By Robbie Neiswanger
ARKANSAS NEWS BUREAU
FAYETTEVILLE — Running back Alex Collins came to Arkansas with lofty expectations after being the prized member of its 2013 signing class and hasn’t disappointed in his first season.
He topped 100 yards his first game. Two weeks later, he became the first Southeastern Conference freshman to do so in his first three. Collins has navigated the rest of the season with consistency, rushing for no less than 54 yards each week.
It led Arkansas coach Bret Bielema to say earlier this week that he couldn’t be more impressed with Collins. But Bielema also said he recently stopped in to see his high school coach, Doug Gatewood, and the two agreed about something else.
“I think it’s nowhere even close to being what he can be,” Bielema said. “He physically is very gifted,” Bielema said. “But he hasn’t been trained the right way, ate the right way, slept the right way. He’s got eating - sleeping habits that are like a nocturnal animal. I mean, it’s just the way he’s kind of wired.
“The more we can get him in rhythm, I think the better off we’re going to be.”
It also makes what Collins has accomplished this season — and what he still can do in Arkansas’ final two games — even more impressive.
Collins can reach a milestone when the Razorbacks (3-7, 0-6 in SEC) play Mississippi State (4-7, 1-5 in SEC) in Little Rock. With 54 rushing yards, he would become just the second true freshman in school history to reach the 1,000-yard mark.
He would join prestigious company. Former Arkansas running back Darren McFadden accomplished it in 2005, rushing for a freshman record 1,113 yards en route to becoming a Heisman Trophy runner-up in 2006 and 2007.
Collins would also be the first Arkansas running back to top the 1,000-yard mark since Knile Davis in 2010. He’d be the 12th player in school history to rush for more than 1,000 yards in a season, too. Teammate Jonathan Williams has a chance to join him as well, needing 217 over the final two games to make them the first tandem to top 1,000 yards in a season since McFadden and Felix Jones in 2007.
It would mean a lot to Collins. Especially if Arkansas snaps its losing streak.
“I would be honored, but it’s not the main focus,” Collins said. “The main focus is just going down to Little Rock. It’s the last home game, you know, it’s a big night for the seniors. So I’m just trying to do what it takes to win. If the 1,000 yards is something I get it would be a great accomplishment. That’s something that’s in my personal goals. But it’s something that can be put to the side. Winning is always put first.”
Arkansas hasn’t won much this season, of course. But it’s hard to fault Collins, who has done his share in an offense being built around the running backs.
He and Williams have bonded to form a strong one-two punch, leaning on each other to make it possible. Williams has started every game, while Collins has taken his turn on either the second or third possession.
Bielema said earlier this week Williams may be the team’s most improved player because of his growth since the opener. Arkansas offensive coordinator Jim Chaney said he has been impressed by Collins’ consistency throughout his first season.
“Any good football player shows up every day to work and gets better and consistency is the mark of a good performer,” Chaney said. “I think that he’s shown up every day to work and he’s shown up every Saturday and he’s been more consistent then a lot of freshmen are in my history.”
Chaney said Collins has had to battle through some soreness, which is typical for SEC running backs. He’s also done it while adapting to college life in a new community. It doesn’t appear Collins has had any trouble there, though.
“He’s done so many good things on the field,” Bielema said. “And I’m not kidding you, at least one day a week I get a letter, an e-mail, somebody reaches out to me about something Alex does in the community. Whether it’s visit with a kid, go speak to a school, take the time with a stranger on the street.
“I think he’s made it difficult for people with dreads in Fayetteville, because two or three of my other guys have been stopped and they say, ‘Hey, aren’t you Alex Collins?’ Just because he’s got dreads, which I find very entertaining.”
Collins has been equally intriguing to watch on the field.
His vision and knack for making quick cuts to find open lanes have led to plenty of big runs. Collins hasn’t become a breakaway threat — his longest run of the season is 55 yards — but he is averaging 5.6 yards on his 169 carries.
“He’s as advertised,” fullback Kiero Small said. “He came in with a lot of hype and that can be a hard for a young kid, but you know, he just worked hard and he’s on the verge of coming up with 1,000 yards right now. That’s going to be a big thing.”
But Small, like Bielema, agreed Collins has so much room for growth.
“He’s a freshman. He does freshman things,” Small said. “Sometimes when a guy plays so good, you forget that he’s so young. Just this time last year he was in high school. So, you know, he’s got a few things he can learn as far as being a student of the game and things of that sort. But you don’t expect him to come in and do that. He’s come in and done a lot of what he’s done off raw talent and hard work.”
Collins gets it. The freshman acknowledged there’s room to improve the little things — like eating and sleeping right — as he wraps up his first season with at Arkansas.
The good news: Collins said he’s already heeding the advice and believes he’s “more energized and more alert on the field” since making adjustments.
He could be a 1,000-yard rusher by the time Saturday’s game is over with as well.
But Collins is motivated to make sure it’s not the high point of his career.
“I always think I can do better,” Collins said. “After a play, I always feel that I could’ve done something a little bit better. In other people’s opinion, they think I’m doing great this year. But I always feel like there’s something I can change that will make me a better player. So that will be my focus during the summer.”