One of the more challenging positions on the Arkansas coaching staff right now is that of Razorback running backs coach Joel Thomas, who joined head coach Bret Bielema's staff from Washington.
He has a group of running backs – including 6-0, 220-pound sophomore tailback Jonathan Williams (45 carries for 231 yards and two touchdowns last season) and 5-9, 245-pound senior fullback Kiero Small (who has played in 14 games in his career), but not a lot of them and certainly not ones that have a plethora of SEC experience.
Williams, who also added eight catches for 208 yards and a 77-yard touchdown in 2012, was the chief ballcarrier in last Saturday's scrimmage with 13 carries for 87 yards – almost half of that coming after first contact - while Small led the way and also showed his punch on the goal line.
"It has been nice to kind of see those two step their game up," Thomas said Tuesday after his team finished the 10th of 15 allotted practices this spring. "Next question is the guys who are going to develop in behind them. That's why you keep on going through spring ball behind these last five practices."
He was impressed with what he saw from Williams, the former Allen (Texas) High standout who chose Arkansas over Missouri, Texas A&M and others.
"I thought Jonathan Williams started taking some steps as far as far as us asking him to run a little more physically, getting his pads north-south, getting behind pads and get downhill," Thomas said. "He has started taking that step. I calculated 92 yards, somebody had 88....of that he had 47 yards after contact, which comes to about 2.9 average and the goal for us is three as we are carrying the ball so we are almost getting to that goal. The next step after that is to be consistent with that goal.
"That's why you have spring ball and don't just go out there and have the first game without practicing," Thomas said. "You have spring ball to develop an attitude and a mentality."
Thomas also thought Williams showed better ball protection in Saturday's scrimmage than he did the one the week earlier.
"It's gotten better," Thomas said. "It is not perfect yet, but it is a 15-practice process and I really believe that got better Saturday as well. It's not necessarily the fumbling, which he has not done, but opportunities for the defense to get the ball when it is loose away from the body. That is just not something that we are going to allow and we are going to coach it up every single opportunity we can."
Small was a big hit with not only defenders in Saturday's scrimmage and with his new coach.
"Obviously Kiero Small – I can't rave enough about him," Thomas said. "He had one of the better scrimmages I have graded for a fullback or a running back ever. He graded out at about 97 percent. Assignment-wise he is awesome. He brings a certain physicality to his game as well."
Small may be the number two tailback at this point although five-star signee Alex Collins is expected to jump right into the mix upon his arrival in Fayetteville.
"He gets all the ones with out two-back set," Thomas said. "He's in there at the fullback. Then I would probably say he probably got about nine snaps as a true tailback in the scrimmage there."
Sophomore Nate Holmes (6-1, 170) had three carries for eight yards last season while also returning 11 punts for 70 yards.
He has the best pure speed of the backs, but has not gotten in open space yet this spring in the scrimmages to show it off.
"The biggest thing with him is just picking up his job, learning his assignments and the details of that assignment," Thomas said. "That is me as a coach. I have to continue to harp on him to get him corrected. Once he does that I think you are going to see some splashes. But until it happens, it is that word potential. You've got speed, now you have to find a way to do something with it and us as coaches find something to do with it to utilize it."
Junior College transfer walk on Patrick Arinze (5-10, 244) did have a nice first scrimmage and also delivered a crunching blow to linebacker Robert Atiga last Saturday, but was stymied for the most part by the defense.
"With Patrick, you keep seeing flashes," Thomas said. "The thing that we talked about yesterday is that he had that first scrimmage where he was kind of the unknown – a bigger guy running downhill and everything. The defense, he didn't catch them off guard this time.
"What Patrick has to learn to do is be consistent with his play as well," Thomas said. "I am not saying he got humbled a little bit, but it was a different outcome as far as his productivity. He played hard, he played assignment football, but you have got to understand you have to be consistent with your play at running back or fullback, not high and low just because something doesn't work out the same way it did the week before."
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