Arkansas running back Raheem “Rocket” Sanders burst onto the scene and made a significant impact as a true freshman for the Razorbacks last season, and the Rockledge (Fla.) native is primed to take his game to another level as he gears up for his sophomore campaign.
Sanders earned SEC All-Freshman honors from the league’s coaches in 2021 after tallying 114 carries for 578 yards (5.1 ypc) and five touchdowns. The versatile athlete also added 11 receptions for an additional 109 yards and a score. He was a key cog in multi-weapon rushing attack for the Razorbacks that finished No. 7 in the nation with 227.8 yards per game on the ground.
Already a physical specimen at 6-2, 221 pounds, Sanders looks noticeably more chiseled at the start of fall camp than the end of spring practices, which comes as no surprise to running backs coach Jimmy Smithwho has also seen him make tremendous strides when it comes to evolving from a gifted athlete to a true running back after playing multiple positions in high school.
“His body, he was always one of those guys with a nice frame,” Smith said. “He loves to lift weights. Loves to work out. The thing with him that was amazing to me is how in everything he does, school, football, film, he wants to be great. He came in and running back wasn’t really his specialty. He got the ball but he didn’t really understand how to play running back. He put the work in and the time and he’s getting better and better at it. He came a long way in a year.
“He came as far as I’ve ever seen anybody come at a position that they didn’t really play. He’s calling out protections now. He knows when he makes a mistake. He will tell me when he makes a mistake, and that’s really important. For a guy to do something and tell you when they made a mistake, that tells you he really understands what you want from him.”
Returning starting quarterback KJ Jefferson has seen the growth and development in Sanders as well and believes his deeper understanding of the position has allowed him to attack the offseason and start of camp with an increased confidence.
“Just confident. He came in and soaked it all in like a sponge,” said Jefferson. “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 on the offensive side of the ball.”
As he enters his second full season with the Razorbacks, Sanders will have the opportunity to take on more of a leadership role with the offense, something Smith believes comes naturally thanks to how he approaches his business on and off the field.
“He’s that type of kid. He’s a natural leader,” said Smith. “He’s going to do what he’s supposed to do all the time. He’s one of those guys that I always say if 100 people are doing something wrong, he ain’t going to do it. If one person is doing something right, he’s going to be the one doing it. So, he’s going to be the guy who is doing right regardless of who else is doing wrong.”
Although the Hogs had three backs with over 500 yards a season ago plus the dual-threat capabilities of Jefferson, Smith believes Sanders has put himself in position to grab a larger share of the carries this season, especially early on with Dominique Johnson on the mend from offseason knee surgery.
“The funny thing about it is 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 percent, then him getting 50 percent. It wouldn’t be 25, 25, 25, 25. It would be him getting a little more right now. But as the season goes on you never know what happens.”
Sanders and the Razorbacks have completed two of 25 practices in preparation for the season opener against Cincinnati on Saturday, September 3. Kickoff between the Razorbacks and Bearcats is set for 2:30 pm (CT) from Donald W. Reynolds Razorback Stadium in Fayetteville ( Sheet.). The game will be televised on ESPN.