The fourth in a series detailing the University of Arkansas football team by class.
FAYETTEVILLE — The University of Arkansas might be light on juniors in 2023, but the class carries big weight for the Razorbacks on both sides of the ball.
Arkansas has only 19 juniors on its roster, the smallest class of all, including just seven true juniors, and only four of them began their careers as scholarship players on the hill.
Among that group is defensive back Jayden Johnson, a 6-2, 206-pounder from Cedartown, Ga., who stayed on board when many other players in the Arkansas secondary jumped into the transfer portal. Johnson was holding down a starting job at safety for most of the spring.
Transfer quarterback Jacolby Criswell projects as another key junior. The former Morrillton High School standout and transfer from North Carolina is expected to team with Cade Fortin and Malachi Singleton to help the backup quarterback spot behind KJ Jefferson be much stronger in 2023.
Another transfer junior, linebacker Jaheim Thomas of Cincinnati, has a shot to dramatically improve depth at his position.
Here’s our list of the top five impact juniors this fall:
1. RB RAHEIM SANDERS
The guy nicknamed “Rocket” blasted into his own last season. We projected the Razorbacks would not have a 1,000-yard rusher, based on previous usage in the Hogs’ multiple-back system under assistant coach Jimmy Smith. We were way wrong.
Sanders rushed for 1,443 yards, the fourth-best single season mark for an Arkansas running back behind two seasons by Darren McFadden and one from Alex Collins. And he missed virtually the entire Liberty Bowl after suffering an ankle sprain.
McFadden is probably A-OK with Sanders wearing the No. 5 jersey that is surely on track to be either retired or displayed in honor some day by UA athletics.
Sanders was mostly a receiver three seasons ago at Rockledge (Fla.) High School and now he’s running like a veteran with patience, balance, vision and power. And he’s crafty catching the ball also.
Sanders had a ton of huge moments in 2022 as evidenced by his seven 100-yard rushing games, including 232 in a win over Ole Miss. However, his 73-yard score with a shovel pass against Missouri State and his 68-yard burst for a touchdown on the second snap of the second half against the Rebels were among the standouts.
2. DL LANDON JACKSON
The 6-7, 269-pound native of Texarkana, Texas, crossed the state line as a transfer from LSU last spring and his production increased in rhythm with his recovery from knee surgery that kept him out of spring ball in 2022.
Jackson started 7 games a year ago, and posted 23 tackles, 3 sacks, 3.5 tackles for loss and a forced fumble.
He debuted as a Razorback with a five-tackle performance in a 31-24 win over Cincinnati.
The No. 7 defensive line prospect in the country and the No. 19 player in Texas by 247Sports in 2021, Jackson said he was glad to have a second season under the tutelage of position coach Deke Adams.
3. DB LORANDO JOHNSON
The transfer from Baylor clearly took to the schemes and coaching by Travis Williams, Marcus Woodson and Deron Wilson as the 6-0, 195-pounder moved steadily up the depth chart and was starting along with Dwight McGlothern at the end.
Nicknamed “Snax” for his munching on Hot Cheetos out his gym bag, Johnson overcame an early rough day in spring to begin making plays and showing his confidence while in man coverage. The better Johnson, McGlothern and others can hold up in man, the more creative Williams can be in exerting pressure up front. The Lancaster, Texas, product started 12 games for the Bears in 2022 and had 16 tackles, 5 pass breakups and 1 forced fumble.
4. RB AJ GREEN
The top backup at tailback behind Rocket Sanders, Green could be the lead back in other situations as he’s one of the fastest players on the team. The 5-11, 205-pounder from Tulsa amassed 50-plus rushing yards in three games last season and had 10-plus carries in only three games. His best game came with Sanders out against Kansas, when Green piled up 101 yards and a touchdown in the Liberty Bowl.
Position coach Jimmy Smith is an ace recruiter and his ability to manage a big group of proven tailbacks is a tribute to his ability.
5. K CAM LITTLE
The true junior from Moore, Okla., is on pace to break Connor Limpert’s school record of 78.6% field-goal conversions. Little has made 33 of 40 career field goals for 82.5% accuracy.
The 6-2, 181-pounder already has a game-winning kick under his belt with an overtime boot at LSU in 2021, and he just missed a potential second one off the top of the right goal post last season versus Texas A&M. A freshman All-American in 2021, Little also earned a spot on the SEC Community Service team for his work in generating donations for Down Syndrome Connection of Northwest Arkansas.
His 83.3% field goal rate as a freshman and 81.3% rate as a sophomore rank fifth and sixth on the UA’s single-season chart, so he’s well on his way to being one of the best kickers in school history. Little might also pick up kickoff duties this season.
WISH WE COULD RANK
Tailback Dominique Johnson has now undergone two knee surgeries after a stellar 2020 season in which he overtook Trelon Smith for the starting job, rushed for 575 yards, averaged 7.5 yards per carry and scored 7 touchdowns.
ALSO IN CONSIDERATION
Defensive back Jayden Johnson, offensive guard Joshua Braun, quarterback Jacolby Criswell, linebacker Jaheim Thomas.