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. Murphy was the 2017 Arkansas Sportswriter of the Year.
Razorbacks haven't gone far on the ground
Arkansas running back Rakeem Boyd carries the ball during a game against Ole Miss on Saturday, Oct. 17, 2020, in Fayetteville.
FAYETTEVILLE — The return of Rakeem Boyd was supposed to enliven and improve the running attack while creating more wins for the University of Arkansas in 2020.
The wins have come for first-year Coach Sam Pittman, but Boyd and the run game have been stuck in neutral for the 2-2 Razorbacks.
Through four games, the senior largely has been held in check, though he has not been 100% since the opener. An ankle injury in a Week 2 win at Mississippi State cost him a game and a half and slowed him for a 33-21 victory over Ole Miss on Oct. 17.
With a full week of rest under his belt, Boyd should be better prepared to get the Hogs’ run game off the ground in Saturday’s visit to No. 8 Texas A&M.
“I think Rakeem has worked extremely hard with the guys in the training room, getting his body back, getting his mind right,” senior quarterback Feleipe Franks said. “It’s a process, and day by day he’s getting closer and closer to 100%.”
Arkansas Coach Sam Pittman said he expects Boyd, a 1,133-yard rusher in 2019, to be “full go” against the Aggies.
Junior Trelon Smith leads the Razorbacks with 221 rushing yards on 56 carries, while Boyd has contributed 88 yards on 33 attempts.
Arkansas ranks 88th out of the 101 FBS teams who have played at least one game with 102.3 rushing yards per game.
Pittman talked about the tame run game after the Razorbacks downed Ole Miss when a reporter asked him about a key 70-yard, fourth-quarter drive against the Rebels, which ended on Treylon Burks’ 7-yard touchdown catch from Feleipe Franks.
“You know what’s amazing?” Pittman said. “We can be a lot better than what we’re playing right now. Our kids understand that. I didn’t say I’m disappointed. I’m not disappointed at all, but I’m saying we can be a lot better, especially at running the football and not making mistakes.”
Arkansas is one of seven teams in the country without a 20-yard run play, but the Razorbacks and Mississippi State are the only teams from that group who have played more than one game.
“The O-line, we want more than anyone else on the team to hit those big runs,” senior guard Ty Clary said late last week. “That’s probably one of the most exciting plays for me. The O-line … really wants to put an emphasis on creating those big plays and executing the blocking assignments to the whistle so we can make those plays happen.
“We’re kind of taking this week to obviously look at A&M, our next opponent, but also take a look at ourselves and really try and fix this issue and create something.”
Boyd averaged 6.16 yards per carry in 2019, sparked by a handful of long-distance touchdown runs, but he hasn’t been able to break loose this season with an average of 2.7 ypc.
The rugged and fast Georgia defense limited the 6-foot, 206-pounder to 21 yards on 11 carries in the season opener. Boyd was off to a better start at Mississippi State the next week before injuring his ankle near the goal line in the second quarter.
The Razorbacks know they’ll be a better team if one of their stars can get realigned.
“Rakeem works super hard,” Clary said. “He really wants to run the ball and he’s a really hard runner. The O-line, we have to start executing better, I think.
“Those plays are going to happen, especially with any of our backs in. I trust that they’re going to make a play, so we have to give them an opportunity to make a play.”
Texas A&M Coach Jimbo Fisher is well aware of the prowess of Boyd, who began his college career in 2016 under then-Aggies Coach Kevin Sumlin.
“Boyd is a big, strong, physical guy [who] runs hard, runs through people,” Fisher said. “They’ve ran the ball solidly in the games.
“I mean, they’re not averaging tons of yards on it, but they make you play the run. That’s the thing about getting better at the run. You’ve got to practice it, you’ve got to get your line chances at it, and they create plays down the field.”
Arkansas is averaging 2.64 ypc as a team to rank 94th in the country and second to last in the SEC, ahead of only Mississippi State (1.54).
With tough games ahead against SEC powers such as Texas A&M, Florida, Alabama and LSU, the Razorbacks have to become productive on the ground to take some pressure off Franks and the passing game.
“We’ll just have to continue to practice and get better,” Pittman said when asked how to jolt the running attack. “We’ve been trying so we may need to … certainly we have enough runs and all those things.
“We just have to get better. Our backs have to be better. Our line has to be better. Our tight end has to better. Wideouts have to get to safeties better. I mean to have a running game, you have to have all 10 guys in there getting after it.
“Everybody on our team has to get better. Our backs have to break tackles. I mean that’s part of being a good back. All those things we have to continue to work on.”
Have a comment on this story? Join the discussion or start a new one on the Forums.