Arkansas RB Whaley expects to shine in No. 1 role

FILE - This Nov. 25, 2016 file photo shows Arkansas running back Devwah Whaley scoring on a 30-yard run during the first quarter of an NCAA college football game against Missouri in Columbia, Mo. Whaley was expected to once again serve in a backup role this season, a year after rushing for 602 yards as a freshman. However, with the career of Rawleigh Williams coming to an end after a second neck injury during the spring, the Razorbacks have turned to Whaley as their lead back entering the season. (AP Photo/L.G. Patterson, file)

FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. (AP) Devwah Whaley expected to see plenty of early playing time at Arkansas when he signed with the school last year.

The talented sophomore running back didn’t want to ascend to a starter’s role quite like this, however.

Whaley enters this season as the unquestioned top backfield option for the Razorbacks, coming off a freshman year in which the 5-foot-11, 216-pound speedster rushed for 602 yards in part-time action.

The Texas native played well enough last season to earn a position as a starter, but he was expected to once again serve as a backup to incumbent Rawleigh Williams this season. That is, until Williams’ career came to an end after a second neck injury in Arkansas’ final scrimmage of the spring.

Now, the Razorbacks’ rushing hopes start with the legs of the highly touted Whaley – who chose Arkansas over schools such as Alabama, Georgia and Notre Dame and averaged an impressive 5.5 yards per rush last season.

And that’s just fine with Razorbacks coach Bret Bielema.

”Last year, as the season wore on, we really thought in certain situations he was a guy that we thought would beat out Rawleigh by the end of the spring and fall,” Bielema said. ”And he hasn’t done anything to disappoint us in that regard … I think he’s got the bag of all tricks.”

Whaley originally planned on going to Georgia after rushing for more than 1,700 yards as a senior in high school in Texas, but he backed off that commitment after former Bulldogs coach Mark Richt was fired. He eventually signed with Arkansas, thanks in part to Bielema’s history of producing top running backs and the early departures to the NFL of former Razorback running backs Jonathan Williams and Alex Collins.

Despite his hopes of playing right away, Whaley struggled at times last season with his pass blocking while settling into the role as Williams’ backup. He showed flashes of his remarkable combination of power and speed throughout the season, most notably on a 75-yard touchdown run against Alcorn State and then rushing for 112 yards on 19 carries late in the year against Mississippi State.

Still, it wasn’t until the moments following Williams’ injury that Whaley fully understood and appreciated how much he needed to improve – and how quickly – if he hoped to come close to matching Williams’ 1,360 yards rushing last season.

”As soon as (Williams’ injury) happened, I knew I’d have to step up right away – that day,” Whaley said. ”Right after that happened, I knew I’d have to become more of a leader, a vocal leader, and lead by example.”

To that end, Whaley spent more time than ever before in the film room during the offseason, watching for ways to improve as both a runner and blocker. It was time and effort that was noticed by his teammates and coaches, just as running backs coach Reggie Mitchell noticed a key pass block by Whaley during a scrimmage on Saturday.

”Last year, everybody would have been holding their breath and wondering if he was going to pick it up,” Mitchell said. ”To his credit, he’s learned the protections and so far this fall hasn’t missed one.”

Like many of his teammates, Whaley still thinks about Williams every day and wishes him the best in his post-football career.

If anything, Williams’ injury has made Whaley appreciate the position he’s in now more than ever before.

”It was hard to watch on the field when he got hurt,” Whaley said. ”But things happen, and all I can do it keep moving forward.”

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