traylor said. “Devwah is back from his injury and looking really good. Rakeem is back from surgery on his shoulder and he has looked incredible as well. Of course we have the transfer, Tre Smith, who as just been amazing and saved our legs for us tremendously.
“T.J. has been out there a little bit, but he has been injured most of camp. A’Montae has looked really good the last few days. He had a little rib bruise, but he’ll be fine.”
Boyd was off to a great start last season before injuring himself, the extent of which which wasn’t totally clear until the end of the season when he admitted he was hurt worse than he was letting on.
“I called him soft, everything you can say as a coach to motivate somebody, and then you find out he’s got a torn labrum and a rotator cuff, and I went from 6-foot-3 to about 4-foot-10 in a day,” Traylor said. “I felt terrible. I love the kid, I’ve spent a lot of time with him through the years, and he’s a tough young man.
“…Can’t say enough about him, right now.”
Arkansas plans to have four running backs ready to play each game.
“Right now, we are trying to get everyone of them ready, but when the season plays out, we feel very comfortable playing three backs,” Traylor said. “That’s kind of the plan. That three is pretty established and those three returnees from last year who have done nothing to not make me feel confident going into the season.”
The fourth running back will have a vital role on special teams and be ready if needed in the backfield due to injuries.
“We like to travel four backs,” Traylor said. “Special teams is very important as well. Your fourth back should be on special teams.
“He should be out there and if you want to go play in the league, you better have a special teams grade ready. It is called a T-grade and if you don’t have any special teams video when you are young, that is going to send up a red flag to those guys on why you didn’t play any special teams.”
Spivey should get in at least four games with the NCAA rule allowing you to play that many and still redshirt.
“It is unbelievable and is a great rule for the kids,” Traylor said.
Arkansas coaches have been raving this about Smith, a sophomore who redshirted last year at Arizona State after having 56 yards on 11 carries in the first four games.
Smith, who rushed for 2,270 yards with 29 touchdowns and added 23 catches for 327 yards and four more scores as a senior at Houston, Texas, Cypress Ridge, returned five kicks for 90 yards as a true freshman with the Sun Devils.
“It’s not just the coaches, it’s the players,” Traylor said. “He has gained tremendous respect from those guys…Coach used the word talent today. They have all got talent, but he used the example ED. What is your extra dimension? I went around the room and let each running back tell me what their extra dimension was.
“Tre said it and he is right, it is his mental toughness. He is like a Navy SEAL when it comes to his mental toughness. He goes every rep full speed as hard as he can. He graded out higher in the scrimmage than all the other backs and he has been here the least. That just shows you how he pays attention to detail.”
Smith has been a motivator to his teammates.
“There’s no doubt,” Traylor said. “It’s not even his words, it’s his actions. I mean, in the scrimmage Saturday, a couple of the backs went down -- not the top three -- and he literally had a chance for 118 graded opportunities, and he had 107 ‘pluses.’ That means he played about 58 snaps in the scrimmage, which is a lot of plays in the heat.”
Arkansas plans to sign one or two running backs in the 2020 class, but already has Smith in the fold this season as he redshirts.
“I would love to have him (eligible), but for me it is a blessing to have five scholarship backs in the room,” Traylor said. “Four of them are competing to travel unless one of the walk-ons beats them out and that fifth one knows that he can’t play and he is just out there working on his craft every day and there couldn’t be a better guy to do that. He is just an absolute pro.”
Arkansas hopes to have an improved rushing game this season.
“Last year, we were just trying to get the install in,” Traylor said. “We weren’t really good at the details of it. You can just go back and watch our games. Our track steps were all over the place, there was no consistency. We’re just really trying to clean up our details of our work.
“And you know, our ball security wasn’t bad last year, but there were still a lot of instances where the ball was loose. We just got lucky and didn’t fumble it. We’re trying to clean that up.”
All of the backs can run the ball, but their pass protection is also an integral part of Arkansas’ success this season.
“The top three are fantastic at it,” Traylor said. “They have done it a long time. A’Montae is learning and he is getting better at it. Tre took a significant step up today in his pass protection. That was one of his goals and he was tremendously improved today.”
“…We were very successful in our pass protection last year, believe it or not, from our position, but the way it looks, the technique of it, the small things, the details of it, really trying to get finer in our work.”
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