FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. — Jonathan Williams first received word of Bret Bielema’s hiring at Arkansas via a tweet from former teammate Chris Gragg.
The reaction of the Razorbacks running back, after he researched Bielema’s history online, left little doubt about his hopes about the future of the offense.
“I think I might have shed a tear of joy for a second because I was so excited,” Williams said. “I like the style of power running plays that he likes to run, and I feel like it’s more my style.”
Williams will have the chance to show just how he fits into Bielema’s balanced approach this season, leading a stable of young — and unproven — running backs. It’s a group short on experience, but one the Razorbacks feel is more than ready to compete with the Southeastern Conference’s best.
Arkansas’ top two running backs from a year ago, Knile Davis and Dennis Johnson, are now in the NFL — leaving the Razorbacks without the 1,134 yards and 10 rushing touchdowns they provided last season. Williams averaged 5.1 yards per carry in limited action last season, and Bielema said the Texas native is the team’s “go-to” back this season.
“Jonathan Williams, to me, is a guy that has got power,” Bielema said. “He reminds me a lot of the backs I had at Wisconsin. He has a little bit more juice in the open field than I thought, so I’m very, very excited. ... It’s going to be fun to see Jonathan take that role and run with it.”
Williams has been pushed in preseason camp by freshman Alex Collins, one of the top recruits in the country. What Williams has shown in durability and power, rushing for 231 yards on 45 carries last season, Collins has matched with a running style in the preseason that’s been nothing short of explosive.
Sophomore Nate Holmes showed flashes of his speed last season on special teams, and senior fullback Kiero Small returns this season from a foot injury — with hopes of carrying the ball more than he did under former coach Bobby Petrino.
“I think as a group we’ll make a really big impact because all of us are different in our styles,” Collins said. “We all bring something different to the table. With all of us in the rotation, hitting a defense with a different style each time, they won’t be able to adjust to it, so I think we’ll be able to tear some defenses up this year.”
Bielema was no stranger to producing offensive success on the ground in his seven seasons at Wisconsin. Last season, Badgers running back Montee Ball broke the NCAA career records for total touchdowns (83) and rushing touchdowns (77).
Wisconsin also nearly became the first Football Bowl Subdivision school to have three running backs gain 1,000 yards during one season in 2010. James White had 1,052 yards rushing, John Clay 1,012 and Ball 996 — showing Bielema is more than willing for his running backs to share the workload.
Collins, perhaps the most heralded of Arkansas’ high school signees in February, stood out during the team’s lone open scrimmage so far this preseason. A day later, he wasn’t shy at the Razorbacks media day when talking about how much he’d like to play.
“In a perfect world, I’d like to get 20-25 carries, in my opinion,” Collins said. “I’d like to play the whole game and get as many carries as possible. In my perfect world, I would try to get as many carries as possible.”
However the playing time works itself out, running backs coach Joel Thomas knows that until the group proves itself, it will be viewed across the SEC as young and inexperienced. It’s a label he believes can change quickly, regardless of experience, and offensive coordinator Jim Chaney agreed.
“I’m very comfortable,” Chaney said “I feel like we have adequate depth at the running back and fullback positions to be able to go out there and compete with the people in the league. Let’s go do it. Let’s go see what happens.”
Copyright © 2014, Capital City Press LLC • 7290 Bluebonnet Blvd., Baton Rouge, LA 70810 • All Rights Reserved