Wha­ley to carry passed torch

Re­tired Williams leaves sopho­more as lead tail­back.

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - FRONT PAGE - TOM MUR­PHY

FAYETTEVILLE — Devwah Wha­ley al­ways has been se­ri­ous about foot­ball.

Yet Wha­ley’s ur­gency level ramped up a notch on the fate­ful day of April 29.

The Arkansas Ra­zor­backs con­ducted their fi­nal spring prac­tice on that rain-soaked a f ter­noon, and run­ning back Rawleigh Wi l - liams went down with a sec­ond neck in­jury that ended his ca­reer. A ris­ing sopho­more, Wha­ley moved to the top of the Ra­zor­backs’ depth chart at tail­back.

“I knew af­ter that hap­pened I had to grow in all phases of the game, not just as a player but also as a per­son,” Wha­ley said. “I just had to be­come more ma­ture and try to learn the game a lot bet­ter and just step up and be a bet­ter player and leader.”

Run­ning backs coach Reg­gie Mitchell noted a change in the 5-11, 216-pounder from Beau­mont, Texas.

“Now Devwah’s be­come a stu­dent of the game,” Mitchell said. “You know when Rawleigh was here, he knew Rawleigh would get the bulk of it. To­wards the end of the year, we tried to split it up a bit, but he knew Rawleigh was the guy.

“Once Rawleigh re­tired, he kind of took it upon him­self to be a leader in the group and start watch­ing more film, and from a foot­ball IQ stand­point just try to get bet­ter and learn the scheme of the of­fense where he would be able to play fast and uti­lize his skills.”

Wha­ley rushed for 602 yards in 2016, 283 in the fi­nal four games of the reg­u­lar sea­son. The true fresh­man had a break­out game early with 135 yards, in­clud­ing a 75-yard touch­down, in the Ra­zor­backs’ 52-10 rout of Al­corn State.

But it was the end­ing stretch — in which Wha­ley av­er­aged 5.9 yards per carry while rush­ing for 66 against Florida, 51 against LSU, 112 against Mis­sis­sippi State and 54 against Mis­souri — that proved he could be a prime­time SEC tail­back.

“Last year, as the sea­son wore on, we re­ally thought in cer­tain sit­u­a­tions he was a guy that we thought would beat out Rawleigh, if not by the end of spring, then the fall,” Coach Bret Bielema said. “He hasn’t done any­thing to dis­ap­point us in that re­gard.”

Wha­ley’s play­ing time picked up af­ter he im­proved at pick­ing up the pass pro­tec­tion reads and re­spon­si­bil­i­ties that are of­ten dif­fi­cult for a col­lege fresh­man who has done lit­tle of it in high school.

“To­day he had one chance to pick up a blitz and he picked it up, whereas last year ev­ery­body would have been hold­ing their breath and won­der­ing if he was go­ing to pick it up,” Mitchell said about Wha­ley in Satur­day’s scrim­mage. “That was part of the rea­son he didn’t play early on is be­cause he strug­gled in pass pro­tec­tion. But to his credit, he’s learned the pro­tec­tions and so far this fall he hasn’t missed one.”

Wha­ley ac­knowl­edged live-ac­tion block­ing against de­fen­sive ends, lineback­ers and de­fen­sive backs took a lot of work.

“I’ve got­ten a lot bet­ter,” he said. “I’m more com­fort­able. That took time, but with me get­ting more and more reps, now it’s just start­ing to come nat­u­ral.

“Depend­ing on the type of of­fense you’re in, you have as­sign­ments you have to check, you have a lot of things you have to think about and worry about and know be­fore the snap of the play. It’s men­tal and it’s phys­i­cal.”

Wha­ley steps into the vi­tal tail­back role in a Bielema of­fense. In his 11 sea­sons as head coach at Wis­con­sin and the Univer­sity of Arkansas, Fayetteville, Bielema’s of­fenses have pro­duced 13 1,000-yard rush­ers, in­clud­ing 1,360 yards from Rawleigh Williams last year. Seven times those backs ran for 1,200 or more yards.

De­spite his lead back role, Wha­ley was re­cep­tive to adding grad­u­ate trans­fer David Williams when Bielema looked in to of­fer­ing the South Carolina run­ning back a spot this sum­mer.

“When Coach brought me in to talk to me about it, I was 100 per­cent go with it be­cause you know, for one, David has a lot of ex­pe­ri­ence,” Wha­ley said. “And it’ll just take a load off of me.”

Said David Williams: “When I came on my visit, Devwah wel­comed me with open arms. We had lunch to­gether, and we kept in con­tact even af­ter my re­cruit­ing visit.”

Williams made a quick study of the play­book and vaulted into the backup tail­back spot early in camp.

“The thing I thought hap­pened with David is that he em­braced the room,” Mitchell said. “He didn’t come in like, ‘Hey, I’m this guy. I’ve been here, done that,’ be­cause he didn’t play a lot at South Carolina.

“His deal was he wanted to come here and show peo­ple he could play. In the back of his mind, I think he also wanted to show he could be a great team­mate, and he’s be­come a great team­mate.”

Wha­ley and Williams are ex­pected to get back­ing from a fresh­man, ei­ther speed­ster Chase Hay­den or Maleek Williams, whose build and skills are sim­i­lar to theirs.

Maleek Williams en­rolled early and showed power and tackle-break­ing prow­ess dur­ing spring drills and again in Satur­day’s scrim­mage. Hay­den had a 65-yard run last week as part of his scrim­mage-high 112 rush­ing yards, mostly against the top de­fense.

“He’s an ex­plo­sive play just wait­ing to hap­pen,” of­fen­sive co­or­di­na­tor Dan Enos said of Hay­den. “He runs hard. He’s got great feet.

“He’s dif­fer­ent from our other backs. He’s re­ally shifty. He can ac­cel­er­ate. He’s got re­ally good ball skills out of the back­field as well.”

Said Wha­ley: “Chase has been do­ing great. He’s pick­ing it up fast. He’s com­ing in and just want­ing to get bet­ter and ask­ing ques­tions and want­ing to be a bet­ter stu­dent of the game.”

Arkansas Demo­crat-Gazette file photo

Sopho­more run­ning back Devwah Wha­ley moved to the top of Arkansas’ depth chart af­ter Rawleigh Williams’ in­jury dur­ing spring drills. “I knew af­ter that hap­pened I had to grow in all phases of the game, not just as a player but also as a per­son,” Wha­ley said.

NWA Demo­crat-Gazette file photo

Rawleigh Williams (above) rushed for 1,360 yards last sea­son, but is no longer with the Arkansas foot­ball team af­ter re­tir­ing in May be­cause of a sec­ond neck surgery. Devwah Wha­ley and David Williams are ex­pected to be the Ra­zor­backs’ top two run­ning backs in 2017.

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