Injuries are an unfortunate part of college football, and those like the one to Jonathan Williams are among the most crushing. Williams could have gone pro after last season's nearly 1,200-yard campaign, but he decided to come back to try to have a special year with his teammates. Instead, a foot injury has him sidelined for the regular season.
In sports, one man's misfortune is another man's gain. For the past two seasons, Bret Bielema has powered his offense with the tandem of Williams and Alex Collins, but now it's just Collins in the spotlight. He will share some number of carries, of course, and he'll be spelled by Kody Walker and true freshman Rawleigh Williams III at times.
Even so, I think there is reason to believe that Collins will be the clear feature back, and that could eventually give him a ticket to New York for the Heisman Trophy ceremony.
Let's break this down piece-by-piece. First, Bret Bielema has nine seasons as a head coach under his belt. In only four of them has he had one primary back that stood out above the rest in number of carries: 2006 with P.J. Hill (58% of team carries), 2009 with John Clay (49.4%), 2011 with Montee Ball (50.4%), and 2012 with Ball again (56.1%). Collins will probably get above 50% of the Hogs' carries this year, and Bielema's teams have generally rushed for between about 550 and 600 times per season. The 2011-12 seasons were exceptions with them going over 600, while 2013 was an exception to the low side with just 474.
It's unlikely that Walker will take many carries away from Collins. Bielema has yet to leave a guy on the bench who would later be one of his primary backs. Given that Walker got just six carries in 2013 and 31 in 2014, following Bielema's pattern would not indicate much for him. Rawleigh Williams is probably the more immediate threat to take some carries, although the 247Sports Composite had him only a three-star recruit. Still, he could get 80-100 carries and still not keep Collins from shouldering over 50% of the load.
Arkansas rushed 494 times before the bowl game last year (I took out sacks from that number, but not prior mentioned team carry totals). Let's say the Razorbacks do something similar and have an even 500 carries. I suspect Collins will get towards the high end of those previous Bielema feature backs, so let's say he gets 58% of the team's carries. That would give him 290 carries before the deadline for Heisman votes.
Collins has rushed for a consistent 5.4 yards per carry in each of his two seasons so far. At that rate, he'd have 1,566 yards on those 290 carries. That carry count assumes no SEC Championship Game, of course. If the Hogs were to get there, he'd get more yards—and have a higher profile as the star of the surprise participant in Atlanta. That yardage total would be slightly higher than Mark Ingram's 1,542 in 2009, by the way, and Ingram won the thing.
Of course Ingram won the thing in large part because it was a weak and fractured field of candidates that year, plus he was on an undefeated team about to play for the national title. Collins probably won't have the latter luxury, but he might have the former.
Trevone Boykin is the current favorite, and he seems like one of the strongest candidates. After him is a pair of Ohio State players in Ezekiel Elliott and J.T. Barrett who might split the vote from Buckeye-inclined voters. Next is Jeremy Johnson, who's yet to play a full game. Then you've got Nick Chubb, another strong candidate, followed by drama-plagued USC's Cody Kessler and injury-plagued Deshaun Watson from Clemson. It's not unimaginable for an outside shot guy like Collins sneaking into the top five with Boykin, Chubb, and the Buckeyes.
Here's the thing though: if it's possible to view someone as a system running back, it'll probably happen to Collins. Bielema has only had one Heisman finalist running back, Ball in 2011. He rushed for 1,759 pre-bowl yards on 275 pre-bowl carries for a 6.4 yards per carry rate. That's a full yard per carry above what Collins has done so far. The 2015 line might be the best he's yet run behind, so he might improve his rate some. Getting halfway to Ball's 2011 rate at 5.9 yards per carry on 290 rushes would give him 1,711 yards, a total high enough to catch some voters' eyes.
Plus, the SEC is lousy with great backs this year: Chubb, Collins, Fournette, Derrick Henry, Russell Hansbrough, Jalen Hurd, etc. If Collins has a great year amongst a bunch of SEC running backs having great years, that might detract from his prestige and cost him some split votes as with the Ohio State guys.
If Collins can get his yards per carry rate up some, he will have a monster year that will be in the neighborhood of other recent Heisman contenders. That's the best he can do as an individual. The rest comes down to how Arkansas as a team fares and what happens nationally. I won't predict today that Collins will be in attendance in New York come December, but he's got a real chance.