O'Gara: Why it's clear that Rocket Sanders' first-team All-SEC campaign is beginning its ascension
Excuse me while I belt out some Elton John.
Rocket maaaaaan … burning out his fuse up here alone …
Raheim “Rocket” Sanders is in a class by himself. Unlike that classic hit song, which was based on a science fiction story about an astronaut who had regular visits to space because that was something we thought would one day be normal 50 years ago, Sanders’ ascension is happening on earth. The Arkansas ground game, specifically, is where Sanders worked overtime in the early part of 2022.
At the unofficial quarter-mark of the 2022 season, it’s becoming abundantly clear that the 227-pound sophomore is steamrolling his way to a first-team All-SEC season. His rise from solid rotational freshman to stud feature back is obvious to all, including Sam Pittman.
Pittman was asked after Saturday’s nail-biter comeback win against Bobby Petrino’s Missouri State squad why Dominique Johnson didn’t play in his return from a knee injury. After all, Johnson and Sanders were separated by just 3 rushing yards in 2021.
Here was Pittman’s response:
“We could have played Dominque Johnson. We just didn’t.”
– Coach Pittman
— Tye Richardson ? (@TyeSportsRadio) September 19, 2022
I didn’t consider that as a slight to Johnson. That was a nod to Sanders, who has played at an All-American level so far.
Don’t believe me? Through Week 3, Sanders ranks:
- No. 1 in SEC in rushing yards per game (by 41 yards)
- No. 2 in SEC in yards/carry (40 carries min.)
- No. 3 in FBS in rushing yards/game
- No. 3 in Power 5 in carries/game
- No. 3 in SEC in receiving yards/game among RBs
If we were talking about 3 games against cupcakes, that’d be one thing. We’re not, though. Sanders faced a Cincinnati team fresh off a Playoff berth (albeit after it lost 9 players to the NFL Draft), South Carolina and Missouri State, which came in as a cupcake but only lost because it couldn’t stop Sanders. In each game, he recorded at least 23 scrimmage touches, 125 all-purpose yards, 55 snaps and multiple catches out of the backfield.
It’s clear that the game plan is no longer to split backfield work with 3 backs like it was last year with Sanders, Trelon Smith (now at UTSA) and Johnson, all of whom finished between 97-to-119 carries. It’s now Sanders and KJ Jefferson, who have 112 of Arkansas’ 144 rushing attempts. The ESPN broadcast during the South Carolina game revealed was the heaviest running back-quarterback duo at the FBS level at 469 pounds.
Thunder and lightning? How about thunder and thunder?
To be fair, Sanders isn’t just a power back. I mean, the guy is nicknamed “Rocket,” which he got playing youth football. Why? As he told Whole Hog Sports after his commitment in 2020, “all I did was get the ball and ran towards the outside” and he said he was “good at jet sweeps and no one was able to catch me.”
(It also made sense because his hometown of Rockledge, Fla. is located just 12 miles from the Kennedy Space Center, where they regularly launch rockets from.)
Sanders leads the SEC with 4 plays of 30 yards, and he’s tied for 4th nationally with 3 plays of 40 yards. There’s no denying that he has remarkable breakaway speed for anyone, much less someone weighing in at 227 pounds. He ran an 11.31-second 100-meter dash in high school. If you can believe it, he actually didn’t play football as a freshman — he wanted to follow in brother’s footsteps and focus on basketball — and a knee injury his sophomore year at running back pushed him to shift to receiver. So he ended up getting more work as a receiver than as a running back when he was a 3-sport star at Rockledge High School (Fla.). Actually, he was your standard WR/RB/LB/KR. That’s right. Because who doesn’t have a linebacker who also serves as a kick returner?
Sanders being listed as an “athlete” as a 4-star recruit made perfect sense, as does why his career has taken off.
He went to an ideal scheme for his skill set with Kendal Briles. The up-tempo, run-heavy spread concepts meant that Arkansas needed several backfield options and even true freshmen like Sanders and AJ Green got a chance to be part of the rotation in 2021. Nobody in the SEC ran the ball more often than Arkansas (588 carries), and nobody in Power 5 averaged as many rushing yards as Arkansas (228 yards/game). The Hogs had the luxury of riding the hot hand and rotating fresh backs.
Johnson’s injury combined with Smith’s transfer opened the door for Sanders to get more run from the jump in Year 2. The 24 carries he got against South Carolina were a career-high, and as crazy as it sounds, that was 1 fewer carry than he had in his entire career as a varsity football player.
So why does it somehow always look like Sanders is shot out of a cannon? He certainly looks like someone with fresh legs.
Just good ole north and south runnin pic.twitter.com/7yTh9BuV06
— Arkansas Razorback Football (@RazorbackFB) September 18, 2022
By the way, that “catch” and run came with Arkansas trailing by 10 in the 4th quarter against FCS Missouri State. The Hogs needed all 24 touches and 242 scrimmage yards from the sophomore tailback.
Maybe it’s just the fact that he’s doing big things in an Arkansas uniform while rocking No. 5, but Sanders is going to get all sorts of Darren McFadden comps if he keeps this up. It’s probably unrealistic to expect Sanders to hit McFadden’s program record of 325 rushing attempts (he’s on pace for 286), but with Sanders running behind PFF’s No. 2 offensive line in America so far, maybe there could be some competition atop the single-season rushing leaderboard. As it stands, McFadden has the 2 best rushing seasons in Arkansas history with 1,830 yards in 2007 and 1,647 yards in 2006. Sanders’ 13-game pace is at 1,907 yards.
It’s early, but it’s hard not to be bullish about Sanders. Hear Briles talk about him and you’ll be even more sold that he’s ready for superstardom.
Arkansas off. coordinator Kendal Briles with high praise today for sophomore RB Rocket Sanders:
“There may not be a better pro in the building… He can come babysit my kids whenever he wants. He is a first-class person, role model, player.” #WPS @raheim_sanders @kendalbriles pic.twitter.com/Eqzasm1SSu
— Jonathan Acosta (@_jacosta) August 19, 2022
Time will tell how Sanders’ workload evolves over the course of the season. Someone who has never averaged more than 9 carries per game at the high school or FBS level is going to endure a season unlike any he’s ever had, even in the likely event that Johnson works his way back into the rotation. But any thought of an even backfield split is in the past with how well Sanders came out of the gates to kick off 2022.
It went under the radar that Pittman actually said in August that Sanders would get the majority of the carries “as long as he was fresh.” It made sense with Johnson still working his way back from a knee injury he suffered in the Outback Bowl and with Smith no longer in the backfield as the elder statesman. Preseason love aside, it was hard to imagine that Sanders would look this fresh.
Quickly, Sanders became the best player on a top-10 team. Saturday’s primetime matchup against A&M will go a long way in determining whether the Sanders buzz continues to soar. Win or lose, the promising start to his career has many coming to the same conclusion.
Don’t bet on the Rocket Man’s fuse burning out anytime soon.