Williams’ departure leaves Whaley as Arkansas’ top RB
FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. (AP) — Arkansas was expected to have one of the most talented running back tandems in the Southeastern Conference this season with an experienced Rawleigh Williams and up-and-comer Devwah Whaley.
The depth will now be unexpectedly tested after Monday’s announcement that Williams was leaving football after his latest injury scare.
Despite having suffered a broken neck during the 2015 season, Williams emerged as one of the top running backs in the SEC as a sophomore last season — finishing third in the league with 1,360 yards rushing and 12 touchdowns.
His departure now puts the spotlight on Whaley, a 5-foot-10, 216-pound rusher out of Texas who was signed last year in the aftermath of running backs Jonathan Williams and Alex Collins leaving early for the NFL.
“I’ve recruited a lot of good running backs,” coach Bret Bielema said in announcing Whaley’s signing. “In my opinion, he’s as good as any I’ve recruited.”
Whaley chose the Razorbacks over a host of national powers — including Alabama, Georgia, Notre Dame Stanford — after rushing for 1,701 yards and 23 touchdowns as a senior in high school. He showed glimpses of his immense talent as a freshman at Arkansas, finishing with 602 yards rushing and a 5.5-yard per rush average while backing up Williams.
His debut season included a career-best 135-yard rushing effort against Alcorn State, highlighted by a 75-yard touchdown run, and a 19-carry, 112-yard performance in a win at Mississippi State in November.
Whaley was expected to once again serve in a complementary, if not expanded, role this season until Monday, when Williams’ playing career came to an end after a “stinger” aggravated his previous neck injury during the final spring practice a week earlier.
Now, Whaley’s self-critique of his spring improvement — before Williams’ announcement — has taken on a larger importance for Arkansas.
“Me getting faster and adjusting to the game speed pace, that’s gotten a lot better for me,” Whaley said. “I feel like, overall, this spring has done me pretty well. All I can do is continue to get better going into the summer and finish out the summer going into fall camp.”
Behind Whaley, the Razorbacks have little experience at running back.
T.J. Hammonds rushed for 88 yards on 15 carries as a freshman last season, but the 5-foot-10, 197-pounder spent much of his spring as a wide receiver before moving back to running back for the final week of practice.
Bielema has high hopes for freshman Maleek Williams — 6-foot, 230-pound early enrollee out of Florida who chose Arkansas over schools such as Tennessee, Oregon and North Carolina. Another freshman, Chase Hayden out of Tennessee, also likely figures to get more of a look now when he arrives on campus this summer.
Regardless of who tries to fill Williams’ role, the Razorbacks have made it clear their former teammate will be on their minds throughout this season with a number of social-media posts and comments since Monday.
“Just because his playing career is over doesn’t mean he won’t have an influence on all of us for his rest of his time at the University of Arkansas,” quarterback Austin Allen said. “He will be with us every step of the way through this upcoming season.”
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