When Arkansas opened spring practice earlier this year, the Hogs were seemingly overflowing with depth at running back.
They were so deep, in fact, that De’Anthony Curtis was a mere afterthought. He didn’t even end the spring on offense and was instead working at cornerback.
Needless to say, the landscape has changed.
Broderick Green, the Hogs’ power back, tore his ACL the week of the spring game, and then to open this preseason, Knile Davis went down with a fractured ankle. Davis led all SEC running backs a year ago with 1,322 rushing yards.
Suddenly, Curtis was needed again at running back and was moved back there two weeks ago. It’s a good thing, too, because senior running back Dennis Johnson has battled hamstring issues.
That leaves junior Ronnie Wingo, who will start Saturday at running back against Missouri State, but Curtis will be the Hogs’ No. 2 guy. He’s flashed some of the same speed and moves in practice that made him the top prospect in the state of Arkansas and one of the most sought-after running backs in the country back in 2008 when he signed with the Hogs.
“He’s come back over to running back, and his quickness really shows up. His toughness really shows up,” Arkansas coach Bobby Petrino said. “We’re going to play him. He’s going to be in there carrying the ball and catching the balls.”
Petrino went on to call Curtis the “ultimate team guy” for his willingness to play anywhere the Hogs put him.
After moving from running back to receiver and then to cornerback, it looks like he’s back at running back to stay.
The Hogs need the help.
Wingo still has to prove that he can be an every-down running back. What made Davis so valuable was his ability to get the tough yards, but he could also turn around and break a 75-yard touchdown run a few plays later.
At 6-foot-3 and 231 pounds, Wingo has all the physical tools to be a big-time back in this league. He’s also one of the fastest players on the team and has been a guy Petrino has pointed to for two years now as being poised to take off and become a consistent game-changer.
Well, here’s his chance.
“I want to be a complete back, and what I’ve got to understand is that every play’s not going to be a 30- or 40-yard run,” said Wingo, who has 572 career rushing yards and four touchdowns. “You’re going to take a beating in this league and get 3 yards here and there. But if you keep grinding, the big play will come.
“I’m going to let the game come to me and not try to force everything. In the past, I’ve done too much thinking. It’s time to get past that now and just play.”
Following Davis’ surgery, he called the running backs together and had a message for them.
“He just told us that the season was in our hands now, as far as the running game,” recounted Johnson, who missed most of last season with an injury. “We take that to heart.”
If Johnson is unavailable for the opener because of his hamstring issues, Wingo will be the only running back on the roster who carried the ball last season in a game.
Curtis’ last carry came two years ago, and ironically enough, it came against Missouri State in the opener.
As sick as everybody in the Arkansas program was to see Davis go down, there was never any panic about what it would mean for the Hogs’ running game this season.
Arkansas offensive coordinator Garrick McGee said there’s a reason for that.
“Knile Davis was a really good player, probably one of the best college football players in the country,” McGee said. “But we’re really fortunate. We’ve recruited well at the position. We have kids who understand our offense, our system and the way we go about our business, so nothing changes with us.”
The way the schedule sets up for the Hogs, they’re probably not going to have a real feel for their running game until the fourth week of the season when they travel to Alabama.
Nobody needs to remind them that they were unable to run the ball against the Crimson Tide last season and protect their lead, which ultimately cost them the game.
Arkansas finished with just 64 rushing yards in that 24-20 loss, and Davis only carried the ball six times -- twice in the second half.
It was in the weeks after that bitter loss that Davis separated himself from the rest of the pack, and Arkansas’ offense became even more explosive.
“Knile took over last year, and all of us have to have that same attitude,” Wingo said. “We’ve got to step up more than ever, and the whole state of Arkansas is counting on us. We’re not going to wait to get our running game going like we did last year. It starts now.”