Arinze fits into Arkansas’ plans in backfield


This is the sixth story in a 10-part series previewing the 2013 Razorbacks. Up next: Safeties

FAYETTEVILLE — Fullback Patrick Arinze doesn’t remember the exact number of emails, but guessed he must have sent at least 80 to coaches around the country.

The California native didn’t generate much interest from four-year schools after wrapping up his junior college career. So he tried to drum up his own, searching for programs that employed fullbacks. Arinze said he highlighted possibilities, fired off emails and game film looking for a chance. Any chance.

“I was going to do whatever it took,” Arinze said. “When I emailed all the coaches, I never asked for a scholarship. I just asked for an opportunity to walk on.”

So imagine Arinze’s pride earlier this month, when Arkansas coach Bret Bielema called the fullback into his office to tell him his stint as a walk-on with the Razorbacks was going to be a short lived. A few months after accepting a walk-on offer from Arkansas and arriving on campus as a virtual unknown, Arinze was one of four players put on scholarship by Bielema for the 2013 season.

“It felt good knowing that the coaches saw enough in me to invest in me for the long term,” Arinze said Monday night, a day after being honored in front of teammates along with linebackers Austin Jones and Price Holmes, and tight end Alex Voelzke.

Now, the junior wants to keep proving to Arkansas’ coaches he is worthy.

The Razorbacks are building a new backfield and Arinze quickly has become a valuable piece of the plan. At 5-foot-10, 242 pounds he’s a bruising fullback capable of teaming with Kiero Small to open holes for tailbacks. But the spring game last April also showed some unexpected skill with the ball in his hands as Arinze plowed through defenders en route to a Red-White Game high of 66 rushing yards.

The performance led Bielema to describe his new toy as a “Tonka truck.”

It also created possibilities for an offense trying to build a power run game.

“He’s kind of an unknown quantity for us,” Arkansas offensive coordinator Jim Chaney said last spring. “He’s a big kid. Built like a fullback. We hand him the ball and he ran physical. Once again, it’s that identity that you’re trying to develop and he appears to have a little bit of that innately.”

It was more than Arinze could have imagined a few months ago.

He attended Helix High in San Diego, playing football for a program that produced NFL talent like Detroit Lions running back Reggie Bush and Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith. But Arinze didn’t play fullback. He was a guard starting for a team that reached the sectional championships of the state playoffs.

Arinze attended nearby Grossmont Community College in La Mesa after high school, but only played in 10 games in two years because of a knee injury. He was a fullback at the junior college level though, and, while used primarily as a blocker, Arinze did rush for 21 yards and two touchdowns on nine carries during his career.

“I got fullback dives,” Arinze said. “That was pretty much it.”

It seemed like his football career was heading for the same fate after the 2011 season. But Arinze said he refused to “lose hope.” He stayed at the community college an extra semester to get his associate’s degree, then started sending emails.

Arinze said it took some time, but three or four schools noticed. Arkansas — which was in its transition year under former coach John L. Smith — was one of them.

“I jumped on that right away,” Arinze said.

Arinze’s walk-on offer remained intact when Bielema arrived, too. Bielema has since credited former assistant Bobby Allen — who is now the program’s director of high school relations — for getting Arinze on campus. It has proven to pay off for both.

Arinze was 270 pounds when he arrived. Like so many others, Arinze has transformed his body under strength coach Ben Herbert. He now weighs 242.

His strength remains. Small, who is known for being a powerful blocking as well, said his backfield mate is fast, strong and can “squat the house.”

Position coach Joel Thomas said the traits have made him a welcomed addition.

“He’s very physical,” Thomas said. “He’s pretty thick. He has nice hands, nice vision. He’s got kind of this speed that lulls you to sleep. He’s not a 4.4 guy, but when all of a sudden you have 250 pounds behind his speed, that’s pretty heavy to bring down.”

Arinze spent some time with the first-team offense earlier this preseason when Small was sidelined by a minor foot injury. He performed well with starters as a blocking back during the Aug. 5 scrimmage, but also turned in one of the biggest plays on the ground by breaking off an 18-yard run.

It doesn’t surprise his teammates. Neither was the fact he is now on scholarship.

“You see him working hard every day,” Arkansas running back Jonathan Williams said. “You see him put in the work on film. He’s a guy in our meeting room, so it’s definitely exciting to see another guy in our meeting room get a scholarship.

“It’s kind of mind-boggling to see a guy with that much talent wasn’t recruited.”

Arinze stressed that nothing will change about his work ethic now that he is among the scholarship players on Arkansas’ roster.

It took plenty of work to get to Arkansas in the first place. Even more to earn a scholarship. So Arinze doesn’t want to waste the opportunity as the season nears.

“It’s been a long journey,” Arinze said. “Being at junior college. Sitting at home. Just trying to get people to see my tape.

“To being here in the SEC on scholarship now is just a blessing.”

A Closer Look At … RUNNING BACKS

Best of the bunch: Jonathan Williams — Williams described Arkansas’ offense as a match made in heavy for his talents and the sophomore will get plenty of opportunities to prove it. He’ll enter the season as the No. 1 tailback and Arkansas believes his combination of speed and power will be showcased. The Razorbacks are going to run the ball this fall and its success will hinge largely on Williams’ play.

Watch out for: Alex Collins — Collins isn’t sneaking up on anyone after being one of the top running back prospects in the country. Still, he remains a bit of a curiosity because of Arkansas’ closed practices. Collins did show flashes of brilliance in Arkansas’ first scrimmage by breaking off a couple of big plays. But is he ready for all of the other responsibilities that go with playing the position?

Biggest strength: You only need a quick glance to realize the Razorbacks have a big and strong group of backs, which seems to go hand-in-hand with Arkansas’ goal of establishing a power run game. Williams has bulked up in the offseason to prepare for the weekly grind. Kody Walker is a big back, too. Then there’s fullbacks Kiero Small and Patrick Arinze, who bring plenty of toughness to the backfield.

Biggest question: Experience is an issue for Arkansas’ backfield. Outside of Small, few players have gotten extended work. Walker has played in five games over two seasons. Williams logged 45 carries in 2012. Nate Holmes has three rushing attempts, while Collins is a true freshman. So this relatively young group must prove it can grow up fast as Arkansas moves closer to the season.

Projected starter: RB — Jonathan Williams, So., (45 carries, 231 yards in 2012); FB — Kiero Small, Sr., (Played only one game in 2012)

Other contributors: RB — Alex Collins, Fr., (N/A), Kody Walker, Jr., (Played in two games in 2012 because of injury), Nate Holmes, So., (3 carries, 10 yards); FB — Patrick Arinze, Jr. (N/A), Morgan Linton, Jr., (4 catches, 37 yards in 2012), Walker

That figures: 7 — Consecutive seasons in which Wisconsin produced a 1,000-yard rusher under Bret Bielema. It included a 2010 season in which the Badgers nearly had three 1,000-yard rushers. Montee Ball (996 yards) was four shy of joining teammates James White (1,052 yards) and John Clay (1,012). Ball came back to rush for 1,923 and 1,830 yards, respectively, in his final two seasons with the Badgers while also becoming the NCAA’s career touchdown leader (83).

Quotable: “The running backs are ready to compete. I think it’s great that we have such great running backs in the backfield, because every one has that competitive edge now to compete against each other. But at the same time we’re all brothers. So if I was to make a mistake, they would help me out and just lead me there to try to help me get better.” – Collins on the mood in Arkansas’ backfield