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Rawleigh Williams’ retirement leaves uncertainty in Arkansas’ backfield

Sophomore Devwah Whaley can certainly replace Williams’ production. But who plays behind him is the question mark.

NCAA Football: Louisiana State at Arkansas Brett Rojo-USA TODAY Sports

On Monday, Arkansas Razorback running back Rawleigh Williams III announced his retirement from football after suffering yet another severe neck injury in less than two years.

Williams was a heck of a talent. The bruising running back ran for 1,360 yards and 12 touchdowns in 2016, which was good for the third best mark in the SEC. While Williams was talented, he proved he was a class act by correctly picking life over football.

Although the Arkansas Razorbacks will greatly miss Williams’ leadership, the Razorbacks run game should fare well, as he hands the keys to the ground game to rising sophomore Devwah Whaley. Whaley is more than ready to be the workhorse out of the backfield. However, after Whaley, the Hogs have little experience, which may be detrimental to its success in 2017.

Entering the 2016 season, then-true freshman running back Devwah Whaley arrived with a lot of hype surrounding him. Whaley was a 4-star recruit and the sixth-ranked running back prospect coming out of Beaumont, Texas last year. In fact, Arkansas head coach Bret Bielema stated that Whaley may be the most complete running back he has ever signed. That’s certainly high praise considering the running back talent he’s dealt with as a coach.

Whaley made a huge impression right away on the Arkansas fanbase and coaching staff after he totaled 95 yards rushing on 13 carries during the 2016 spring game. The 5-foot-11, 216-pound back certainly lived up to expectations. However, it took some time for him to meet those standards bestowed upon him.

Through the first eight games of the regular season last year, Whaley only topped 50 yards rushing three times. But during the last four games of the regular season, Whaley ran for 50+ yards in each contest against some stout competition too.

He ran for 66 yards against Florida, 51 versus LSU, topped 100 yards (112 to be exact) against Mississippi State and finished the regular season out with 54 against Missouri. Not only did Whaley show just how good of a runner he can be through in those four games, but he also showed how physical he is against LSU when he stiffed armed Jamal Adams, the No. 6 pick in the 2017 NFL Draft, to the ground.

Probably the biggest reason why it took Whaley so long to be utilized in Arkansas’ offense last season was because of his pass blocking abilities. Bielema requires his running backs to be efficient blockers. Whaley came to Arkansas as a raw pass blocker that it took him time to adjust and meet Bielema’s standards.

While Whaley is a solid replacement for Williams, Bielema is known for utilizing two running backs in his offense. James White and Melvin Gordon at Wisconsin in 2013 and Jonathan Williams and Alex Collins at Arkansas in 2014 are just two examples of how well Bielema uses a two-back system.

When Collins was the lead back for Arkansas, offensive coordinator Dan Enos (who is most known for his love of the passing game) ran him 271 times. That is why it is good to have a second or third option in Bielema’s offense. But this is where things get cloudy with Rawleigh Williams’ retirement.

When it comes to true experience behind Whaley, only T.J. Hammonds returns with some, and it is very limited. He carried the ball 15 times for 88 yards and a score in 2016. However, during spring practice this year, he was moved to slot receiver. Hammond could be moved back due to Williams’ retirement, but the back who may wound up being Arkansas’ No. 2 option is early enrollee Malek Williams.

Obviously, Williams has zero collegiate experience. However, he has been drawing great reviews this spring. In fact, Razorback running back coach Reggie Mitchell has said Maleek Williams is going to force Arkansas to play him in 2017. He is more of a bruiser than Rawleigh Williams was and arrived as a three-star prospect and the nation’s No. 39 running back according to 247Sports.

Another option for Arkansas’ No. 2 back is incoming freshman Chase Hayden. Hayden, who has good speed, will arrive after Memorial Day. However, if he wants to compete for the position, he will need to add to his frame as he only stands 5-foot-11, 190 pounds.

The bar will certainly be set high for Whaley in 2017. The sophomore back should be able to meet expectations considering the talent he possesses. However, if the Razorbacks want to be successful in 2017, they will need one of the backs behind him to step up. If one of them don’t, it may be another long season for Bielema and the rest of the Arkansas faithful.