- Chris Low, ESPN Senior Staff Writer
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In the aftermath of Arkansas' second game this season, coach Bret Bielema pulled his two running backs aside.
Bielema didn't necessarily sense any trouble brewing. He just wanted to remind them that the Hogs had not one, but two go-to running backs.
And in this league, that's a must.
The week before, it was reversed. Williams rushed for 151 yards in the opener and Collins 131 yards.
"I just asked them the question, 'Could you gain 300 yards by yourself in one game if you had to play every snap?' " said Bielema, recounting his conversation with Collins and Williams. "They both kind of said, 'No.'
"We're much better with the two of them playing very, very well, and they've bought into that. They've got their own little secret running back handshake and all that jazz. I think they're getting along better and better, and they both know that the reason they're having success is because of the people in front of them."
This is precisely what the 5-11, 206-pound Collins envisioned when he signed with the Hogs out of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., as one of the top-rated running backs in the country.
"I believe in coach Bielema's philosophy, his ground-and-pound type of coaching," Collins said. "It was something I wanted to be a part of and is the main reason I came here."
A recruiting ploy it wasn't.
Bielema believes in running the football the way Phil Mickelson believes in going for it on the golf course.
Wisconsin had at least one 1,000-yard rusher in each of Bielema's seven seasons in Madison, and three games into his first season at Arkansas, the Hogs lead the SEC in rushing with an average of 294.3 yards per game.
Collins and Williams both have rushed for 100 yards in each of their first three games, and Collins already has done something that neither Herschel Walker, Emmitt Smith or Darren McFadden did. He's the first freshman in SEC history to reach the 100-yard mark in his first three games.
Bielema had known Collins' coach at South Plantation High, Doug Gatewood, for some time. So when Gatewood told Bielema that Collins was special before Bielema had even seen tape of Collins, the first-year Hogs' coach didn't need to be sold.
"He's got an extremely gifted burst and light feet," Bielema said. "It's almost like his feet don't really hit the ground. He's just kind of tapping on the front of his toes every play and can accelerate and make people miss.
"The great thing is that he's just beginning to scratch the surface. He ran for 115 yards last weekend, and when you watch the film, you can see that he probably could have had another 100 yards if he'd just stayed with his reads a little bit longer."
Collins is quick to credit Williams for taking him under his wing when he arrived on campus this summer.
For one, Williams is a team guy and knew that the more weapons the Hogs had in the backfield, the better they would be. But he was also looking forward to the competition.
He wanted Collins to be ready to go when preseason practice started, because he knew they would push each other.
"I've always played with a chip on my shoulder," said the 6-foot, 222-pound Williams, who's averaging 7.7 yards per carry and had a 75-yard touchdown run in the opener and a 45-yard touchdown run last week.
"So it pushed me to get better, having Alex coming in. That kind of competition just makes you better. I knew he was good, but I was going to showcase my skills as well. I think we complement each other."
The Hogs have run the ball 160 times and thrown just 51 passes in their first three games. After falling behind Samford in the third quarter two weeks ago, they didn't throw a single pass in the fourth quarter.
"It's a running back's ideal offense, the way they feed us the ball," said Williams, who played behind Knile Davis and Dennis Johnson last season as a freshman. "The thing is that everybody has taken to it. We saw the way the offensive line changed their bodies in the offseason and the summer, and it's paying off this fall. It's exciting running behind that line."
The Hogs might have to lean on their running game even more Saturday when they visit Rutgers. Starting quarterback Brandon Allen has an injured throwing shoulder and isn't expected to play, which means junior college newcomer AJ Derby would get the call. Allen will make the trip, but he hasn't been able to practice this week.
Collins (70 carries) and Williams (51 carries) already have combined for 121 carries, but they're ready for an even heavier workload if that's what it takes to get the Hogs to 4-0 in their first road test of the season.
"If we do our job, it will open up everything for the whole offense," Collins said. "That's why it helps to have this combo going. We'll pound with one running back until he can't go anymore, and then we'll start over with the other one.
"We'll have fresh legs in there the whole way."
And the only thing they'll be counting is wins – and not carries.
1dSam Khan Jr.
2dSam Khan Jr.