TAMPA, Fla. — Arkansas enters the Outback Bowl with four players having rushed for 498 or more yards.
One is quarterback KJ Jefferson, but the other trio are running backs. Trelon Smith has 117 carries for 592 yards and five touchdowns while catching four passes for 21 yards, Rocket Sanders has 101 attempts for 499 yards and three touchdowns while grabbing 11 passes for 109 yards and a touchdown. Dominique Johnson has 86 carries for 498 yards and seven touchdowns as well as catching six passes for 74 yards and a touchdown. Another true freshman AJ Green has 43 attempts for 201 yards and a touchdown while catching seven passes for 84 yards and a touchdown.
Smith entered the season as Arkansas’ leading rusher in 2020. Played in all 10 games and made four starts, earning feature back duties the last three weeks of the season when Rakeem Boyd opted out. Produced team-bests by rushing 134 times for 710 yards (5.3 ypc) and five touchdowns. Led the team in rushing in eight games. Ranked as the team’s third-leading receiver catching 22 passes for 159 yards, the fifth-most on the team, and one score. Given all that how difficult has it been to share running back duties this season?
“The running back room we have here man, it’s a talented room,” Smith said. “You’ve got different backs with different talents. We’re all different in our different ways. This year splitting up the reps, I really didn’t have a problem with it. We’re all good backs and I want to see everybody win. So Dom got an opportunity to go out there and shine, have his breakout year, seeing Rocket go out there and have his breakout year, even AJ, you know I was blessed and happy to see those guys having fun and we were all doing it out there together. That was the most important part about it.”
Johnson said Jimmy Smith, who coaches the running backs, has some lofty goals for Saturday’s game.
“Our coach, Coach Smith, he wants to break the record for most rushing yards in the Outback Bowl,” Johnson said. “I think its 400 yards. Our running game is going to be a big emphasis. That’s all we’ve been talking about is breaking that record. So you’ll see a lot from us this time Saturday.”
Johnson was banged up late in the season and it showed as his production tailed off. But the time off has made a difference for the redshirt freshman.
“Yeah, coming off Missouri I got injured,” Johnson said. “This game I’m looking to come back and make a statement. The last two games weren’t good for me obviously because I was hurting and didn’t get to play much. So I’m looking forward to this game. I’ve got a lot to prove this game.”
Sanders is a true freshman from The Sunshine State so he is enjoying playing a game close to his home and expecting a large contingent of family and friends at the game.
“Definitely,” Sanders said. “Because I’ve got a lot of family down here in Rockledge, (Fla.) which is just about two hours away. So they are going to be.”
When asked if this team was motivated to play in this game Sanders was quick to respond.
“I think we should treat this game just like Texas with them trying to come into the SEC,” Sanders said. “So I feel like we come and attack Penn State just like that.”
When Sam Pittman was coaching the offensive line Alex Collins had huge success as the featured running back in 2015. Collins had 271 carries for 1,577 yards and 20 touchdowns in 2015 before heading to the NFL. Pittman was asked had Arkansas gone with one featured running back this season would someone have gotten to a 1,000 yards?
“I think so,” Pittman said. “I think if we didn’t play so many different running backs, especially when guys got in grooves in games and things of that nature. Against Missouri, we were losing guys and having injuries. We went into it beat up just a little bit. Rocket had a shoulder. I think we had some guys that are capable on our team if they had been the sole feature back to rush for 1,000 yards.”
Arkansas and Penn State will kickoff at 11 a.m. CT on Saturday and televised on ESPN2.