Whaley to carry passed torch
Retired Williams leaves sophomore as lead tailback.
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.”
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.
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.