Jim Harris: Jonathan Williams Was THE Man; Can Alex Collins Be That?


Many things crossed my mind earlier Sunday when word came out of Fayetteville that Jonathan Williams needed surgery on his left foot and would be out “an extended time.”

That would be code for “we don’t know how long but it will probably cover most if not all of the season.” Players have had surgery and pins inserted into feet or ankles which then are covered in casts, and they’ve been able to return in as little as six weeks. But they’ve also missed the season. There is the undetermined recovery time with a cast on, the rehab time, and then the decision as to whether to even play a limited number of games as the season winds down. A fully recovered Jonathan Williams has a good shot to make an NFL roster down the road; he could accept the redshirt season he’s never taken (playing as a true freshman in the awful 2012 season under John L. Smith) but the wiser decision might be to make sure any more season-ending breaks occur while an NFL team is footing the bill.

Arkansas will miss Williams’ on-field leadership, not to mention the carries he would have shared mostly with Alex Collins as the 1 and 1A running backs in a tandem regarded in many SEC circles as the best in the league. Separately, neither may come close to what Georgia’s Nick Chubb brings, but as a one-two punch they gave the Hogs a dynamic running game.

With one more season to play, Williams already had reached 10th all time in Hogs rushing with 2,212 career yards. His 5.72 career yards-per-rush average is sixth all time at Arkansas. And, coming off a 1,190-yard rushing season in 2014, he was deservedly placed on the watch lists for the Maxwell and Doak Walker awards. Arkansas will also miss Williams’ face-of-the-team presence around the program. Sure, he’ll be there on the sidelines with the team, but Razorback coach Bret Bielema was putting Williams out in front of this team. I’d hedge a guess that Williams was even more of a face of the Hogs program in Hoover, Ala., at SEC Media Days than was senior quarterback Brandon Allen. The UA sports information department could always count in Williams to handle post-game comments with the media, win or lose, as well as anyone on the squad.

Another thought that struck me, and this will likely draw criticism, I know: Like everybody else who followed the exploits of the summer weight competition at Reynolds Razorback Stadium on social media, I was awed that Williams could do a one-legged squat lifting 455 pounds. At the time, I didn’t think at all about the effects such a stunt might have on the lower legs and what it takes to support such a lift. But, in hindsight, one might wonder if that a factor in causing some wear on the bones in Williams’ foot going into August camp? With all our wonderful technology and science and all the knowledge we think we have in building the perfect sports specimen, have we begun turning out over-muscled and over-built athletes in all sports at the expense of what their bone framework can actually handle? In case you were wondering, in the video clip of Williams squatting the 455 pounds this summer, he’s supporting himself on his left foot, the one now injured.

(I only know first-hand that I personally, daily, carry more weight on my body that my knees and ankles and feet can ably support over a given time, but that’s another story and I don’t have a many-degreed trainer or strength coach watching over me daily — and I’m not 21, either.)

Gone is half of the Hogs’ terrific tandem, and certainly increased with today’s news is the weight that Alex Collins must carry on the field. He still has a ways to go in terms of team leadership, as evidenced by last week’s punishment with two other Florida products on the team who, because they arrived a few moments late for a team meeting, had to tote a soaking-wet foam mattress around the field and around teammates.

Collins was recruited to be “the man,” however, and now is that time for Collins to be that man, the focal point of the Razorbacks’ running game. With two solid seasons behind him and an All-SEC preseason nod, the junior should be primed to top last year’s 1,100-yard rushing season while eliminating the critical fumbles that were major factors in close losses to Alabama and Missouri in 2014. Collins, for whatever reason, wasn’t used much in Arkansas’ passing game under coordinator Jim Cheney, but I can’t forget the near-impossible sideline reception he made at Florida as a freshman; certainly his skill level is enough to be a receiving weapon at times for Brandon Allen under new offensive coordinator Dan Enos.

Reclassified junior Kody Walker, given a medical redshirt year that will allow him to play a sixth season in 2016, is healthier — in his own words — than he’s been since his junior year in high school in Jefferson City, Mo., when he had already wowed former Hog coach Bobby Petrino. Walker is faster than at any point on campus, stronger, handling 250-260 pounds with apparent ease, and now a veteran. The carries are now there for Walker, who was the offensive star of the Razorbacks’ spring game.

Rawleigh Williams III is fresh out of high school, but he showed signs — yes, against backups — that he could contribute even before Williams’ injury status was known. Williams showed quickness hitting the hole on the heavily manned short side of the field and broke a 63-yard touchdown run in Saturday’s scrimmage. He didn’t sign with Arkansas last February to sit on the bench.

While Williams is lost in the meantime, Bret Bielema has always shown his desire to use three backs heavily in his offense, most especially in Wisconsin’s big 2010 season, which produced three future NFL picks. He has a knack for finding good backs. He deserves credit for turning Williams into a top SEC back when no one saw that in 2012. Bielema will make do, and then some, with what he has at hand now.

The running back position was not a problem Saturday morning, and it’s not one today either. Because Bielema knows he wants to play three solid backs, Arkansas doesn’t find itself in the position it was in 1996 when Madre Hill wasn’t ready to return from an ACL tear, on in 2000 when Cedric Cobbs was lost four games into the season. Bielema can turn immediately to one guy who was 4-star or 5-star, depending on which prep rankings you trust, and that player, Collins, has already rushed for more than 1,000 yards with half the load of running backs elsewhere. Two others right behind are ready to step in as well.

Here is the complete statement from Bret Bielema and Jonathan Williams:

“I have no doubt that Jonathan will come back stronger than ever. Anyone that knows Jonathan Williams knows this is just another opportunity for him to prove the man of character and substance that he really is,” said Bielema. “It’s an unfortunate injury to a great young man, but we are in the process of gathering as much information as possible. There are short and long term impacts of how he proceeds and we want to make sure he does what’s best for him and his family, and his career beyond Arkansas.”

“This is no doubt a tough moment, but I know through my faith and hard work that I will make a full recovery,” said Jonathan Williams.

UPDATE, MONDAY: Bret Bielema said in a news conference earlier today that Jonathan Williams will miss the entire 2015 season.

Jonathan Williams against Auburn


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