FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas fullback Kiero Small tried to keep his emotions in check as the Razorbacks prepared for their first full pads practice earlier this month.

The senior – who was known for bending facemasks with his hard-nosed blocking in 2011 – hadn’t taken part in contact work since early September. He had done all of the offseason conditioning with teammates and participated in non-contact drills, but couldn’t wait for the final step in his return from last year’s broken foot.

“When I got to put the pads on and got to bang and stuff,” Small said. “It felt good.”

Small is back to full strength this spring after missing 11 games in 2012 because of the injury, which he suffered in practice before Arkansas’ loss to Louisiana-Monroe.

The Baltimore native also returns as one of few leaders left for an offense trying to replace stars like Tyler Wilson, Cobi Hamilton, Knile Davis and Dennis Johnson this spring. But it’s a role Small has embraced throughout the offseason.

Arkansas coach Bret Bielema and the rest of the Razorbacks’ staff have noticed, pointing out Small as one of the players who have made the biggest impact.

“If there’s one guy that has been a champion for me in every way, shape or form in everything we’ve asked him to do, it’s Kiero Small,” Bielema said on March 14, recapping the first week of spring practices. “From being the best recruiting host in December and January to being a physical specimen that transformed his body, lost almost 20 pounds from last fall to where he is today.”

It’s hard to blame Small for being motivated. The senior understands the potential for a fullback in the offense next season. Toughness was a staple of Wisconsin’s success under Bielema and the ground game was critical to the Badgers’ identity.

So as Arkansas began its winter conditioning in preparation for next season, Small wanted to be prepared for more snaps. Trimming down was an important step.

“It was a real motivation for me,” said Small, who spent time at both fullback and linebacker because “Like I was just saying, it would help me play more so I wouldn’t have to come off the field and stuff like that.

“It’s exciting to see a fullback in this type of offense.”

Small said the biggest change has been his nutrition, which is been a vital cog in strength coach Ben Herbert’s program. He has stopped the quick stops at fast food joints and replaced it with a diet that consists of more fruits and vegetables than ever before. Small said the weight “just starting falling off.”

He is now at 245 pounds and feels the improvement on the field.

“It helps me go the next play,” Small said. “I can run full speed and come back and not be as tired as I would with 10 extra pounds. It’s like if you hold a 10-pound weight in your hand and you go try to do everything. It’s a big difference.”

Small has worked on his leadership skills as well this offseason.

He and center Travis Swanson, a returning team captain, have been applauded for their work so far this spring. Small said he has tried to take on more of a vocal role, especially with young running backs like Jonathan Williams and Nate Holmes.

“I’m not a real vocal guy out there so I’m just trying to bring everybody along,” Small said. “In the past, I’ve been blocking for guys who had three, four years of running the ball. Right now we don’t have any guys like that.”

Arkansas running backs coach Joel Thomas said Small has been a player he can lean on to fix the group. Thomas also said Small’s talents on the field were instantly evident, giving the Razorbacks a key building block as it instills a new mentality.

“I called him on the day I took the job on Christmas Eve and said I wished I had him as a fullback in my last job because I’m a fan of the way he plays the game,” Thomas said. “Not that I discredit the other guys that I’ve coached. But I enjoy watching him lead up on a linebacker and take him back four or five yards.”

The Arkansas ground game struggled without Small, a battering ram of a blocker, paving the way for those running backs last season. The Razorbacks tried different players at the position, but Small ultimately was regarded as one of the losses felt most by coaches and teammates during a season full of frustrating injuries.

He’s back, though, and the Razorbacks are eager to have the trimmer version of the bruising blocker pick up where he left off in Arkansas’ new offense this spring.

“It’s awesome having Kiero out there,” Arkansas quarterback Brandon Allen said. “He’s out there pounding people and doing his thing. He’s a force, for sure.”