This is the eighth story in a 10-part series previewing the 2014 Razorbacks. Up next: Defensive line
FAYETTEVILLE — Jonathan Williams has heard all the comparisons to Arkansas’ elite trio of running backs since spring practice. The junior is flattered by them.
Williams, Alex Collins and Korliss Marshall consider it a hefty honor to be regarded as a close resemblance to former Razorbacks Darren McFadden, Felix Jones and Peyton Hillis, who powered Arkansas’ run-oriented offense from 2005-07. But Williams doesn’t want to get carried away as the trio readies for its own run through the Southeastern Conference. It’s premature to be mentioned in the same breath.
“Those guys, they accomplished a whole lot in their time at the University of Arkansas and still are accomplishing a lot,” Williams said. “I don’t really like to compare us to them, You can’t really compare anybody to them. They’re a unique group and we’re trying to set our own trends, trying to have our own name.”
It won’t be long, though, until Arkansas’ three talented backs — labeled 1A, 1B and 1C by coach Bret Bielema — will get their chance to leave a mark on the program.
The Razorbacks have put in plenty of work to improve a passing offense that lagged behind last season, but there’s no doubt a powerful ground game remains the program’s identity. Arkansas, which was dubbed “Running Back U” by ESPN.com earlier this summer, has made sure there’s an abundance of options to choose from.
Who gets the ball first? Who gets it more? How do you keep all three happy?
The Razorbacks have been peppered with those questions since the spring. But Arkansas quarterback Brandon Allen believes the most difficult question is for opponents this season: How do you stop all three?
“It’s going to be real tough on defenses,” Allen said. “You have that 1-2-3 punch, there’s really no down time for any defenses when they’re out there. I think all three of them do a great job. They have their own specific abilities and they’re going to be a huge help for this team.”
That was Bielema’s aim when he took over the program.
“For those of you that didn’t know, I like good running backs,” Bielema said.
Collins (1,026 yards, 4 touchdowns) and Williams (900 yards, 4 touchdowns) teamed to form a strong 1-2 punch last season. The two backs carried the load for a one-dimensional offense and enjoyed success despite Arkansas’ struggles.
They’ve earned respect in the offseason, too, after being named to the preseason watch lists for the Maxwell and Doak Walker awards earlier this summer.
“Alex is the vision and cut guy like I have never seen,” Marshall said. “I have never seen anyone with vision like he has. And Jonathan is just strong, man, I have never seen anyone run with the intensity and power that he ran with.”
But Marshall has made his own impression since moving to the position full-time last spring. He ripped off a 59-yard touchdown run in the Red-white Game. He had a 57-yarder to close last week’s scrimmage. There’s no question the sophomore has become Arkansas’ most explosive back, giving the Hogs a legitimate big-play threat.
“He’s one of those freaks of nature that when you think he’s at top speed, he’s got another gear he just kicks it in,” Allen said.
Balancing the workload between the three can be challenging. But it can be done.
Arkansas can relate to McFadden, Jones and Hillis as example. Bielema can point to his first Rose Bowl team at Wisconsin, which had incredible balance in the backfield between James White (1,052 yards, 14 touchdowns), John Clay (1,012 yards, 14 touchdowns) and Montee Ball (996 yards, 18 touchdowns).
So running backs coach Joel Thomas doesn’t envision any unhappiness in his group.
“I have never known that to be an issue to be honest with you,” Thomas said. “They handle themselves pretty well. They all understand that they need each other to get through the rigors of this season. … It’s a physical league. They understand they need each other not necessarily to survive but to be great at the job.”
The first three weeks of preseason practice has shown all three they’ll need each other to reach their goals. Injuries of any kind are just part of the position.
Collins missed the first scrimmage because of a hip injury, while Williams has been slowed with a strained hamstring. But the ground game still excelled with Williams last week because of Marshall (102 yards, 3 TDs) and Collins (63 yards, TD).
“When we split carries, we embrace it because if you just imagine taking all the carries by yourself, toward the fifth or sixth game, you’re all beat up, you’re on the verge of getting hurt,” Collins said. “It keeps us with fresh legs and it just keeps us going, splitting carries. So, we don’t mind it.”
All three running backs know their strengths. All three understand their roles, too.
It’s not exactly clear how Arkansas plans to divide the carries or how it will get all three involved when they open against Auburn next Saturday. But Williams said it’s no secret what will keep any running back on the field.
“Everybody wants the ball, but the hot hand is going to get the ball,” Williams said. “If you’re not getting the ball, that means you’re not the hot guy and you don’t have too much to complain about if you’re not the hot guy. … We’re going to need all three of us be able to win games this year. We’ll all contribute.”
The trio of Arkansas running backs hope the results are memorable as they try to make their mark on the program. Much like their backfield predecessors.
“We’re not satisfied just for being great,” Collins said. “We want to be the best.”
A Closer Look At … RUNNING BACKS
Best of the Bunch: Jonathan Williams — It’s hard to pick, but Arkansas views Williams as the group’s leader because of his experience and work ethic. There’s no doubt he showed off the top combination of strength and speed last season, picking up difficult yards and outrunning opponents. Coach Bret Bielema also has been impressed with Williams’ commitment to the program. He’ll likely start at Auburn.
Watch Out For: Korliss Marshall — Bielema has been around a lot of backs, but believes Marshall may be the most explosive and gifted. After getting a taste of the position last season, Marshall is a full-time back now and appears primed for a big year. Marshall broke a 59-yard run in the Red-White Game and proved it wasn’t a fluke last week, sprinting to a 57-yard touchdown run in last week’s scrimmage.
Biggest Question: Does Arkansas have a fullback it trusts to put in front of the three tailbacks? Turns out the Razorbacks really, really miss Kiero Small leading the way through a hole. Kody Walker and Patrick Arinze are the top options to replace Small, who is with the Seattle Seahawks, after three weeks of preseason camp. But Arkansas enters Auburn week with uncertainty at an important position.
Projected Starters: Jonathan Williams, Jr., (900 yards, 4 TDs in 2013); Alex Collins, So., (1,026 yards, 4 TDs in 2013); Korliss Marshall, So. (146 yards in 2013)
Other Contributors: Kody Walker, Jr.; Patrick Arinze, Sr.; Denzell Evans, RS-Fr.
That Figures: 8 — Consecutive seasons a Bret Bielema-coached team has had a 1,000-yard rusher. Collins extended the streak with 1,026 yards in 2013. The streak has a good chance to stretch to nine this fall with three running backs capable of producing big seasons. But, interestingly, 2010 is the only year Bielema has had two running backs top the 1,000-yard mark (James White and John Clay).
Quotable: “It feels good because that’s the goal I set last season when the season ended. Just to gain weight and be able to play with it at the same level I want to play at. In the scrimmage it felt good. I’m running heavier, more downfield and breaking a few tackles. It just feels good to accomplish a goal that I set myself.” — Collins, who added roughly 15 pounds in the offseason to become a more physical runner.
— Robbie Neiswanger • Arkansas News Bureau