Evidence points to sophomore Raheim ‘Rocket’ Sanders being Arkansas’ main back for 2022.
Alongside fall camp, other factors have benefited him in carving out the starting role. There hasn’t been a nauseating amount of injury news, but it has certainly been a reason.
Losing a senior leader such as Trelon Smith to the portal carries weight. While not a super factor statistically, his presence was certainly felt. The biggest reasons for Sanders’ emergence, however, has been his offseason improvement.
A four-star athlete out of Rockledge, Fla., Sanders became an immediate factor for the Razorbacks. In a room clustered with talent, Sanders earned 114 carries in 2021. He produced 578 yards on the ground with five trips to the end zone.
His 5.1 yards per carry average stands out. There were few blemishes, save for fumble issues in a hard-fought loss to Ole Miss.
Sanders, however, brings more than the ability to carry the ball. Listed as an athlete out of high school, he excelled as a pass catcher and in space. Transitioning to running back had its hiccups, but it eventually panned out.
Catching 11 passes in 2021, Sanders totaled 109 yards. With an average of 9.9 yards per catch, his lone receiving touchdown came against Alabama. Head coach Sam Pittman seems to believe Sanders’ progress from last season will only continue into 2022.
Dominique Johnson Recovery Process
Dominique Johnson’s knee injury was a major blow, but in his absence, Sanders will have a major opportunity. Being the fourth leading rusher on the squad in 2021, Johnson was an impact guy. His 575 yards on the ground included a team-high seven touchdowns.
Being just fast enough as a power back, he averaged an astounding 5.9 yards per carry. While Sanders looks to assume the starting role, replacing Johnson won’t be a 1-man job.
Considering Johnson was an established back already, it gave more reps to up-and-coming players at the position. Guys like Javion Hunt are expected to compete for reps with incoming freshmen Rashod Dubinion and James Jointer.
The ‘veterans’ of the group were true sophomores — as odd as it is. Taking off in Johnson’s absence was Sanders. With a balance of power and speed, Sanders getting most of the carries can only be beneficial.
“Rocket is still getting the majority of the carries as the feature back,” Pittman noted. “AJ Green and Rashod Dubinion behind him are getting (about) equal work.”
While the picture doesn’t currently include Johnson, he will be ready sooner than expected. As of Aug. 22, he had returned to practice in a green no-contact jersey. It couldn’t have come at a better time, as bad as that sounds.
With Sanders earning “the opportunity to get more work,” according to Pittman, it puts less pressure on Johnson. If the room were to be lacking notable progress, he or the coaches may have felt the need to rush his recovery.
Also sitting slightly over his desired weight, it gives Johnson time to trim back down ahead of the Sept. 3 opener against Cincinnati. Whether or not he will get reps against the Bearcats is unknown, but the lack of pressure to produce carries is a positive, especially for Sanders.
Experience Lacking in Running Backs Room
There is no shortage of bodies when breaking down the running backs stable. The one attribute that is premier for an SEC back, however, is experience. Press the buzzer because that is the biggest weakness of Arkansas’ running backs room.
The most veteran scholarship back is none other than Johnson, listed as a junior. Going down the list of scholarship players, there are only two sophomores and three freshmen (one redshirt). This is why getting younger players more reps in camp and scrimmages has been vital in Johnson’s absence.
Sanders’ 114 carries in 2021 is the most of any returning back and ranked third on the team in 2021. Jefferson, the quarterback, led the team in rush attempts, but he can’t take the bulk of the load.
For comparison’s sake, look at Kentucky in 2021. A fellow SEC team, the Wildcats utilized a feature back rather than focusing on an even distribution. Chris Rodriguez Jr. finished with 225 rushing attempts — 106 more than Arkansas’ leading back.
The running back with the second most carries for the Wildcats totaled just 81. Considering Kentucky had a 10-win season and finished in the top 20, it’s hard to argue that it wasn’t the correct approach for the Wildcats.
What a Feature Back Could Look Like
With a talented running backs room and offensive coordinator Kendal Briles’ tendency to use multiple backs, Sanders probably won’t get a Derrick Henry-esque amount of carries. With power backs, speed backs, and the field, mixing up different abilities becomes situational. This is despite Pittman claiming Johnson would get the brunt of the carries leading up to the 2021 season.
For Arkansas, there are plans to use sets with multiple backs.
“…it’s hard to take off one of the receivers or (Trey) Knox… (Briles) anticipates they’ll use (the set) at some point,” Pittman said.
Scheming up split backs proves there is confidence in the room. Being a feature back in Briles’ offense might lead to 150 to 175 carries in one season. Whether those numbers turn out to be a fact or fiction, Pittman still wants Sanders to be the top ball carrier among backs. This time, he wants to stay true to his word.
Improved Passing Attack Creates Unpredictability
Being the top Power 5 rushing team in 2021 means that opponents will gear up to stop that facet of the offense. Using multiple backs in the ground game keeps Arkansas from tipping its hand. As far as quarterbacks go, most teams respected Jefferson and Malik Hornsby’s running ability over their ability to chuck it deep. Fast forward to 2022 and things may get a little dicey if that mentality continues.
“Everyone on the field knows [Jefferson’s] the guy,” Pittman said. “He’s night and day from what he was confidence-wise at this point last year.”
The play of the pass catchers has been one of the pleasant surprises of fall camp. If that carries over into the start of the regular season, defenses will be forced to adjust accordingly. Loading the box will no longer be a viable option for slowing down what was deemed a 1-dimensional team.
Sanders’ current position wasn’t just a happenstance. Alongside his confidence and maturity, his practice efforts took off.
From an outsider’s perspective on the room, it may look like he was thrust into the position due to just Johnson’s injury. That is only a minor aspect of it all. Pittman and company have made sure the world knows he earned his spot.
What a feature running back looks like in Briles’ offense is something Arkansas fans have yet to see during his tenure. His definition of ‘feature’ might not mean 225 carries. The improved passing attack might be the independent factor in the mix.
How successful that aspect is will ultimately determine how often Sanders gets the ball. With a missing vocal man in the room, it can be his to take. Sanders is the type to use his actions rather than his words.
The 2022 season is his time. The coaches suggest he is ready.
Featured image courtesy of Arkansas athletics