FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. – Bobby Petrino left no doubt where Arkansas ' priorities lie.
When discussing his quartet of running backs earlier this month, the Razorbacks' coach outlined one specific task they all needed to focus on — and it had nothing to do with taking the ball and sprinting toward the end zone.
"I think they all understand that your amount of plays is determined on your ability to protect the passer," Petrino said. "You can't lose a quarterback because a running back doesn't know the protection or gets beat on his technique."
Broderick Green, Dennis Johnson, Ronnie Wingo Jr. and Knile Davis each joined the Razorbacks amid high expectations, but now these running backs are learning to play without the ball in their hands. Not only do they split time with one another, but they're also well aware that the Arkansas offense revolves around quarterback Ryan Mallett and his strong arm.
The Razorbacks are ranked No. 17, their highest preseason standing since 1990. Mallett is the main reason for those high expectations after throwing for 3,624 yards last season, so it's up to the running backs to find ways to contribute while the spotlight is elsewhere.
"I feel this year, the biggest thing that's helping me is my confidence has grown," said Wingo, a sophomore. "Knowing the offense, learning defenses, like, 'What's the check going to be here? What's the check going be there?'"
Gone are the days when Darren McFadden would run over tacklers in a bid for the Heisman Trophy. Now Mallett is the Razorbacks' Heisman candidate, and the running backs are in supporting roles. Wingo, a high school star from St. Louis, has had to learn some of the game's less glamorous trades.
"That was probably one of the hardest adjustments for me coming from high school to college was pass protection and the importance of it," Wingo said.
That's not to say Arkansas won't run the ball — and with running back Michael Smith gone from last year's team, there should be more carries for everyone else this season.
Green led the Razorbacks with 442 yards on 104 carries last season, including 11 touchdowns on the ground. The Southern California transfer scored on a 99-yard run against Eastern Michigan, but his 6-foot-2, 248-pound frame is more suited to short-yardage situations.
Which type of touchdown does he prefer? That's an easy question.
"I'm going to go with the 99, of course," Green said. "But I don't mind breaking through a couple guys for a short-yard gain just to show some power, because at the end of the day, I get to get up and talk some crap. I get to, you know, let guys know that you're going to have a hard time tackling me."
Remarkably, Green might not be the hardest Razorback to bring down. At 5-foot-9, 213 pounds, Johnson is about as easy to tackle as a giant bowling ball covered in grease. Johnson ran for 107 yards last October when Arkansas nearly upset Florida.
"He's had some great games since he's played here," running backs coach Tim Horton said. "Dennis' charge in the past has been just consistency — on the practice field."
Johnson also handles kickoff returns, with a touchdown each of the last two seasons in that role. He says he wasn't all that eager to run back kicks when he first became a Razorback in 2008, but he looks comfortable with it now.
"I was just trying to focus on being a running back, but all that changed," Johnson said.
Wingo turned heads during his freshman season with a 62-yard touchdown run against Texas A&M at the Dallas Cowboys' home stadium, and Davis scored four times on his 33 carries last season.
If any of the running backs has stood out this month, the coaches are doing a good job keeping quiet about it. There's been no indication what the depth chart might look like during the season, but all four backs figure to be in the picture — as long as they pay attention to their assignments and help keep defenses off balance.
"You need a good group of running backs," Petrino said. "They're the group that takes all the hits in practice, they're the group that takes all the hits during the season. They've kind of went back and forth. There is really no named starter right now. I think they've taken their turn at shining."