Posted by Jerry Hinnen
While the future of the SEC hangs in the balance in College Station and Birmingham, the present of the SEC took an unfortunate turn Thursday when Arkansas running back Knile Davis suffered a season-ending ankle injury.
The SEC's leading returning rusher and a pick by many to make first-eam All-SEC despite the presence of potential All-Americans like Marcus Lattimore and Trent Richardson, Davis was set to be arguably the foundation for Bobby Petrino's entire 2011 offense. His loss is a savage blow to a program that had yet to uncover a true workhorse back since Darren McFadden, at least until Davis roared onto the scene in the second half of 2010. Making things worse, second-leading rusher Broderick Green was lost for the year in the spring with an ACL tear.
But obviously, the show in Fayetteville will go on all the same--and given the weapons Petrino has at his disposal at wide receiver and quarterback Tyler Wilson's abundant potential, it could still be quite a show. (Wilson went 16-of-20 in the same scrimmage in which Davis was injured.) Here's the Hogs' top options to replace Davis:
Ronnie Wingo: The Hogs' next leading rusher in 2010 -- though with only 253 yards -- the 6'3", 227-pound junior from St. Louis will likely have first crack as the offense's everydown back. Wingo provides both a brusiing straight-ahead running style and a receiving threat out of the backfield; he caught 27 passes a year ago for more yardage (274) than he gained on the ground. But Petrino would likely want a starter who'll do more than grind out three- and four-yard gains. Would Wingo be explosive enough?
Dennis Johnson: Perhaps the back with the highest upside among the remaining candidates, Johnson's combnation of speed, power and elusiveness has made him a fearful weapon when focused and healthy--witness his 107-yard, 7.6 yards-per-carry outburst in the Hogs' 2009 near-upset at Florida, or his pair of career kick returns for touchdowns. But that hasn't been often, as Johnson played in just two games a year ago thanks to a freak bowel injury. Reportedly healthy again, don't be surprised of Johnson winds up getting the majority of the Hog carries this season.
Kody Walker: Despite his Maxpreps ranking as the nation's No. 6 "big back" in the class of 2011, Arkansas was the Jefferson City, Mo. product's only SEC offer, choosing the Hogs over Minnesota and Missouri. But the early returns are that Petrino may have found a gem, as Walker gained 66 yards on 15 carries in a recent scrimmage and earned praise from Hog offensive coordinator Garrick McGee. Though clearly behind Wingo and Johnson in the pecking order, Walker is in line to earn the occasional spot carry--and maybe even more if he proves himself capable.
Kiero Small: A converted linebacker fresh out of JUCO, the 5'10", 255-pound Small has already made a big impression at fullback. Though not a candidate for major carries, Small could be used a goal-line and short-yardage option much as Green was a year ago.
All in all, things could be a whole heck of a lot better for Arkansas at running back. But with two experienced options still in the fold and Johnson in particular (in this writer's opinion) possessing the talent that could still make him a difference-maker in the SEC, things could be a whole lot worse, too.