FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas coach Bret Bielema was aware of the publicity swirling around running back Alex Collins earlier this preseason.
The growing chatter about the high-profile freshman — who was the prize of Arkansas’ 2013 signing class — was unavoidable. Bielema heard it. He knew other players in the Arkansas locker room heard most of it, too.
So Bielema wanted to make sure running back Jonathan Williams understood where he stood as the Razorbacks prepared for the 2013 season.
“I was very clear with J-Dub,” Bielema said. “You’re our guy. We’re on your back.”
Arkansas believes Collins is capable of providing plenty of punch to the backfield this season, but intends to highlight Williams as the ground game’s central figure when the season opens against Louisiana-Lafayette on Saturday.
The sophomore rushed for 231 yards, caught two touchdown passes against Kentucky, and is Arkansas’ most experienced back after working behind Dennis Johnson and Knile Davis last season. He’s also proven to the new staff he’s best fit to grind his way to production as the Razorbacks unveil their power run game.
Williams won’t get every carry. Running backs coach Joel Thomas said his four backs Williams, Collins, Nate Holmes and Kody Walker each have a role in the offense this week. But the Razorbacks want Williams to know he’s leading the way.
“I don’t remember exactly when it was, but it meant a lot,” Williams said of Bielema’s assurance. “When someone has the trust in you and the faith in you to name you the starting running back for a team that’s going to run the ball a lot, they have to have a lot of faith in you. So it made me feel excited and really encouraged me. It made me work harder. With that type of responsibility, you have to work hard. You have to step up. It just made me take on the responsibility.”
Williams has done that, by all accounts, since Arkansas’ only practice open to the public on Aug. 5. Collins provided the biggest rushing highlights of the team’s first scrimmage, while Williams showed some hesitation according to Bielema.
Bielema said it didn’t last. Williams has been “unbelievable since that point.”
Thomas said it led to a “nice camp” for the 6-foot, 222-pound Williams, who worked to become more powerful as a runner to prepare for the new offense.
“The challenge coming out of the spring was, kind of, develop him to fit the style of play that we’d like to embody,” Thomas said. “Downhill, physical run game. One that you’re going to have to get consistent with your carries so to speak. Five-, five-and-a half-yard carries is a good carry. You don’t need to have the home run every time.”
Williams isn’t a finished product. It was just last spring, after all, when offensive coordinator Jim Chaney asked the Allen, Texas, native what word best described his running style. Williams said “elusive” before Chaney offered another suggestion for what Arkansas was trying to become offensively: Physical.
But Chaney said Williams has taken plenty of steps in the right direction since the spring, bulking up and running with his pads lower. He’s not quite there, but Chaney said Williams is a “driven young man” who will succeed.
“As he plays more reps he’ll figure out how to run the football,” Chaney said. “A more aggressive style. A little bit lower with his pads, which we keep preaching. But it’s hard to learn that. You’ve got to go out and do that and he’s done that.”
Williams said he sought advice from Davis, Johnson and Ronnie Wingo about the rigors of playing running back in the Southeastern Conference. He has embraced Arkansas’ physical style, calling it a perfect fit for his strengths.
He’ll finally get to prove it on game day against Louisiana-Lafayette.
“I think he knows what we expect of him,” Bielema said. “I think Alex is a great change of pace (back). I think Nate Holmes is a great change of pace. But if you’re talking about a consistent first down-through-third down offensive threat, Jonathan Williams is the guy.”
The results could be prolific considering Wisconsin had at least one 1,000-yard rusher during each of Bielema’s seven seasons with the program. It’s a mark only one Arkansas running back — Davis in 2010 — has reached in the past four seasons.
But Williams plans to keep his coach’s streak intact as he steps into a new role.
“Arkansas was a team that I watched for a long time,” Williams said. “A team that I always kind of dreamed about being the starting running back for.
“To see it come to life is exciting.”