FAYETTEVILLE — The running back room for Arkansas football, arguably the deepest position on the team, illustrates a growing trend in college football.
Rather than relying on a single workhorse to handle the bulk of the carries, the Razorbacks are expected to use a stable of running backs in 2022 because of the physical nature of life in the SEC.
Not including quarterback KJ Jefferson, who actually led the team in 2021 with 664 rushing yards, Arkansas had a trio of 500-yard rushers last season and two of them — Rocket Sanders and Dominique Johnson — are back this year.
The Razorbacks also return AJ Green, plus added heralded recruit Rashod Dubinion in their most recent signing class, essentially replacing Trelon Smith, who transferred to UTSA for his super senior season.
“A lot of teams don’t have a feature back; they’ll do it kind of by committee,” head coach Sam Pittman said. “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 — four when Dominique gets back — that we feel like we can have success with.”
Meeting with the media this weekend, running backs coach Jimmy Smith said that doesn’t mean the carries will be split 50/50 or 25/25/25/25. There will still be a pecking order.
Surprisingly, Pittman and Smith have bypassed the typical coach-speak and been open about Sanders being the first-team running back right now.
However, the Sept. 3 season-opener against Cincinnati is a little more than three weeks away and things could change between now and then — and then again from week to week during the season.
“Whoever is doing the best, that’s who will play,” Smith said. “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. If you earn it for that week and you’re the best person out there, on Monday you have to do it again.”
The options at Arkansas’ disposal are pretty good. After all, the Razorbacks return three-fourths of their rushing yards from a team that led all Power Five programs with 227.8 rushing yards per game.
The loss of Trelon Smith accounts for most of the production Arkansas must replace in 2022, but his usage down the stretch fell off as young guys like Sanders and Johnson emerged. With another year under their belt, in addition to adding Dubinion to the mix, the group could be even better.
“The talent and skill sets those guys bring to the table, it’s a huge advantage and causes a lot of chaos on the defense,” Jefferson said. “All of them can catch out of the backfield, have great routes, stick routes. They’re also home-run hitters as well. Just having a running back room like we have, it’s truly an advantage.”
Of course, a side effect of having such a rotation is that the Razorbacks might not have one running back who stands out enough to earn postseason accolades.
Sure enough, none of the six preseason All-SEC running backs were from Arkansas, despite it having such a potent rushing attack. That could change if one of them has a breakout year and separates themselves, but that doesn’t sound like something the players are worried about.
Instead, the lesser workload could benefit them when the NFL comes calling down the road.
“Any time you have the situation like we have, where we’re playing several, you have to find — in recruiting — the positive about that,” Pittman said. “Certainly ours is that if you’re good enough to help us win and get drafted and things of that nature, that the wear and tear on your body wouldn’t be quite as significant as if you’re carrying the ball 25 times a game.”
Here’s how Best of Arkansas Sports sees the running back room shaking out over the next few weeks….
1. Rocket Sanders
When he was originally pursued by the Razorbacks as a four-star athlete from Rockledge, Fla., Rocket Sanders was recruited as a wide receiver. That didn’t stick, though, as a lack of depth led to the coaching staff moving him to running back as soon as he got to campus.
It was a foreign spot for him, but after going through just one jump and one fall at the position, Sanders spent his entire freshman season as the backup and ran for 578 yards and five touchdowns on 114 carries. That earned him a spot on the SEC All-Freshman Team.
Fast forward a year and now Sanders is much more comfortable as a running back, drawing rave reviews from his position coach.
“He came as far as I’ve ever seen anybody come at a position that they didn’t really play,” Smith said. “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.”
One reason it made sense for Sanders to change positions is that he gave the Razorbacks a bigger option to compliment the smaller, shiftier Trelon Smith. Now listed at 227 pounds, he looks the part of an SEC running back.
“Rocket’s a phenomenal player,” center Ricky Stromberg said. “He’s one of the most sculpted backs I’ve seen. He’s huge… He can run down your throat. He’s stuck, too. I just see a lot of upside with him, potential.”
If the comments from coaches about him currently being the No. 1 running back weren’t enough evidence of how the staff feels about him, Pittman also said he shot down the idea of him returning kicks, further showing just how important Sanders is to the offense.
2. Rashod Dubinion
It might not mean anything, but Rashod Dubinion took snaps ahead of AJ Green during the brief team periods in the portion of practice open to the media Saturday and Sunday. In fact, Jimmy Smith told reporters that they shouldn’t read too much into it because sometimes those snaps are determined by his desire to see a certain player run a particular play.
That said, Dubinion was a highly regarded recruit — ranked No. 227 overall in the 2022 class by Rivals — coming out of Cedar Grove High School in Georgia, where he ran for 1,565 yards and 22 touchdowns on 180 carries as a senior.
As an early enrollee, he made an immediate impact on the offense with an impressive showing in spring ball. Even several months ago, Pittman said there’s “no doubt” he’ll contribute this season and spoke highly of him after several practices and scrimmages.
