Image courtesy of The Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette
Looking back upon some of Arkansas’ best running backs, there’s a constant early on in their respective careers. One can look most recently at Rocket Sanders’ 578 yards in 2021 or to Alex Collins cracking 1000 yards his freshman season. With plenty of other historical backs not named, the constant is the explosion onto the scene during their freshman seasons. Glaring down the chance to make such an impact is one of Arkansas’ highest rated running backs in the recruiting service era – Isaiah Augustave.
Making short work of Western Carolina, every running back had their chance on offense. The Catamount defense that sold out on the run often wound up costing Arkansas something other than the game. Holding Rocket Sanders to just 42 yards on 15 carries, the injury bug found its way onto the scene. Whether or not the injury was a product of the War Memorial turf or happenstance, Sanders has been deemed out for week two. While there could be some form of panic inside the program, Sam Pittman and company feel confident.
“Well, I love our depth,” Pittman noted Wednesday. “I think R-Dub’s (Dubinion) really good, and all of them, AJ and Domo (Dominique Johnson). I keep going back to two years ago, we had the same guys on the team, and Domo was the starter later in the season.”
Despite the quality depth within the room, the injury woes didn’t apply to one player. Sophomore Rashod Dubinion has been going through practices despite fighting a tweaked back. Dominique Johnson has continued to wear a knee brace coming off back-to-back ACL tears. Despite Pittman wanting Johnson to ditch the brace, he has said Johnson doesn’t feel like “it limits him too much.”
There are great odds that Johnson will be the bell cow in week two based on Pittman’s hints. Facing off against a fragile Kent State team, the freshest legs will have plenty of opportunity late in the game. As the final ‘cakewalk’ game before FIU in mid-November, Augustave’s chance to make an early freshman impact is now.
Augustave’s Path to Arkansas
Becoming the second running back on the roster from the state of Florida, Augustave was mostly under the radar. Before exploding onto the scene his junior year in Naples, regional schools were all that had interest. Rushing for over 2000 yards between his junior and senior seasons, SEC interest came pouring in. Despite running back coach Jimmy Smith presenting an offer late, his recruiting prowess proved enough.
As Isaiah continued to fill out his frame and become a concrete balanced running back, opposing teams didn’t back down. “When (Smith) gives an evaluation, it’s darn good, and we hit the jackpot on this one, too,” Pittman said. “You can tell a lot about a kid when he stays loyal to you, too, and there was everybody coming in there.” Signing day rolled around and presented zero drama as Augustave put pen to paper allowing the real work to begin.
What has Augustave Presented Thus Far?
As one of the more loaded running back stables in the SEC, Augustave knew what he was getting into. With multi-year players not willing to give an inch on the depth chart he had to take the humble approach. “The biggest thing with him (Augustave) is that he wanted to learn and has been improving daily,” according to coach Jimmy Smith. “His offseason went well. He gained about eight pounds of muscle.”
Spending that valuable time in the weight room only made Augustave look more like an SEC running back as a freshman. When asked about his progress during the offseason, Rocket Sanders had praise to throw his way. “I feel like he’s got the speed. He’s willing to work, not even just on the field but in the weight room as well, “ said Sanders. “I feel like he’s going to have a great year, and he’s learning.”
Fast-forward to week one in Little Rock and the praise turned out to have sustenance. Behind Sanders, Augustave was tied for first in carries with junior AJ Green with four. Despite the small sample size against an inferior team there were take-aways to be had. Picking up 20 yards on those four carries, even the casual observer could tell he wanted it.
With each handoff seemingly between the tackles, Augustave didn’t have a chance to showcase his speed. Despite the feat, every yard achieved was earned inside. Head down, legs churning, he brought the hammer to every Catamount defender.
Diagnosing Kent State’s Rush Defense
As kind of a trick question, the diagnosis is as simple as running the football at will. Facing off against Gus Malzahn’s UCF squad in week one resulted in a splattering in Orlando. Dealing with the legs of quarterback John Rhys Plumlee proved difficult enough. Compiling 46 rush attempts as a team, the Knights marched for 389 yards. Commonly running with four-down linemen, the Golden Flashes struggled to get a push. Looking at the personnel along their d-line it’s not a surprise to see why UCF dominated even when they loaded the box.
Averaging out the weight of their starting front four comes to just 267.75 pounds. Making the situation seem even more dire, senior C.J West boosts the average tremendously. West sits at 6-2 and 315 pounds and is widely considered one of the better interior linemen in the MAC. Really coming into his own in 2021, his impact against UCF was limited, but not disappointing. West wound up picking up a sack as well as forcing one fumble. As good as he has been in conference play, he will have his hands full with Beaux Limmer all day.
Outside of the defensive line, senior linebacker Khalib Johns is another impact player for Kent State. As one of the only returnees with starting experience, Johns is the leader of their defense. The biggest knock on his game is the lack of speed. Unfortunately for the Flashes, that also applies to the majority of the Kent State defense. Reviewing their showing against UCF, they failed to close gaps on outside runs and passes. Even the defensive backs struggled to keep up down the field which equated to 334 passing yards for the Knights on top of the ground game.
With the lack of playmakers and abysmal athletes, it should be a field day for whomever coach Pittman puts on the field. Looking at the gameplan in the sense of the running back room, it will likely be a ‘next in line’ scenario. By the time the second half rolls around, it will be Isaiah Augustave time if it even takes that long. Reviewing his balance of power and speed, all eyes will be on if the offensive line can take a step forward from week one.
With BYU’s physicality and maturity waiting in the wings, there will be no better opportunity for Augustave to make a statement. If he makes the most of his carries on Saturday, the running back room conversation could get even more exciting.