FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas receiver Cobi Hamilton already has a nickname for freshman running back Jonathan Williams. He calls him “the future.”
“He’s a true running back,” Hamilton said. “You can tell he’s been playing the position for a long time. You can tell he has good instincts. …
“I’ll be the first to say that he’s going to be the future.”
It was easy to see what Hamilton was talking about Saturday night, when Williams led the ground game during the Fan Day scrimmage in Razorback Stadium. Williams had more opportunities than usual with Knile Davis sitting out and Dennis Johnson away because of his grandmother’s death. He made the most of them, too.
Ronnie Wingo handled the bulk of the first-team carries, but Williams had his share of touches and finished with a scrimmage-high 115 yards and 2 touchdowns on 18 carries. He also caught a touchdown pass from quarterback Brandon Allen.
The effort helped him earn praise from coach John L. Smith.
“Jonathan Williams is a good football player and we tried to get him a little bit more (Saturday),” Smith said. “He’s got real good vision, and he’s getting better all the time. Once in a while he’s missing some reads and he’s cutting it back when he maybe shouldn’t be and some things like that. But he’s a good football player.”
So is “the future” ready for playing time in the present?
It’s an interesting question. And one Arkansas’ coaches will have to decide — along with the rest of the 2012 freshman class — as the Razorbacks inch closer to the Sept. 1 season opener against Jacksonville State.
Williams, an Allen, Texas, native, has shown Smith and the Arkansas coaching staff enough this preseason to convince them he’s ready for playing time. His scrimmage performance Saturday included some late work against the first-team defense, which he capped with a 24-yard touchdown run.
It doesn’t mean he’s going to get any, though, with Davis, Johnson, Wingo and Kody Walker expected to handle the bulk of the carries out of the backfield.
Smith said Arkansas – at this point – would like to redshirt Williams if it can.
“Well, with the guys that we have, that would be great if we could,” Smith said. “But he’s mature enough that he can play this year should we need him. … If we don’t have to use him, we’re definitely not going to use him. But he’s capable.”
Williams is the clear leader in a three-man running back class that includes Nate Holmes and Donovan Roberts. Holmes, however, could find his way on the field for special teams as a freshman because of his speed and big-play ability.
It’s clear Arkansas will continue to prepare Williams for playing time this season, preparing the freshman in case there are injuries in the backfield. But it’s clear Arkansas likes the potential it sees in the future with Williams at running back.
“He’s incredible,” Arkansas quarterback Tyler Wilson said. “I think he’s going to be a guy in the future that plays really, really well. He attacks. I like the way he plays. He plays fast and he plays hard and he’s hungry. He wants to be out there. …
“He could help us out, maybe, a little this year.”
Arkansas held Knile Davis out of a scrimmage for the second straight week, meaning the running back was not tackled to the ground during preseason camp.
Smith was non-committal when asked afterward if the plan changes now that practices are closed to the public.
“We’ve always had a philosophy, get the good guys to the game,” Smith said. “So to answer your question, I don’t know.”
The Arkansas defense should receive a boost Monday, when linebackers Alonzo Highsmith and Tenarius Wright and safety Eric Bennett are scheduled to return to practice. All three have been sidelined by injuries most of the preseason.
Smith said receiver Keante Minor, who missed time last week with a shoulder injury, should be ready to practice Wednesday. There’s no timetable set for tight end Brett Weir, who has been sidelined most of the preseason.
“He had a ding and I guess he’s had it before,” Smith said. “So we’re being very, very cautious and careful before bringing him back. He just has to work through that.”