FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. – Arkansas opened SEC action with a 44-30 win on over visiting South Carolina on Saturday before 72,437 fans at Reynolds Razorback Stadium in large part to one Sanders on offense and another on defense.

Sophomore tailback Rocket Sanders rushed 24 times for 156 yards and two touchdowns while Alabama transfer linebacker Drew Sanders had a team-leading 11 tackles, 2 sacks among his 3 tackles for lost yardage, 2 forced fumbles, a pass break up and a quarterback hurry.

Rocket Sanders had 20 carries for 117 yards in last week’s 31-24 win over Cincinnati after having 578 yards and five scores as a true freshman.

“Yeah, he’s getting better, isn’t he? Arkansas head coach Sam Pittman said. “I think he’s becoming an all-around back a little bit more. He’s blocking better in protection, he’s running the ball, falling forward better.

“I thought he got tired after that long (46-yard) run down the sideline when Warren Thompson got the holding call. Other than that, I thought he played really, really well.

“A hundred and something yards rushing, 2 100-yard games back-to-back is pretty good. He’s a better back than he was a year ago. He’s playing well.”

Sanders (6-3, 227) becomes the third Arkansas running back to run for over 150 yards against South Carolina with Darren McFadden (321) and Felix Jones (166) doing it in the same game.

“It feels good,” Sanders said. “Of course, I want to be better than those guys. That’s my goal. But it feels great.”

He’ll be in the training room on Sunday getting treatment to be ready to go against visiting Missouri State next Saturday.

“I feel good, actually,” Sanders said. “I take everything serious outside of football as well as in like treatment. I’m in there everyday. So I know what’s in front of me and I’ve just got to attack it.”

Sanders is getting an increased workload with the injury  to Dominique Johnson, who dressed out but didn’t play again this week.

“I felt like today ‘Keep giving it to me,’” Sanders said. “I talked to the running backs coach, (Jimmy) Smith, and it was like keep running it. Talking to the running backs and receivers I felt we could have run inside zone, outside zone.”

Sanders also had 3 catches for 30 yards against South Carolina after hauling in 11 passes for 109 yards in 2021.

“He has good hands,” Pittman said. “We’re not a huge screen game team. We did a shovel, a couple of them today. If we’re running draws it’s usually … If you’re running a draw, a shovel or a screen to kind of slow the pass rush down and we were able to do that a little bit with him today and Trey Knox. And we ran a draw with KJ as well. 

“Sometimes you’ve got to slow the pass rush down and that’s kind of our…to kind of slow the pass rush down a little bit.”

Arkansas safety Simeon Blair, elevated to captain with Jalen Catalon’s season-ending shoulder injury, is happy the Gamecocks were the ones having to tackle Rocket Sanders.

“Man, it’s good for me to not have to tackle him this time,” Blair said. “It’s good for somebody else to have tackle him. He definitely had a good game. You can see a lot of improvement from last year to this year. I feel like he’s more shifty. 

“He’s very much in shape, and he’s a load to tackle. He had a very great game. It seemed like every time I looked up he was taking the ball for about 6-7 yards every time he got the ball.”

Drew Sanders (6-5, 233) had five tackles with a sack against Cincinnati and improved on that effort a week later.

“I felt pretty great going into the game,” Drew Sanders  said. “ I felt comfortable and confident with what our defense had us doing. it just put me in a great position to make plays, and I just did my best to do my job.”

Blair lauded the play of Sanders, who had 24 tackles while starting three games for the Crimson Tide last season as a sophomore.

“Drew did a great job,”  We’ve been harping on him ever since he got here. We love him. He’s a hard worker. He’s not going to say much, but he’s always going to do what he’s supposed to do. We’re finally getting him to open up a little bit more. 

“He’s definitely a playmaker. He does his job. We know if we send him on a blitz he’s 9 times out of 10 going to get the sack. If not, he’s going to pressure the quarterback. I feel like Drew is just a great player and we love to have him around.”

Georgia transfer cornerback Latavious Brini, who forced a fumble, shared some of those same sentiments.

“Man, Drew had a great game today,” Brini said. “I look up, I see Drew making a play every time. I turned to somebody and I said, ‘That’s Drew? Drew is making that play?’ Drew did great. Drew is awesome. He’s a great person.”

Photo by John D. James