The unfortunate news of Arkansas Rawleigh Williams III's retirement from playing football was crushing for just about anyone who has come in contact with Williams or pays any sort of attention to SEC football.
Williams, who was a bruising 5-foot-10, 226-pound back for the Hogs, walked way from the game after suffering a neck injury during Arkansas' final spring practice. It was his second neck injury in two-plus years with the Razorbacks, and while it wasn't reportedly as serious as the one that cost him half of his freshman season in 2015, it was enough of a concern that Williams had to leave the sport.
Outside of ranking third in the SEC in rushing last year with 1,360 yards and totaling 12 rushing touchdowns, Williams was a class act and a leader away from the field. His presence on the field and inside Arkansas' locker room will be greatly missed.
Replacing his leadership will certainly have to be done by committee, but when it comes to who will take the torch from Williams in the Hogs' backfield, rising sophomore Devwah Whaley should be ready for the job of being Arkansas' No. 1. After that, though, there isn't much experience at all.
Whaley is a heck of a running back. Last year, he rushed for 602 yards on 110 carries. He hit a 75-yard run and had three touchdowns on the season. The Beaumont, Texas, standout was the nation's No. 6-ranked running back prospect in the 2016 recruiting class, and his natural ability had coach Bret Bielema excited before and after Whaley got on campus in Fayetteville.
“He might be the most complete running back I’ve ever signed," Bielema told ESPN last summer. "He’s serious.”
And now, he's the guy. This certainly isn't the way that Whaley wanted to take over Arkansas' running game, but here he is. He'll have the summer to get his mind and body right for the adventure that will be serving as a bell-cow back with Bielema as the head coach. Despite offensive coordinator Dan Enos' knack for the throwing the ball more, starting running backs Williams and Alex Collins before him carried the ball more than 240 times as lead backs.
That's why it's always good to have a second or even third option under Bielema. That's where things get a little cloudy. When it comes to real experience, only T.J. Hammonds returns with much of any, and even then, it's very limited. He had some plays out of the Wildcat formation and finished the 2016 season carrying the ball 15 times for 88 yards and a touchdown. While he moved to slot receiver this spring, there's still a chance that he could move back to running back with Williams' departure.
Hammond would be more of a change-of-pace back for the Hogs, which means that early enrollee Maleek Williams should move right into the No. 2 spot. Obviously, he has zero collegiate experience, but the coaches are very excited about his potential after a solid spring. Maleek Williams, who is more of bruiser like Rawleigh Williams, arrived as a four-star prospect and the nation's No. 33 running back prospect by ESPN's RecruitingNation.
True freshman Chase Hayden will arrive after Memorial Day and compete for carries this fall, as well. Hayden has good speed, but he'll have to add to his 5-foot-11, 189-pound frame.