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Hogs: Running backs provide tandem

FAYETTEVILLE — The production has been impressive after two games, but don’t count Arkansas running back Jonathan Williams among those surprised.

It doesn’t matter that he and freshman Alex Collins have teamed to accomplish something never done before at Arkansas. The running backs have gone over the 100-yard rushing mark in each of their first two games.

“We work hard and we have a great running back coach, great offensive linemen,” Williams said with a shrug. “We have a great scheme. So I kind of envisioned this.”

The dynamic duo’s instant success has inspired a run game revival at Arkansas, putting together back-to-back rushing performances reminiscent of the Darren McFadden and Felix Jones years. After being a pass-happy bunch for several seasons, there’s no doubt the run game is back and key to Arkansas’ success when it plays Southern Miss (0-2) in Razorback Stadium today at 11:21 a.m.

Much has gone into the ground game’s rebirth under first-year coach Bret Bielema. Arkansas’ offensive line has taken big strides. The entire program has been built around a physical, smash-mouth philosophy. But Collins and Williams have been key figures behind the success because of their work with the ball in their hands.

They’ve helped Arkansas (2-0) top the 250-yard rushing mark in their first two games and lead the Southeastern Conference on the ground for the first time since 2007 (312.5 yards a game). Collins (sixth) and Williams (12th) rank among the NCAA’s top 12 in rushing yards a game after two weeks, a feat no other tandem from a BCS conference school can claim at this point this season.

Bielema credits their teamwork for making it possible.

“I asked both of them, they kind of both knew,” Bielema said earlier this week about their performance against Samford. “If you add their yardage totals together, there’s probably no way they would get that if the played the whole game together.

“The way they can sub in and keep fresh legs together was very, very impressive.”

Collins was one of the top running backs in the 2013 signing class and is living up to the billing. He was named the SEC’s freshman of the week after a 172-yard outing against Samford and leads the conference in rushing (151.5 yards a game).

Collins also became the first freshman in school history to top the 100-yard mark in the first two games. He is the fourth freshman in school history to log multiple 100-yard games, joining McFadden, Jones and former Arkansas quarterback Matt Jones.

“He’s a big playmaker,” Arkansas quarterback Brandon Allen said. “Between him and Jonathan, they’re a great 1-2 punch. They definitely keep defenses honest with the run game and they’re able to make big plays for us when we need them.”

Equally impressive: Collins appears to be keeping the early success in perspective.

“I know I’ve got to stay humble about it’s because it’s the beginning of the season,” Collins said. “I’ve got to prepare myself for the next game. I can’t keep thinking about past games … I appreciate everything my team has done for me to help me get that, and I’m honored, but I’ve got to move on.”

Williams, meanwhile, is Arkansas’ starter and has the team’s longest play to date with the 75-yard touchdown run in the opener. He called the offense a perfect fit for his skills and has shown it, ranking third in the SEC in rushing yards a game (138.5).

More important, Williams — who was labeled as Arkansas’ “go-to back” by Bielema before the season — has shown no qualms in sharing the spotlight with Collins. He said it has come easy because of his experiences as a freshman last season.

“I saw the way that Knile (Davis) and Dennis (Johnson) and Ronnie Wingo worked together,” Williams said. “There was no animosity between those guys as well. The whole running back group jells well together. Everybody is going to get carries.”

Arkansas has certainly proven it through two games, handing the ball to the two running backs a combined 70 times for 580 yards.

They’ve had the ball for 48.6 percent of Arkansas’ 104 total plays through two games. They’ve also accounted for 59.2 percent of the team’s 980 yards.

There’s no indication Arkansas plans to slow the pace. Williams said he doesn’t feel like he has been taxed through two games, while Collins said Arkansas’ substitution pattern has kept both players rested and ready.

“We just switch in and out and we always have fresh legs on the field,” Collins said. “It just keeps us fresh. (Bielema) doesn’t like pound me to death and then I can’t go any more and then I’m tired. Then (Williams) goes. We’re always fresh so we’ll always have that ability to take it all the way any time. So I like the rotation.”

It’s all part of the camaraderie Collins and Williams have forged since the summer, when the Miami native arrived on campus with plenty of fanfare. Williams embraced the newcomer’s arrival and the two worked out together over the summer, developing a bond as the prepared for the upcoming season.

It has carried over to the field with both backs feeding off each other to lead the way for Arkansas’ offense through two games. Collins said they understand the importance of leaning on each other to keep the Razorbacks’ run game thriving.

“The way things are going, I need him, he needs me,” Collins said. “I need him to go in and get first downs. I don’t want to have all of that weight on me. I feel like it just keeps us ready. We don’t run out of stamina. We just keep going back-to-back.”

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