RB Analysis: Rocket leads deep group

By: Tom Murphy
Published: Sunday, August 7, 2022
Arkansas assistant coach Jimmy Smith speaks Friday, Aug. 5, 2022, alongside running back Raheim Sanders during practice at the university practice facility in Fayetteville.
( Andy Shupe)
Arkansas assistant coach Jimmy Smith speaks Friday, Aug. 5, 2022, alongside running back Raheim Sanders during practice at the university practice facility in Fayetteville.

FAYETTEVILLE — Raheim “Rocket” Sanders’ role with the Arkansas Razorbacks has blasted off over the course of a year.

After converting from wide receiver to tailback as a freshman last spring at the University of Arkansas, the native of Florida’s Space Coast blasted into the rotation with Trelon Smith and Dominique Johnson and accumulated 578 rushing yards while averaging 5.1 yards per carry.

Now, with Johnson out while rehabbing from knee surgery, the burly 6-2, 227-pounder tops the depth chart and talks like a player confident in what lies ahead.

Sanders credited position coach Jimmy Smith for helping him hit the field early and improving while heading into his sophomore season.

“Coming in as a receiver and switching over to him, he gave me confidence as in just learning new things as a running back,” Sanders said after Saturday’s second workout of training camp. “Just being with him, I play relaxed. When I first came in, I was so tense. So now, coming in this season working on new things with him, it’s good because he’s telling me, ‘Relax and don’t bury yourself when you mess up on one play.’ ”

It was evident the Arkansas coaching staff felt Sanders was capable of handling the lead role at tailback when he was the team’s nominee for preseason All-SEC at media days in Atlanta.

Smith took it a step further Saturday when asked about splitting carries with a talented backfield that includes fellow sophomore AJ Green and freshmen Rashod Dubinion, James Jointer and Javion Hunt in addition to Johnson.

“What you try to do is get the best out of every guy and you go from there,” Smith said. “I think this year, Rocket, because of how he’s playing right now, he probably should get more carries.

“If I had to do it right now, he probably would get more carries. It wouldn’t be him getting 50%. … It wouldn’t be 25, 25, 25, 25. It would be him getting a little more right now.”

Smith followed up by adding the twists and turns of a season can always change his plan on splitting up carries for an attack that, combined with a team-high 664 rushing yards from quarterback KJ Jefferson, led the Power 5 with 227.8 rushing yards per game last year.

“You never know what happens,” he said. “Other guys look really good. Whoever is doing the best, that’s who will play. I tell my guys all the time, ‘You don’t get a starting job for a season. You get it for a week. Earn your job for that week.’ … On Monday you have to do it again.”

Green, in the Reynolds Razorback Stadium interview room with Sanders, chimed in “he’s earned it” when a reporter passed along what Smith had said about Sanders.

“I feel good about it, of course,” Sanders said, adding that enrolling early helped him get a head start last season. “I feel like I should take advantage of that and just set more goals for myself. And not even just for myself but as for everybody else that’s in that room as well.”

Spreading the wealth at tailback was good for Smith and the Hogs last season, as Johnson averaged 5.9 yards per carry, Smith had 5.0 and Green 4.8.

The position might be the deepest on the team, with Dubinion making a great impression in the spring, leading Coach Sam Pittman to project him being in the rotation.

Sanders said he’s better now at reading the blocking ahead of him and being patient.

“I feel like that’s a big thing that I’ve been working on this year to help me find a better hole than what it was last year,” Sanders said.

Green, who was slowed by a concussion in fall camp after not enrolling early, saw his first contact the week of the Texas game, when the top four running backs all scored a rushing touchdown en route to 333 yards on the ground in a 40-21 rout of the Longhorns.

Green’s big point of emphasis: “Being able to not hesitate and go with what I see, and keeping my pads low through the holes.”

Jefferson said Sanders soaked in the offensive system like a sponge last year and is now loaded with confidence.

“He’s asking questions, asking me questions about the offense and different play calls and why we’re calling this play, so he’s really in tune to what we’re doing,” Jefferson said.

Added center Ricky Stromberg, “Rocket’s a phenomenal player. He’s one of the most sculpted backs I’ve seen. He’s huge. He could run the ball, and he can run down your throat. He’s fast, too. I just see a lot of upside with him, potential.”

Jefferson said loves the depth at the spot.

“All those guys can be able to be that guy,” he said. “The talent and skill sets of those guys bring to the table, it’s a huge advantage and causes a lot of chaos on the defense. All of them can catch out of the backfield, have great routes, stick routes. They’re also home-run hitters as well.”

Pittman said in his pre-camp news conference that a wealth of backs is critical in the SEC.

“It’s such a big league, a physical league, that you’re probably not going to … a lot of teams don’t have a feature back,” Pittman said. “They’ll do it kind of by committee. Obviously if you have one who is that much better than somebody else, you’re going to give him 8-10 carries more per game than the next guy.

“But kind of where we’re at is we feel like we’ve got three guys that — four when Dominique gets back — that we feel like we can have success with. Obviously you have a depth chart for a reason. With Rocket being No. 1 on that. We just try to keep them fresh. If Rocket’s fresh, he’s going to get the majority of the carries.”

Pittman said Johnson’s rehabilitation is ahead of schedule. He doesn’t see the junior as being available for the opener against Cincinnati on Sept. 3, but added, “I feel like we’re going to have him the majority of the season.”

Smith said a second year with Sanders, Green and Johnson together, plus the talented freshman, is off to a great start before the full pads go on Thursday.

“The whole group has an understanding of what we want from them,” he said. “They’re doing a lot better job. The young guys are doing a lot better.

“James Jointer has come a long way just from understanding the offense. Rashod is starting to understand what we want and what you need to do in practice to be good at college football. AJ is seeing things a lot better, and Rocket just continues to improve. Every day I see him do something new. I’m excited about the guys.”

Running Backs At a Glance

RETURNING STARTER Dominique Johnson (6 starts in 2021)

LOSSES Trelon Smith (7), T.J. Hammonds, Josh Oglesby

WHO’S BACK Raheim Sanders, AJ Green, Javion Hunt

WHO’S NEW Rashod Dubinion, James Jointer

WALK-ON Dennis Daniels

ANALYSIS Johnson is out for a while rehabbing from knee surgery, so Sanders takes over as an every-down type back who has above-average pass-catching skills and is a very willing blocker. Position coach Jimmy Smith sounds willing to trust Sanders with the bulk of the carries at what might be the deepest spot on the team. Green and Dubinion appear set for work in the rotation, as will Johnson upon his return.


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