FAYETTEVILLE — Junior Raheim “Rocket” Sanders has battled injuries and the 2023 season hasn’t gone like he hoped to this point, but feels that could start changing on Saturday.
Arkansas and Sanders will have a very tough road test at Alabama. This season, Sanders has been limited to three games. He has carried 34 times for 91 yards and two touchdowns. He also has seven receptions for 58 yards. Arkansas has struggled to a 2-4 start and has lost the last 16 times they’ve faced Alabama.
“For us, it’s treating every game like it’s a 0-0 game,” Sanders said. “We can’t think about that past. The past already past already. There’s just one game ahead of us. Just thinking about Alabama now since it’s the week of Alabama. We’re preparing in practice the most we can to get prepared for Alabama.”
Any chance that maybe Sanders is trying to do too much?
“Not really too much forcing the issue,” Sanders said. “It’s God’s plan. Of course, I didn’t know I was going to go through the situation I’m going through. Who knows the next route of everything. I’m just leaving it in God’s hands and just with this football team as well we’re all together. It’s going to develop up front. It’s going to develop offense in general. We’re going to have our game eventually. Just leaving it in God’s hands with my part of it, but as a team God is going to change the situation very soon.”
The last time Arkansas went to Tuscaloosa was 2021 when they fell 42-35 in a great game. Sanders scored a late touchdown on a 17-yard pass from KJ Jefferson to pull the Hogs within the final margin of the loss.
“It was crazy,” Sanders said. “It was definitely crazy, just being a freshman and being in that atmosphere. That was crazy for me in a way, and I didn’t expect that play to develop anyway. We worked on it in practice of course, but who knows if that’s going to work at the end of the game. So, that was just like a different atmosphere there. The crowd was crazy there, and I can’t wait to get back in that atmosphere.”
Sanders went over a 100 yards on the ground against the Tide last year in Fayetteville. He talked about what he expects from this year’s Alabama defense.
“I think they’ve got like four returning starters, I don’t know for sure,” Sanders said. “I feel like they still run the same defense. I did have a good game last year, but we didn’t win. I feel like I did my job in some way, but at the same time, I didn’t do my job because we didn’t end with a victory. Starting with this game, I feel like it’s not just about me or about the run game, it’s whatever starts off right. I’ve been watching the defense, watching a little bit of film of them, and they’re great guys over there. One thing about Alabama just in general since I’ve been here is they’re going to be in the right spot, the right area at the right time. They’re going to do their job. We’re just making sure we do our job in a way, and we’re focused on that this week.”
This season, Arkansas has rushed 225 times for 669 yards and six touchdowns. That obviously isn’t numbers they would like to put up. What will it take to get the running game going?
“I feel like the thing is communication and being leaders,” Sanders said. “You know, me and KJ, just talking more to the front and to the receivers. Like I said, I didn’t plan for the season to go like this. Who did? Who wanted it like that, you know what I mean? For that to go, I feel like communication and everybody having faith, not just in the team but in themselves on both sides of the ball. So really just having faith in each other and making sure that as a running back or as a quarterback, just having faith that they’re going to make the block, in pass protection or the run game.”
Sanders talked about being on the sideline those three games he was injured. He felt he learned some things.
“Seeing it as a different view on the sideline, of course,” Sanders said. “It was a weird feeling for me, but at the same time, it was a blessing to be on the sidelines and not playing because I can see different things on the field and help the guys in my room. One thing that my coaches don’t allow in that room and me as well is selfishness. I want everybody in the room to be able to eat. So at the same time, it helped me to be a better leader and just patience-wise with life in general.”
Sanders has seen the Hogs defeat Penn State and Kansas in bowl games his first two seasons on campus. He talked about staying positive in times like this season so far.
“I’ll make it short by saying, I’ve been through a lot, up and down,” Sanders said. “And I always look back to what I didn’t have, and then what I have now. Just really taking it back to where I came from. That’s what keeps me motivated, and what I have now. I feel like that’s the key thing. A lot of people forget what they had back in the day, to now, and what it took to get me here. So I feel like I always look to that to keep me motivated so I will never be down.”
Arkansas and Alabama will kickoff at 11 a.m. Saturday morning on ESPN.