By Jason Pattyson
FAYETTEVILLE — The number 1,830 has withstood the test of time over the last 15-plus years, and it has been a single-season rushing benchmark of Razorback Football since 2007.
That was the record-setting single-season rushing total for Darren McFadden that year, and Rahiem Sanders has his sights set on that too. If you think back, and for some fans, it was only yesterday that the running back room was stacked that season, too, just like the current roster.
“Honestly, from the outside, it looks difficult, but for me, it is fun. I’ve got 1A, 1B, 1C, and I’ve got Dominique and Isaiah on the way. It ain’t difficult for me. It’s fun,” Running Backs Coach Jimmy Smith said about the group. “They compete. Like I say about the guys all the time. It’s fun because I know one is going in to run for 10, and the other one is thinking maybe I can run for 15. The next one is saying give it to me, and I’ll run for 20. They’re not selfish at all. They all want to see each other be successful, and they all want to do better. It’s a fun thing for me.”
The cast on that 2007 team was much like this group, with versatility and explosive options at Head Coach Sam Pittman and Dan Enos’s fingertips. Rocket is the silent leader of this group and leads by example, but willing to give a young guy help at any time.
“It’s just a blessing to have that position, you know,” Sanders said. “But, like from the jump coming in, I’ve always been quiet, so I want to stay quiet for sure, but I’m going to be there to help somebody next to me and somebody in front of me because I want to be great as a unit, not just me.”
Coach Smith feels like Rocket has embraced this leadership role, and he is starting to excel at it.
“That’s something he’s been working on, understanding he’s going to be a guy who is a leader for us,” Smith said. “Sanders isn’t talkative, so it’s hard for him at first, but now he’s doing it even more because the guys are looking to him for it. He’s taking on that role.”
Sanders returns for his junior season after being edged out by Ole Miss returning junior Quinshon Judkins for the SEC Rushing title a year ago. Sanders compiled 1,443 yards on the ground on 222 carries with 10 touchdowns, whereas Judkins had 1,567 yards on 274 carries and 16 scores.
Strength coach Ben Sowders has helped transform the running backs room, and the entire team for that matter, and the conference took notice when Sanders arrived at SEC Media Day in prime shape. The workout plan Sowders put together has brought the team closer through groupings. He broke the team into two large groups instead of smaller ones last year. The team has a family feeling that it didn’t necessarily have so much last year.
Junior running back AJ Green feels this group is as close as ever.
“I feel that we’re way closer, but it’s likely because we’re all starting over,” Green said. “We’ve got a new staff, all that stuff, so we’re all starting over, and we’re all just connected more because our workouts were bigger groups. We’re closer this year than we were last year.”
Green attributes Coach Smith as the secret for keeping the room together. The backs knew that if they wanted to go to another school to get more playing time, they could, but they didn’t. This close-knit group wants to help each other reach their full potential plus help the team in any way possible. Overall, they feel that they have the best collection of talent here on the hill, which will only help them push each other to better the team.
At the end of the day, Sanders and the rest of the backs are sticking together, striving to be the most productive group possible and focusing on improving each day.
“Really, when it comes down to that, outside looking in, it’s like everybody figuring out who’s the one or who’s the two or whatnot,” Sanders said. “As we see, everybody’s going to work. And coach Smith buys into a way that helps everybody develop what we need to develop because everybody’s got different talents, in a way. So I feel like that’s not something we learn about. We just keep working, and that time’s going to come. At the end of the day, everybody’s going to get theirs.”
1830 may be a number we won’t see anytime soon but don’t tell that Rocket or the rest of the backs because that will be bulletin board material. If Sanders and his cohorts play their cards right, this group could lead the conference and the nation in rushing. That could lead to a magical season this team or fan base would remember for decades to come.
Arkansas will return to the practice fields on Monday morning.