By Otis Kirk

FAYETTEVILLE — When Rocket Sanders arrived at Arkansas in January, 2021, many assumed it was to be a wide receiver or even safety, but Jimmy Smith and the Razorbacks had different plans.

They put Sanders at running back and he had a big freshman season. Sanders rushed 114 times for 578 yards and five touchdowns. He also caught 11 passes for 109 yards and a touchdown. This season, Sam Pittman says Sanders is at the top of the depth chart though it will still be by committee some at that spot.

“I believe that in this league, it’s such a big league, a physical league, that you’re probably not going to … a lot of teams don’t have a feature back,” Pittman said. “They’ll do it kind of by committee. Obviously if you have one who is that much better than somebody else, you’re going to give him 8-10 carries more per game than the next guy. But kind of where we’re at is we feel like we’ve got three guys that — four when Dominique (Johnson) gets back — that we feel like we can have success with. Obviously you have a depth chart for a reason. With Rocket being No. 1 on that. We just try to keep them fresh. But if Rocket’s fresh he’s going to get the majority of the carries.”

One person who blocks for Sanders is center Ricky Stromberg. The talented center is impressed with what Sanders brings to the position.

“Yeah, Rocket’s a phenomenal player,” Stromberg said. “He’s one of the most sculpted backs I’ve seen. He’s huge. He could run the ball, and he can run down your throat. He’s fast, too. I just see a lot of upside with him, potential.”

Sanders is up to 228 pounds for his sophomore season. Following Saturday’s practice, Sanders talked about why he’s a better running back this season than last.

“With me, I feel like coming in and picking up from last year, definitely coming in from spring and now, it’s just reading it more and being patient,” Sanders said. “Just waiting on the snap. I feel like that’s a big thing that I’ve been working on this year to help me find a better hole than what it was last year.”

With Dominique Johnson still mending from surgery following the 2021 season, Sanders was asked if he feels that is why he has moved up the depth chart or just his own improvement?

“When it comes down that, when it comes down to Coach Jimmy (Smith) as a coach, that one position is there for me, yeah,” Smith said. “But at the same time I feel like he goes off by, who’s going to show up? I feel like as a running back, us moving around as running backs last year, I feel this year, even if we do that, everybody will get their reps and show their talents. I feel like that one position is for anybody.”

Smith also likes that Sanders has added muscle to get to 228 pounds and looks the part of an SEC running back.

“His body, he was always one of those guys with a nice frame,” Smith said. “He loves to lift weights. Loves to work out. The thing with him that was amazing to me is how in everything he does, school, football, film, he wants to be great. He came in and running back wasn’t really his specialty. He got the ball but he didn’t really understand how to play running back. He put the work in and the time and he’s getting better and better at it. He came a long way in a year.”

Smith also talked about how much more advanced that Sanders is as a running back after two springs and a full season at the position.

“He came as far as I’ve ever seen anybody come at a position that they didn’t really play,” Smith said. “He’s calling out protections now. He knows when he makes a mistake. He will tell me when he makes a mistake, and that’s really important. For a guy to do something and tell you when they made a mistake, that tells you he really understands what you want from him.”

Sanders and Arkansas topped all Power 5 schools in 2021 in rushing. That was an accomplishment that Sanders liked.

“It was actually big coming in as a young group,” Sanders said. “But I feel like we’ve still got a lot of things to work on and I feel like this is going to be our year to break the record. That’s our goal. But I feel good, we feel good as a group. But I feel like at the end of the day we’ve still got a lot more to work on.”

Having KJ Jefferson at quarterback is almost like having another running back in the backfield. Sanders feels that is a definite help to the running game.

“Definitely as a running back,” Sanders said. “Just in general, with any team we play, they have to worry about both of us when it comes down to the run game. So it helps us on our running and it helps KJ, as well, on his faking.”

Jefferson is also pleased to have Sanders in the backfield with him. He talked about the skillset that Sanders has at running back.

“Just confident,” Jefferson said. “He came in and soaked it all in as a sponge. He’s asking questions, asking me questions about the offense and different play calls and why we’re calling this play, so he’s really in-tune to what we’re doing on the offensive side of the ball. From a running back depth standpoint, all those guys can be able to be that guy. The talent and skillsets of those guys bring to the table, it’s a huge advantage and causes a lot of chaos on the defense. All of them can catch out of the backfield, have great routes, stick routes. They’re also home-run hitters as well. Just having a running back room like we have, it’s truly an advantage.”

With Pittman saying if he’s healthy Sanders is going to get more carries than the other running backs. Sanders is fine with that aspect of the game.

“When it comes down to it, I feel like with the more carries, I feel good about it of course,” Sanders said. “But at the same time, with me coming in and coming in early, that was pretty good. But coming in next year, or not next year, but this upcoming year, with a lot of carries, I feel like I should take advantage of that and just set more goals for myself. And not even just for myself but as for everybody else that’s in that room, as well.”

Sanders is pleased that he ended up at running back and playing for Smith. Sanders spoke very highly of Smith on Saturday.

“Definitely coming in as a receiver and switching over to him, he gave me confidence as in just learning new things as a running back,” Sanders said. “Just being with him, I play relaxed. When I first came in, I was so tense. So now, coming in this season working on new things with him, it’s good because he’s telling me, ‘Relax and don’t bury yourself when you mess up on one play.'”

Sanders feels the honesty of Smith is what helps make the running back room a successful one and keeps everyone prepared to play.

“When it comes down to that, I feel like just having somebody that’ll just keep it 100 with you is good because you know his next move,” Sanders said. “As in, like, him telling us about just the depth chart, and not even just the depth chart, but just in general, when he told us about, like, ‘If y’all do transfer, I’ll help y’all.’ I feel like that’s a big part and feeling like he do care for us.”

Arkansas will return to the practice fields on Sunday afternoon.