FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas running back Kody Walker needed to make the change.
His original number with the Razorbacks had provided some bad memories through two-injury plagued years. The Jefferson City, Mo., native was sidelined by stress fractures in both shins in 2011. He had steel rods inserted in each leg and returned in time for 2012, but suffered a season-ending broken leg in early September.
So Walker went to new coach Bret Bielema with a special request earlier this winter: He wanted to get out of No. 40 and slip into No. 24.
“I’ve been hurt in 40 since I’ve been here, so I had to get out of 40,” Walker said. “I felt that was bad luck for me. I had to get something new to get my swagger back.”
Walker — wearing No. 24 — made his unofficial and unexpected spring debut when Arkansas held a brief scrimmage to end last Saturday’s practice. He took part in full-contact drills for the first time since suffering the broken leg in the Louisiana-Monroe loss, carrying the football in red zone and goal line drill work.
Arkansas coach Bret Bielema said it wasn’t originally supposed to happen this spring. The Razorbacks knew Walker had progressed enough in his rehabilitation to participate in non-contact drills, but planned to hold him out of tackling work.
Walker received a clean bill of healthy earlier this spring, though. He urged Bielema to let him put it to the test during Saturday’s scrimmage work and it went well.
“I wanted to get that hit out of the way, because I’ve been anticipating that since I got hurt,” Walker said. “I haven’t played football in a while, so to get there and actually play real football and get tackled, it felt real good.”
Walker carried the ball three times for six yards, but the amount of production wasn’t all that important. Arkansas offensive coordinator Jim Chaney said it was simply good to see Walker on the field in a game-like situation for the first time.
“I think he’s moving past his mindset of worrying and just playing football,” Chaney said. “It was good to see him go out and get involved and mix it up just a little bit. He’s a big, heavy young man. He brings a load when he carries the ball, and I’m glad to have him back in the offense as we continue to try and establish the mindset of physicality. Size and stature has a lot to do with that. It’s hard for little people to go out and always be physical people. Kody’s not that. He’s a large kid.”
There’s no doubt Arkansas is hoping it can take advantage of his attributes as it builds the offense around a power running game. The 6-foot-2, 234-pound Walker was utilized as a short-yardage and goal line back under the previous staff and has scored six touchdowns despite his limited carries because of injuries.
Walker can play both backfield positions, although he said the Razorbacks have lined him up at tailback. Running backs coach Joel Thomas didn’t want to evaluate how Walker will fit in plans with sophomore Jonathan Williams and newcomer Alex Collins next season, saying the goal for now is making sure he is healthy.
“I think we’ll know more of that question after two-a-days,” Thomas said. “This has been more of the, ‘I’m back and I’m ready to go.’ I really believe after a full summer with (strength) coach (Ben) Herbert and just building on that confidence that he’s had, I think come two-a-days, that’s when we can factor in his playing time and what he’s going to do. Really, he was an unknown coming into this camp.”
But Walker has shown his desire to get back on the field after last year’s injury.
The running back said he felt some soreness after Saturday’s scrimmage, but said it was expected after being out of contact for so long. He’s hoping to earn carries in Saturday’s spring-ending Red-White Game, too, but remains realistic.
“I think I’m going to get my fair share of reps,” Walker said. “But if it’s ends being too much, I’m going to have to back off some.”
The important thing is that Walker — wearing his new number — continues to progress in his recovery. He estimated being roughly 90 percent.
Walker said he feels good wearing the new number and Thomas understands what it means after going through his own number switch as a running back at Idaho. Injuries led him to look for a fresh start, so Thomas switched No. 20 for No. 1.
“I changed it, then I blew my knee out, so it didn’t really matter,” Thomas said. “I lost all superstitions at that point.”
But Thomas said he has plenty of confidence Walker’s recovery will continue and the running back said he wasn’t deterred by his position coach’s history Tuesday.
Walker is optimistic a new number will bring good fortune in a new offense next fall.
“I’ll keep my fingers crossed,” Walker said. “I hope that doesn’t happen to me.”