Arkansas running backs enter 2003 with lofty expectations

Updated: August 23, 2003, 1:15 PM ET

FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. -- Cedric Cobbs and De'Arrius Howard have goals that might seem far-fetched to even the most optimistic Arkansas coach or the most rabid Razorbacks fan.

The Arkansas tailbacks envision running through and around opposing defenses for big numbers. Cobbs wants to average 150 yards a game in his final season and Howard sees 1,500 yards for his sophomore campaign.

If that happens and nobody else gains a single yard, it would be the third-best rushing season in school history with 3,300 yards.

That doesn't leave much offense for quarterbacks Matt Jones and Ryan Sorahan or the receivers and tight ends who stand to see more action this season.

If Jones repeats the 2,206 yards of total offense he had last year and Cobbs and Howard meet their goals, it would be the best offensive season ever at Arkansas.

"If I don't get hurt and the offense is clicking, I feel that I can get 150 a game. That's at least," said Cobbs, who after three injury-plagued seasons has one shot left to match his freshmen season in 1999. "That's a lot of yards and it's all realistic to me. It seems to me to be so easy."

If Cobbs is running for 150 yards a game, Howard is ready to set his sights a little lower.

"If I fall back and just get 1,000, that will be fine," said Howard, who rushed for 595 yards and team-leading seven touchdowns as a redshirt freshman. "I wouldn't mind giving him 25 carries a game if I get 20, too. It would not hurt me at all."

Fred Talley ended his Arkansas career by rushing for 1,119 yards last year, the first 1,000-yard rusher since Madre Hill set a school record in 1995 with 1,387 yards. The Razorbacks gained 3,065 yards in 14 games for the fifth-best total in school history.

Few could argue that Arkansas will have another strong running game after leading the Southeastern Conference in 2002 at 234.5 yards per game.

This year's line is packed with experience, including All-American right tackle Shawn Andrews.

The 6-foot-5 Andrews reported to camp in better shape than how he finished 2002, when he weighed close to 380 pounds. Andrews weighed in at 355 when the Razorbacks started fall drills on Aug. 11 and his goal is start the season Sept. 6 against Tulsa at 335.

Mark Bokermann returns for his third season beside Andrews at right guard, Bo Lacy is back at left tackle and Dan Doughty started at center last year. Jerry Reith started five games when Bokermann hurt his ankle last year and he will start at left guard this season.

"The thing that makes you feel so good is the offensive line, because you look across there and there's experience," Arkansas coach Houston Nutt said. "We don't take one step less. We'll be just as good."

The line could help Cobbs and Howard reach their lofty goals, but new offensive wrinkles installed by passing game coordinator Roy Wittke might take rushing yards and make them short completions.

Those passes and yards should wind up in tight ends' hands, but the backs, who only caught 27 passes last year, are preparing to be more involved in the passing game. Sophomores Dedrick Poole and Kyle Dickerson can be used coming out of the backfield or running the ball.

Cobbs has never been known for his hands, catching just 18 passes in four years and only five the past two years. Howard's only catch last year went for a one-yard loss, so the backs have been working on extra receiving drills after practice.

"As a group of running backs we need to get to where they don't have sub one of us in for the other," said Howard, who has spent time working with receivers after practices this month. "We need to catch 20 to 25 balls a day after practice so we get it down to where anybody can come in.

"In order to (play in the NFL), it's a big thing being able to catch the ball out of the backfield."

Playing in the NFL is something that Cobbs has talked about following each of the past two season, but injuries hindered his progress. He set a freshman school record with 668 yards in 1999, but he received a medical redshirt year when he separated his shoulder in 2000.

In 2001, he played nine games and scored seven touchdowns, but was hampered by a hamstring injury. Last year, he started the first four games but a turf toe injury at Tennessee sidelined him for three games.

While he was out, Talley rushed for 559 yards and Howard scored three touchdowns, leaving Cobbs with just 21 carries in the final seven games.

In fall drills, Cobbs has looked sharp and quicker, thanks to losing almost 20 pounds. He ripped off a 60-yard touchdown run during a scrimmage last week.

He said he came back for his fifth season because he wanted to prove that he could stay healthy and reach the potential he showed as a freshman.

"I'm not worried about the competition. I've had to deal with competition all the years I've been up here," Cobbs said. "I just want to go out and pray that there's no injuries, have it all come together and have fun. I know for a fact that I'll have a good season, if not a great one."

Beyond this season, Howard's dream grows to include All-America status and the Doak Walker Award, which is given to the nation's top running back. Howard is not boastful or arrogant. He politely says "yes sir" and "no sir" to coaches and reporters.

However, the 6-foot, 227-pound back is confident in his abilities to improve. He rushed for 4,961 yards and 55 touchdowns his final two seasons at West Memphis High School and he's earnest when he says he wants similar success as a Razorback.

He also obeys the rules of seniority and he's willing to help Cobbs and the team.

"Right now it's between me and Cedric fighting for carries. It's like a dog fight," Howard said. "Coach Nutt has the bone and we're both trying to get a big bite out of it.

"But Cedric is the senior and I'm going to do my best to push him to help him get to the (NFL). Hopefully, he'll pass the baton to me and I can get pushed next year."

This story is from ESPN.com's automated news wire. Wire index