Ending a stellar season in 2022, Rahiem “Rocket” Sanders looks to take the Arkansas run game to new heights in 2023. Sanders finished last season with 1,443 yards and ten touchdowns on 222 carries. While he did finish 13th in the country in yards, it felt like throughout the course of last season, there were more opportunities to put the ball in his hands, and former play-caller Kendal Briles didn’t. Dan Enos takes over now for Briles in his second stint as Arkansas’ offensive coordinator and plans to maximize Sanders’ ability.
Sanders and Arkansas start the season with three home games against non-conference opponents, all of which have mediocre or poor defenses. Western Carolina and Kent State should both be a reasonably easy 110 yards and a TD for Rocket and could be more, depending on if he breaks off for a long run. Sanders also torched BYU last year for 175 yards and two touchdowns, and I fully expect more of the same this year, especially with the game being at home. My prediction for his first three games, he’ll have 412 yards and four touchdowns.
After the first three non-conference games is an absolute gauntlet. The Hogs take on LSU, Texas A&M, Ole Miss, and Alabama, all of which will be played on the road or at a neutral site. Sanders’ fast start might take a hit here, starting SEC play with four top-notch defenses. LSU returns several starters from last year’s team that held him to just 46 yards. He should be able to produce a little more, but with the game being in Death Valley and knowing they’ve shut him down already, it doesn’t fare well for Rocket. Another occurrence of Sanders being limited was against A&M, where he struggled to get going in AT&T Stadium. Fully expect him to get going against the Aggies this year and be able to put together at least 80 yards in the new Enos offense. Bama is a complete toss-up this time around, considering they lost several from the defensive side of the ball, especially up front. If they can stop Sanders with primarily new players is a wait-and-see. Rocket gave fits to a mediocre Ole Miss defense last year, and I think he’ll be somewhat slowed down this next time, as Kiffin’s number one priority will be to limit him on the ground. It will be hard to mimic last year’s performance he had in Oxford after a three-touchdown game with 232 yards on the ground. At this point in the season, I predict Sanders to have 791 yards and seven touchdowns.
The next three games will likely be much easier for Arkansas and Sanders, as they’ll see Mississippi State at home, Florida in Gainesville, and Auburn back in Fayetteville. All three could end up faring well for Sanders, depending on how these three teams’ defenses pan out is the determining factor for his performance. One could argue that this could be the three biggest games for Arkansas, so Enos could rely on Sanders more than usual to put the Hogs in the best position to win. Sanders will have another breakout day in one of these games, and the other two are limited to around 80. Projecting Sanders to have 1,178 yards at this point in the season, with ten touchdowns.
To finish the season, Arkansas gets Florida International and Mizzou at home, and Rocket is going to explode in both games. The game against FIU may not be close, which could limit his touches, but I think it’s a good bet for him to have 120+ yards on the ground. However, the game against Mizzou is where the Hogs haven’t had much success as of late. Knowing that, I think Pittman and Enos will both want to use Sanders until his legs fall off because it is the last game of the regular season. Sanders finishes the game with another 100 yards on the ground and finishes the regular season with 1,398 yards rushing and 13 touchdowns on 6.6 yards per carry.
I don’t expect Sanders to have the same volume as he did last year because the backfield is so crowded. Dom Johnson returns from injury, AJ Green has stayed consistent, and Rashod Dubinion emerged late last year. All three will take away some of his carries, but the play-calling from Enos should help make up for it. If Rocket can stay healthy and Arkansas wins the games they’re supposed to, he could end up being a dark horse for the Heisman. To think that he’s gotten better over the offseason and now has a favorable offensive coordinator… SEC teams should be shaking in their boots because Rocket is about to blast off.