“He can cut on a dime, now,” Pittman said during the spring. “He’s just hard to tackle. He’s very, very tough and he’s slippery, slithery, I don’t know the word, but when he makes a cut now, he makes a cut and it’s hard to touch him, let alone tackle him when he does that.”
Now with a spring and offseason conditioning program under his belt, Smith said Dubinion is starting to really understand the offense and how to go about things in practice.
Considering the depth at the position, it could be hard to get carries this year, but running back is a spot that tends to have more opportunity for early playing time for true freshmen. Based on the limited times we’ve seen him, Best of Arkansas Sports wouldn’t be surprised if he eventually asserts himself as the No. 2 running backs.
3. Dominique Johnson
This was a tough decision because Dominique Johnson actually started six of the final seven games last year and was the most productive running back on the team from a yards per carry standpoint, averaging an impressive 5.9 yards every time he touched the ball.
However, we haven’t seen him in pads since the Outback Bowl because he had a knee injury that eventually required offseason surgery. He missed all of spring ball and is expected to be pretty limited this fall. The exact timeline for Johnson’s return — and the nature of his injury — are not known.
“I feel like he’ll be able to do some things — maybe not the first week, as far as team-oriented type things — but he’s progressing well,” Pittman said last week. “He’s ahead of schedule. I don’t know if we’ll have him for the Cincinnati game or not, but I feel like we’re gonna have him the majority of the season.”
Despite the injury, running backs coach Jimmy Smith said Johnson is in good spirits. He is also still part of the 110-man roster, allowing him to go through meetings and attend practice — where he’s taking on a coaching role.
The goal is for him to stay mentally sharp while out, so Smith has tasked him with making sure his fellow running backs are at meetings on time and all taped up before practice. Another one of his duties is doing signals or even getting up on the board and drawing stuff up on the board in meetings.
“When he comes back, you want him to be back,” Smith said. “You don’t want him to come back and have to teach him everything and restart. That ain’t what you want. You want him to come back and be back, especially when he gets there physically.”
Currently listed at 247 pounds, Johnson has packed on 12 pounds since last season. That is close to what he weighed two years ago as a true freshman, but Smith said he’d like him to be in the 230-240 range with the ideal weight being 235.
While that size would seem to indicate he’ll possibly be utilized as a short-yardage back, Smith said that it’s likely just a product of him being out with an injury. He believes he’ll shed 5-6 pounds rather easily once he gets back in action.
Best of Arkansas Sports still sees him as third in the pecking order, although, even if he’s not used exclusively in short-yardage situations. He seemed to be more effective when he wasn’t the feature back, so that could be the best move for him and the Razorbacks.
Of course, that could just be the latest instance of Johnson being underrated. He was a low three-star prospect and some schools, like Missouri, recruited him as a linebacker. Even Arkansas briefly moved him to tight end last fall — a mistake it won’t make again.
“Sometimes people don’t look the part,” Smith said. “Sometimes people want to rag them. One person said he looks good, another person says, ‘Nah, he ain’t that good.’ As a recruiter you do the same thing. A lot of people recruit, but you have to evaluate and look for what you want, first.”
4. AJ Green
Someone has to be fourth on the list and we don’t necessarily feel great about it, but Best of Arkansas Sports has AJ Green in this slot.
A speedy four-star recruit from Tulsa, he was a summer arrival who also missed a good chunk of fall camp because of a concussion. That injury also caused him to miss the season-opener against Rice, but then he made his debut in Week 2 against Texas and appeared in the next 11 games as a true freshman.
“He had a touchdown in that game (and) that was his first game really getting hit because in the summer time, he didn’t scrimmage one time,” Jimmy Smith said. “His first contact was against Texas. Now he’s had a chance to really hone in on what he needs to work on, and I think he’ll be a lot better.”
Similar to Sanders, he now has a full season and 15 spring practices under his belt. Compared to this time last year, Green said he feels like he’s not as hesitant and better understands the importance of keeping his pads low through the holes.
If that can translate that to the field, then he could soar up this list because that was an obvious issue last year. While he had a handful of explosive plays, such as touchdowns against Texas and Texas A&M, Green also had his fair share of runs that gained 2 yards or less. That could be partially blamed on the time he missed, but that shouldn’t be a problem this year as long as he can stay healthy.
“Obviously last year I didn’t get to participate in that much of fall camp,” Green said. “This is definitely going to help me prepare myself better and not miss out on those days that I needed as a freshman last year.”
Expected to Contribute
- Rocket Sanders — Sophomore
- Rashod Dubinion — freshman
- Dominique Johnson — junior
- AJ Green — Sophomore
Not Expected to Play Much
- Javion Hunt — redshirt freshman
- James Jointer Jr. — freshman
- Dennis Daniels — redshirt senior (walk-on)
More coverage of Arkansas football fall camp 2022 from BoAS…