Scottie Bordelon is a reporter for the Hawgs Sports Network. He has a bachelor's degree in journalism from the University of Arkansas and previously covered high school sports for the Times Record in Fort Smith and the Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. He was the 2022 Arkansas Sportswriter of the Year.
Sanders credits confidence boost for big year
Arkansas running back Raheim Sanders (5) celebrates after a touchdown against Alabama during an NCAA college football game Saturday, Oct. 1, 2022, in Fayetteville, Ark.
MEMPHIS — Next to no one would glance at Arkansas running back Raheim “Rocket” Sanders and come to the conclusion that he lacks confidence or ever has.
But the sophomore is adamant that a boost in self belief made all the difference in his All-SEC season in 2022. Sanders finished the regular season with 1,426 rushing yards and 10 touchdowns, and averaged 118.8 yards per game.
He was second in the SEC in rushing yards and tied for fourth in touchdowns.
“I feel like I've had a great season,” Sanders said. “I definitely got better from my first year, man, fixing a lot of things. I felt like this year was my year, and I feel like I can have a better year next year, as well.
“Just seeing the hole and trusting my coaches, trusting (quarterback) KJ (Jefferson) and the O-line, and having the O-line back, like I always say, that brought a lot of trust for me.”
When Sanders began to emerge in the Razorbacks’ backfield as a freshman, Arkansas coach Sam Pittman often said the back’s production was a result of being more decisive and exploding through rushing lanes quicker. He took that to a new level this fall.
Pittman on Tuesday concurred with Sanders in that self confidence has been a key factor in his success.
More from WholeHogSports: Our pre-game coverage of the Razorbacks at the Liberty Bowl
“He needed confidence,” Pittman said. “It’s amazing all the things that go into college students and what’s going on in their mind, and what’s going on with their body and nutrition and all these different things. Rocket’s on top of all that stuff, so I think all that’s kind of helped him, as well, get to this point.
“I expect him to have a good game tomorrow.”
Film study aided his breakout year. Sanders admitted Monday that he was not all that fond of watching tape early in his career at Arkansas, but his habits have changed.
“I didn’t know how to watch film,” he said. “Now (running backs coach Jimmy Smith) is breaking it down and figuring out every game what I can do better as a player and what I can do to help my team, as well.”
Sanders and Pittman complimented the work done by Smith, who is in his third season with the program.
The third-year head coach said Smith has taught Sanders a great deal about various position-related techniques to better his play, and he referenced their always-open dialogue as a contributing factor.
Sanders appreciates Smith for those things, as well as assisting in his personal growth.
More from WholeHogSports: Watch Pittman's and Leipold's press conference on Tuesday
“He helped my development heavy,” Sanders said. “He helped me being a man, a better person, being a dad, as well, but on the field just being more comfortable. That helped me and it helped everybody next to me.”
Perhaps above all else, being a young father motivated Sanders, and it pushed him to do better and consistently handle his business.
Sanders’ son did not come to any games this season, he said, but the plan is to have him in attendance for each game next season, which could be the Rockledge, Fla., native’s last with the Razorbacks. He added that they often see each other through FaceTime video calls.
“Since I’m not with him 24/7 and I’ve got football, just seeing the growth, seeing him walking and talking and saying, ‘Dada,’ that helps a lot,” Sanders said. “Being on FaceTime calls, like, I’m more comfortable now. He’s looking at me smiling, that’s the best part.
“I want him to come (to Fayetteville) more, but I want to secure the bag first so I can be able to help him and help my family.”
Given Arkansas will be without three of its top four receivers from the regular season on Wednesday against Kansas at the Liberty Bowl, the Razorbacks may rely heavily on their running game. It could mean a healthy amount of carries for Sanders, who is averaging 18.3 per game.
More from WholeHogSports: Arkansas basketball adjusting without Nick Smith as SEC opener nears
A productive game would likely provide individual momentum heading into the 2023 season from a national perspective.
“I think it’s all about confidence,” Pittman said. “Like I said before, I think Rocket was a wide receiver playing running back early in his career and now he’s a running back playing running back. I think it takes a while — the reads — to understand the offense. You didn’t do it in high school, so you don’t understand it (in college).
“I think a confident Rocket Sanders is … He’s big, 230 (pounds), can run. He’s fast.”
During the regular season, Kansas finished last in the Big 12 in league play in rushing defense, allowing 213.2 yards per game and 27 touchdowns. Oklahoma was next to last in rushing scores given up with 25.
Opponents also averaged 43.9 carries per game — a Big 12 high — against the Jayhawks.
“I know they’re going to come in (strong),” Sanders said of Kansas' defense. “They haven’t been to a bowl game in so long, so I feel like they’re going to come in with a lot of energy. And knowing we’re an SEC team, I feel like they’re going to come with a lot of energy.
“I feel like we’ve got to bring the same energy.”
Have a comment on this story? Join the discussion or start a new one on the Forums.