FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas coach Bret Bielema needs to identify dependable running backs in his plan to turn the Razorbacks into a power running team.
Sophomore Jonathan Williams showed Bielema and the rest of the coaching staff he should be a viable option during Saturday’s scrimmage in Razorback Stadium.
Williams was the star of Arkansas’ second scrimmage of the spring, rushing for 87 yards and two touchdowns on 16 carries. The Razorbacks opened the scrimmage to the public for the first time this season and the Allen, Texas, native put together a solid performance with his speed, power and agility against the first-team defense.
“Jonathan Williams does some really good things at times,” Arkansas coach Bret Bielema said. “He has become more and more of a complete back every day. We’d rather he run with his pads down a little more but a very good feel of the game.”
Williams is Arkansas’ leading returning rusher after gaining 231 yards on 45 carries behind the veteran duo of Knile Davis and Dennis Johnson last season. He’s also the only running back with experience on the roster this spring, leading a group that includes Nate Holmes, Keante Minor, Patrick Arinze and Jojo Wynn.
He showed it Saturday. Williams gained positive yardage on 15 of his 16 carries on Saturday and it included a scrimmage-high 14-yard attempt. He also led Arkansas’ goal line work, scoring two touchdowns from the four-yard line.
“(Running backs) coach (Joel) Thomas has a chart that he really believes in that has made him into a great running back coach during his career,” Bielema said. “That’s just (yards after contact). How many YACs are expected in a game. How many YACs after a touch. It was a major point of emphasis in our week of preparation for this (scrimmage). It really showed up (Saturday).”
Williams said earlier this spring he’s adapting to being the first-team running back after his reserve role this season. Arkansas will have highly-touted running back Alex Collins on campus later this summer, but Williams said his biggest concern is staying on top of the depth chart through spring practices.
“It's exciting, but it comes with a lot of pressure,” Williams said in late March. “But I'm not worried about that. I’ve just got to keep working hard and I have a lot of good guys behind me in Kody Walker and Nate Holmes. They're really good.”
Williams was clearly the best back in a scrimmage that emphasized physical play and the run game Saturday. Arkansas ran the ball on the first five plays and quarterbacks handed it off 54 times in the 101-play scrimmage.
First-team quarterback Brandon Allen completed 9 of 13 passes for 97 yards with a touchdown and interception. Brandon Mitchell went 7-for-16 for 67 yards with an interception. The numbers were much different than scrimmages under former coach Bobby Petrino, when quarterbacks regularly topped the 300-yard mark.
“Offensively, the biggest thing we had to install when we got here there was a lot of plays of power football, downhill, knocking guys off,” Bielema said. “
Bielema said his new group is still learning the nuances of the power run game, but its best work came in goal-line situations in the middle of the practice.
The Razorbacks put the ball at the four yard line for six straight series and the offense scored five times. All five touchdowns came on first down, too. Williams (two), Kiero Small and Jojo Wynn had rushing touchdowns. Allen also threw a 4-yard touchdown pass to tight end Jeremy Sprinkle.
“We lined up to it Thursday and kind of walked through it, but goal line is a mentality and I thought our offense really brought it down there and executed,” Bielema said. “On the flipside of it, defense, there were some positive things, but there is where we lost leverage on the ball a couple of times.
“We had the ball stopped at the point of attack. The ball bounced out because a couple of guys on the edges fell asleep and we got a touchdown.”
The five touchdowns in goal-line work were the only ones allowed by the defense Saturday, though. Neither offense could put together a long scoring drive.
Allen came closest, leading the Razorbacks down the field in the second half of the scrimmage. But the drive stalled when a pass intended for receiver Demetrius Wilson was intercepted by safety Eric Bennett in the end zone.
Cornerbacks Carroll Washington and Ray Buchanan Jr. also collected interceptions Saturday. Linebacker Austin Jones recovered a fumble and returned it for a touchdown. The defense also got seven sacks from seven different players as Arkansas completed its ninth spring practice of the spring.
“Defensively, I thought we were a little slow out of the gate,” Bielema said. “They’ve got a tremendous amount of talent over there and certain guys in my opinion are very, very gifted football players. But they’ve got to learn the first snap is just as important as the 60th snap. So we’ve got to wake up and play a little bit better at the beginning of those practices.”