FAYETTEVILLE — Freshman running back Ronnie Wingo Jr. was introduced to college life even before Arkansas opened the fall semester on Monday.
Granted, Wingo's introduction came in the form of grueling two-a-day practices that often left him and his teammates feeling sore and exhausted.
Over the past three weeks, the highly touted freshman has tried to get accustomed to Arkansas coach Bobby Petrino's fast-paced practices. He has studied his playbook and accepted criticism, all in the hopes of showing coaches that he deserves playing time as an 18-year-old tailback.
"I think I have. Teammates tell me I have, so that's really what I'm going off of," Wingo said when asked if he has put himself in position to crack Arkansas' running back rotation. "I got to just keep doing work. We have two more weeks till the first game, so I just got to keep putting in work in practice and just go from there."
So far, all signs appear to be pointing toward Wingo playing as a freshman, even though he's one of at least six running backs competing for playing time.
The 6-foot-3, 218-pound freshman continued to impress Petrino by showing in Saturday's full scrimmage that he can be a big, physical runner who also has the speed and ability to catch the ball out of the backfield.
Getting work with Arkansas' first, second and third-team offenses, Wingo caught five passes for 37 yards to go along with his 56 yards on 19 carries. He used his strength to pick up yards after contact, and he set up quarterback Tyler Wilson's first touchdown pass with a 23-yard reception to the 4.
"Ronnie's a very good football player. I've liked what I've seen a lot this past week," Petrino said. "He's really grown up. He's tough. He's got something special about him."
Wingo's performance came a week after he rushed 13 times for 32 yards and caught four passes for 34 yards and a touchdown in Arkansas' first full scrimmage.
"I strive to be a complete back, where I can come up and block, run, catch out of the backfield and everything," said Wingo, who was a record-breaking running back at St. Louis University (Mo.) High. "I like catching out of the backfield because it's more space and open field and I can use my speed more."
Arkansas' running back rotation, which was uncertain at the start of preseason camp, appears to finally be shaking out. Senior Michael Smith has solidified his place as the starter, and sophomore Dennis Johnson has used his versatility to move up the depth chart.
Sophomore Broderick Green also appears to be in line for playing time, even though he's missed the past week because of a high fever. And then there's Wingo, who has shown he can be the big running back that Petrino wants on goal-line and short-yardage plays.
"Ronnie has quickly progressed. He hasn't slowly progressed at all," Johnson said. "... He has come (and) he's showed us he's tough, physical. He's a big, big, big back."
Petrino, however, said Wingo needs to develop more into a straight-ahead runner and not try as much to make defenders miss by dancing in the backfield. It's a habit that freshman tailbacks must often get over.
"He can really run with the ball. He can make guys miss," Petrino said of Wingo. "The thing that him and Knile (Davis) are learning now is basically you're going to get one move and then you better go north and south because the speed of the game.
"It's not high school anymore."
So far, though, college life has been good to Wingo.
Inside the UA ... Running Backs
Best of the Bunch: Michael Smith. Despite being undersized at 5-foot-9, 180 pounds, the senior proved last season that he could be Arkansas' featured back, gaining 1,072 yards and eight touchdowns on 207 carries. And he's shown lately that he's recovered from the hamstring surgery that ended his 2008 season.
Watch Out For: Dennis Johnson. The sophomore set an Arkansas single-season record with 905 yards on kickoff returns last year, and he's looking like a more complete running back as a sophomore. He's versatile and admits he has a better attitude than a year ago.
Biggest Strength: Running back is the position that the Razorbacks have the most depth at. They have at least six tailbacks competing for playing time this season, giving Arkansas coach Bobby Petrino his choice of tailbacks to use.
Biggest Question: Which running backs are going to be redshirted? While none of them want to think about it, it's almost certain that at least one or two tailbacks will be redshirted because there's just not enough carries for all of them to get on the field in 2009.
Projected Starter: Smith
Key Contributors: Johnson, Broderick Green, Ronnie Wingo Jr.
That Figures: 107.2 — Numbers of yards Smith averaged last season, which ranked second in the Southeastern Conference behind only Georgia's Knowshon Moreno's 107.7 ypg.
The Lingo: "I like the ability to rotate the running backs in there because we got some weapons coming out of the backfield."
— Bobby Petrino
Arkansas head coach
College Life's Going Well For Wingo
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