BRISTOL, Conn. -- Bret Bielema isn't worried about what his running game looks like to the outside world. To the burly, boastful coach, he's more excited than probably anyone else about the guys set to carry the rock for the Arkansas Razorbacks.
On paper, yes, people have every right to be skeptical about Arkansas' backfield. Bell cow backs Alex Collins and Jonathan Williams are gone. Kody Walker, a sixth-year senior who has been plagued by injuries, is coming off mid-spring foot surgery. Rawleigh Williams underwent neck surgery last year after the Auburn game and didn't go through contact this spring. The two have combined for 898 yards and 14 touchdowns.
Coaches even moved receiver Damon Mitchell, a.k.a "Duwop," to running back. Denzell Evans and Juan Day also got reps this spring, but Evans has since transferred and Day has carried the ball just four times for 17 yards in his career. Bielema loves freshman Devwah Whaley, but he has zero collegiate experience.
But all those issues are just fodder for Bielema and new running backs coach Reggie Mitchell to seamlessly wade through -- kind of like Bielema's backs have sliced through lines for years. See, the inexperience and injuries aren't worrying Bielema because he thinks he once again has a bullish backfield to unleash on the SEC.
“We’ve got three or four running backs who I think are pretty legit," Bielema said during last week's SEC coaches car wash at ESPN's headquarters.
For starters, Williams, who Bielema sees as a 1,000-yard back, was cleared by doctors to take contact this spring, but Bielema wanted to be cautious with him. After all, there's no need to rush someone back who just broke his neck a few months earlier. Physically, Williams "looks great" to Bielema and has slimmed down to help him be an even shiftier runner for the Hogs this fall.
Walker, who should get some time at fullback as well, is down to 240 pounds after playing at 265 pounds last year. Bielema thinks weight loss will make Walker a much faster and more agile player.
Mitchell could be a nice change-of-pace back for the Razorbacks. He won't be a hefty carrier for Arkansas, but he'll give the Hogs a little more slashing ability in the run game and will take some pressure off the workhorse backs.
Williams will likely claim one of the top spots, with Walker playing both running back and fullback, but the other running back spot could go to one of Arkansas' two talented freshmen. T.J. Hammonds is a jitterbug who could really change things up in the offense if he can get a hold of the scheme during fall camp, but the real star could be Whaley. The Beaumont, Texas, stud was the nation's No. 6-ranked running back prospect in the 2016 recruiting class, and Bielema has been amazed at the natural talent he possess.
The powerful, speedy runner fits the mold of many of Bielema's past backs, and Bielema is hoping that Whaley immediately comes into his own inside this offense.
“He might be the most complete running back I’ve ever signed," Bielema said. "He’s serious.”
Regardless of how quickly Whaley adapts to what the Hogs want to do, Bielema is far from a one-back man. When you look at Bielema's body of work, 2015 served as more of an aberration. Collins rushed for 1,577 yards, but Walker was a distant second with 394 yards. The year before, Collins and Jonathan Williams, who missed the 2015 regular season with a foot injury, combined for 2,290 yards. The season prior, the two rushed for 1,926 yards.
Bielema said his love for a multi-back system began in 2010 at Wisconsin when John Clay and James White both rushed for 1,000 yards and Montee Ball hit 996. During his next two seasons, he had two backs hit at least 700 yards.
“We were really good that year," Bielema said of his 2010 Big Ten champion Badgers. "I mean we wore the piss out of people, but people don’t want to play that way.”
Bielema has mastered the multi-back system, and he sees it as his ticket to keeping his less experienced running game going in 2016.