FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. — Brandon Allen was in junior high when Arkansas’ greatest collection of backfield talent ran its way through the Southeastern Conference.
The Razorbacks quarterback and Fayetteville native remembers well the accolades earned in college by future NFL running backs Darren McFadden, Felix Jones and Peyton Hillis.
And Allen isn’t shying away from the potential he sees in Arkansas’ current backfield of Jonathan Williams, Alex Collins and Korliss Marshall to rival their predecessors’ accomplishments.
“They very well could,” Allen said.
For a team coming off a disastrous 3-9 season in its first year under coach Bret Bielema, the hope brought by Williams, Collins and Marshall — who combined to rush for 2,072 yards last season — is very real for the Razorbacks.
The three have also given Arkansas a clear identity leading into its second season under Bielema, a welcomed sense after the school’s first winless conference season since joining the SEC in 1992.
Bielema had standout running backs in his seven seasons at Wisconsin, highlighted by 2012 Doak Walker award winner Montee Ball. He also preferred a stable of ball carriers during his time with the Badgers, and this season’s returning group has provided him with a much higher comfort level than last year.
“I feel a lot better,” Bielema said. “For those of you that didn’t know, I like good running backs.”
The Razorbacks were third in the SEC last season with an average of 208.7 yards rushing per game, and they were led by Collins’ 1,026 yards. Collins also led Arkansas in attempts as a freshman, averaging 5.4 yards per carry, but he had plenty of help from Williams — who rushed for 900 yards while averaging 6 yards per carry.
As good as the duo were last season, even more is expected this year out of Collins as a sophomore and Williams as a junior. They’re just fine with that.
“We just kind of push each other, because we’re not satisfied just for being great,” Collins said. “We want to be the best; that’s what we strive for.”
What Collins provides in shiftiness as a runner and Williams in power, Arkansas’ largely unknown member of its big three — Marshall — provides in flat-out explosiveness.
The sophomore didn’t receive nearly the recruiting hype as Collins and he split most of last season between safety and running back. When his opportunity did come on offense, he literally ran with it. Marshall gained 586 all-purpose yards for Arkansas last season, largely in kickoff returns. However, he also averaged 8.6 yards per carry in limited action and was moved to full-time running back in the offseason.
“It’s really nice ... to have three legitimate starters,” running backs coach Joel Thomas said. “The best thing right now that we have going for that room is competition, and it’s just making each other get better in everyday activities.”
Despite the abundance of talent at one position, the running backs all believe there will be plenty of carries to go around this season.
“If you’re not getting the ball, that means you’re not the hot guy and you don’t have too much to complain about if you’re not the hot guy,” Williams said.
They’ve also heard the comparisons to McFadden, Jones and Hillis, though Williams shies away from the hype. He’d prefer to first concentrate on returning the Razorbacks to a bowl game for the first time since 2011 and let the attention follow.
“They’re a unique group, and we’re trying to set our own trends, trying to have our own name,” Williams said. “But it’s definitely an honor being compared to them.”