Razorback sophomore running back Raheim Sanders (aka Rocket Sanders) could be in store for a really strong season in 2022 now that he has a solid 17 months under his belt focused on playing running back after being recruited to play wide receiver. Even last year before he was as ripped up as he is now, one might have looked at him and asked, ‘this guy was a wideout?’
Solid as a block of concrete and every bit of 6-foot-2, 227 pounds, Sanders looks exactly how a big-time SEC back should. Coming in during the spring of 2021 and dealing with an injury at that time and later a shoulder injury during the season, it was still easy to see the potential.
He capped off his freshman campaign in the Outback Bowl at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa (Fla.), not far from his home town of Rockledge (Fla.). In front of several friends and family members, and as healthy has he had been in months, Sanders ran 13 times for 79 yards (6.1 yards per carry) and scored two touchdowns in the 24-10 win over Penn State.
“He came as far as I’ve ever seen anybody come at a position that they didn’t really play,” Arkansas running backs coach Jimmy Smith said. “He’s calling out protections now. He knows when he makes a mistake. He will tell me when he makes a mistake, and that’s really important. For a guy to do something and tell you when they made a mistake, that tells you he really understands what you want from him.”
Aside from becoming a better running back with more repetition, Sanders can also help in the passing game. The obvious thought after a statement like that is how his receiver skills could translate to catching the ball out of the backfield. He had 11 receptions for 109 yards last season with a touchdown on a 24-yard catch against Mississippi State.
But where Sanders has improved above all else is pass protection. In the pass pro drills, a lot of one-on-one versus blitzing linebackers, Sanders stymies them every single time. He either stops them in their tracks or tosses them to the ground.
The only guarantee Arkansas had last year at running back in pass pro was Dominique Johnson. Johnson has been out since the bowl game with a knee injury but is expected to return at some point in the early part of the season.
“Rocket’s very patient. He’s a very patient pass blocker,” super senior linebacker Bumper Pool said. “He’s going to let you make the first move. So just continuing when we get work with Rocket, we know that if he’s so good at what he does, that’s going to translate when we’re rushing backs in the SEC. Just getting that work, knowing how to get around him, it’s making us better.”
“He’s learning. I called the protection, and he’s pointing everything out,” junior quarterback KJ Jefferson said. Him and the o-line are on the same page. Him just being able to read his keys and then know where he’s got to block, where he’s got to get to.
“And even if the defense simulates some time of pressure he says, ‘KJ, hold on let me get on this side.’ So, being able to just be able to take the film, what he learns in the film room out to the field it translates to an advantage for Rocket.”