Matt Jones is the online sports director for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. A double graduate of the University of Arkansas, he is a member of the Football Writers Association of America and National Collegiate Baseball Writers Association, and voter for the Heisman Trophy.
Seizing opportunity: Boyd evokes memories of Razorbacks past
Arkansas running back Rakeem Boyd carries the ball during a game against Tulsa on Saturday, Oct. 20, 2018, in Fayetteville.
FAYETTEVILLE Rakeem Boyd is grateful for his opportunity to play at Arkansas following a flare out in his first go-round in the Southeastern Conference.
Boyd thought he might have to return to Texas after his “Last Chance U” stop at Independence (Kan.) Community College in 2017.
“Usually when you get a second chance it’s UTSA or maybe Rice, schools like that,” Boyd said. “It’s not usually big SEC schools.”
As a freshman at Texas A&M, Boyd struggled with punctuality and the freedom of being on his own for the first time. He got behind in his classes and had to leave the Aggies’ program.
“College Station taught me a lot,” Boyd said. “With (former Texas A&M coach Kevin) Sumlin and that program, it’s about consistency — making it to class on time, making it to breakfast and stuff like that. It taught me a lot of things about how to manage your stuff right, manage your money and a lot of things.
“It was an issue me making it to class. I was young, I was 18 and I didn’t really know how it was.”
Boyd rushed for 1,211 yards and 14 touchdowns at Independence. He had better opportunities awaiting him on the other side than he thought he might have. Among them were TCU, Ole Miss and Arizona, where Sumlin accepted a job after he was fired by Texas A&M.
“My goal was to always come back to the SEC,” Boyd said. “I’m glad it all worked out.”
It is still working out.
Boyd’s debut season at Arkansas had elements that reminded some of the Razorbacks’ greatest running backs this century.
By wearing No. 5, Boyd brought to mind Darren McFadden, the two-time winner of the Doak Walker Award as college football’s top running back, and two-time Heisman Trophy runner-up in 2006 and 2007. There were some on-field similarities to McFadden, too.
Against Alabama last October, Boyd became the first Arkansas running back since McFadden to rush for 100 yards against the Crimson Tide, who have historically shut down the Razorbacks’ run game under Nick Saban. The two exceptions were McFadden’s 195-yard game at Alabama in 2007, and Boyd’s 102-yard performance last year.
The Alabama game began a streak of three consecutive 100-yard performances in SEC games by Boyd. He followed it up with 109 yards the following week before injuring his tailbone during the second quarter of the Ole Miss game in Little Rock, and two weeks later rushed for 113 yards against Vanderbilt in Fayetteville.
Prior to Boyd, the last Arkansas running back to rush for three consecutive 100-yard games in SEC play was Alex Collins during his All-SEC season in 2015.
And the way Boyd’s 2018 season played out reminded of Knile Davis in 2011. In both instances, the Houston-area natives were used lightly early in the season, then had their breakout performances in October.
In Boyd’s case, he was hardly utilized early last year. After waiting for his transfer paperwork to clear, he didn’t arrive in Fayetteville until the day preseason practice began last August.
That put him behind his position mates in a number of ways. Not only had he missed offseason conditioning, but he had to acclimate to a new playbook.
“There were times early in the season that he had no idea what he was supposed to do,” Arkansas offensive coordinator Joe Craddock said. “The quarterback would tell him his assignments each play.”
He had 13 combined carries for 79 yards in the Razorbacks’ first two games against Eastern Illinois and Colorado State, then didn’t fit into the game plan in the blowout home loss to North Texas, a game in which his only statistic was a reception that went for no gain.
His big opportunity came the following week at Auburn after Devwah Whaley suffered a concussion. Boyd rushed for 66 yards on eight carries — including a long of 45 yards — and caught two passes for 39 yards. He became the Razorbacks’ top back as Whaley recovered and never relinquished the role.
“I had to step up and play that role,” Boyd said. “That Auburn game was the game that taught me a lot right there — how to pick up blitzes, you name it.
“They saw what I could do, and once they saw what I could do, I think they started to put more in for me. I was just going with it. Whatever they told me to do, I was doing it.
“At practice, I worked pretty hard, and they saw I was coming every day, how I felt and that I really wanted to win.”
Boyd rushed for 47 yards and had four receptions for 33 yards the following week against Texas A&M.
Prior to his breakout performance against Alabama, Boyd had two conversations that foretold his upcoming success. He told his mother that he was ready “to be that guy” for the team, and before taking the field he received some pregame encouragement from McFadden in the locker room.
“He said, ‘Let it loose today,’” Boyd said. “I had some vengeance out there. I let it loose.”
Boyd finished the season with 729 rushing yards on 118 attempts. He might have eclipsed 1,000 yards had he not been injured at various times throughout the year.
The injury in the second quarter of the Ole Miss game was most detrimental. He busted off a 69-yard touchdown run during the first quarter of that game and was well on his way to a monster finish against one of the SEC’s worst defenses.
“If I’d been able to stay in, I think I’d have hit them for maybe 300,” Boyd said. “I think the whole team, we were rolling at that point. The offensive line was doing a great job that night and kept pushing the ball until I went down with the back injury.”
He also failed to finish a game against Tulsa the following week after suffering from dehydration. He rushed for 99 yards against the Golden Hurricane, just missing on four consecutive 100-yard outings.
He hurt his ankle during a 10-carry, 30-yard performance against LSU in November.
“I was banged up,” Boyd said of his season.
Boyd’s worst injury was one to his shoulder that required surgery following the season. He said he suffered the injury during the spring of his freshman season at Texas A&M, then played through it in junior college and last year at Arkansas.
The shoulder never really affected Boyd during games, he said, but would often be sore on Sunday mornings.
“I knew how to manage the pain,” Boyd said. “I tried to hide it. I didn’t want to tell anybody I was hurt.”
Eventually coaches and doctors found out, and to avoid further injury Boyd was held out of the season finale at Missouri. He couldn’t practice in the spring while he was going through rehab.
He is looking forward to getting on the field in August and testing out the surgically repaired shoulder.
“It should be fun playing with a good shoulder this year,” Boyd said.
Boyd also has a good feel for the playbook. During his months-long rehab in which he gained about five pounds to 214, he spent several hours on his own watching film and studying.
Perhaps the biggest change has been the increased knowledge of what players are doing around him. He said it helps him think a move or two ahead of what he was able to do last season.
“That helps the way you run,” Boyd said. “Say if we have inside zone: OK, I know the linemen are going to make a (double-team block) and then work their way up to one of the linebackers — OK, boom, I’m going to cut off that. Then, if I get outside, I know they’re going to be running off a cornerback.
“Last year went OK, but I felt like I could have brought more to the table if I would have had a longer timetable to work out with the team.”
He's grateful simply being able to work with an SEC team at all.
A version of this story originally appeared in Hawgs Illustrated
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