FAYETTEVILLE — Joel Thomas was introduced as Arkansas’ new running backs coach Monday, leaving his position at Washington to join Bret Bielema’s staff.
But Thomas said Monday didn’t wait for his formal introduction to begin familiarizing himself with the returning players in Arkansas’ backfield.
“Actually I was pulling up film, whatever I could find on the Internet (Sunday) night,” Thomas said during a teleconference. “I just got off the phone with (fullback) Kiero Small. Love the way he puts his face on people. It’s been a while since I’ve seen a fullback do that. Jonathan Williams, I obviously saw his big-play ability versus Kentucky. So I got a chance to check out those two guys.”
Thomas, who spent the past four seasons with the Huskies, became the sixth assistant coach hired by Bielema. He joins an offensive staff that includes offensive coordinator Jim Chaney, offensive line coach Sam Pittman and receivers coach George McDonald.
Thomas brings some clout as a running backs coach, too, working with a 1,000-yard rusher in each of his four seasons at Washington. The 38-year-old — a former running back at Idaho — also had coaching stints at Purdue, Louisville and Idaho.
“Joel Thomas has a proven record of developing running backs,” Bielema said in a news release. “He excelled at the position as a player and has demonstrated a remarkable ability to connect with his student-athletes and pass his knowledge on to them. He also brings a strong background of recruiting in Texas and Dallas specifically, which is a valuable area for us to have a presence.”
Thomas’ most recent work including coaching former Washington tailback Chris Polk in 2011 as he became just the second player in school history to rush for more than 1,000 yards in three straight seasons. Polk ran for 1,488 yards in 2011, which was the second-best season in school history and also was one of just seven players in Pac-12 history to reach the 4,000-yard rushing mark in his career.
Sophomore Bishop Sankey was equally impressive for the Huskies in 2012, rushing for 1,439 yards and 19 touchdowns. Sankey was named the most valuable player of the Las Vegas Bowl after rushing for a Washington bowl record of 205 yards and a touchdown during the 28-26 loss to Boise State last Saturday.
Thomas said one of the big reasons he left Washington was the chance to work with Chaney at Arkansas. He called Chaney a “mentor” who helped him get into coaching in 2000 and 2001, when Thomas was a graduate assistant at Purdue.
Chaney was the program’s offensive coordinator.
“I have three mentors and he’s one of my major three,” Thomas said of Chaney. “I don’t think this opportunity would have arisen had he not been at Arkansas.”
Said Bielema: “I am extremely confident in Joel’s ability based on his time spent working under Jim Chaney, and I believe Joel’s knowledge and familiarity with Coach Chaney will be a benefit to our offense.”
Thomas’ arrival also means Arkansas will have a new running backs coach for the first time in six seasons. Former Razorback Tim Horton has coached running backs at Arkansas since 2007, working with 1,000-yard rushers Darren McFadden, Felix Jones, Michael Smith and Knile Davis during his time at the position.
Bielema said Saturday that Horton was still being considered for a position on his Arkansas staff. The opportunities are running thin, however. There are three assistant coaching spots left to fill and only one is on offense (tight ends).
It’s not known if Horton is being considered at the position, although he does have experience after working with tight ends at Appalachian State from 1990-92.
Thomas, meanwhile, said he’s eager to get on the road recruiting to help Arkansas add depth to the backfield. Knile Davis, Dennis Johnson and Ronnie Wingo are not returning next season, leaving Williams (45 carries), Nate Holmes (3 carries) and Kody Walker (1) as the only returning backs who has rushing attempts last season.
“There’s some things to work with there,” Thomas said. “Obviously one of the high priorities to being hired right now at this time is to get out on the road recruiting and get on the horn with some of the prospects we’re in line with and develop relationships with those guys as well.”
Thomas had experience recruiting in Texas when he was a Purdue assistant and will be working in the state for the Razorbacks. He knows how important Texas is to Arkansas’ recruiting efforts after continually bumping into Arkansas coaches in the state and said he intends to keep developing relationships there.
Thomas also understands how competitive life is in the SEC and said he’s eager for the challenge after joining Bielema’s staff.
“Obviously going to coach in the SEC is a tremendous I think for developing my career as it’s gone,” Thomas said. “I have a proven track record in the Big Ten and the Pac 12, and the SEC conference is regarded as the best conference in the country.
“I’m ready for this opportunity to help the Razorbacks get on top.”