By ROBBIE NEISWANGER
Arkansas News Bureau
FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas defensive coordinator Willy Robinson has a lot of respect for former Alabama running back Mark Ingram.
The 2009 Heisman Trophy winner was a handful for opponents during his three-year career with the Crimson Tide. He enjoyed good days against the Razorbacks, too, including last season’s 157-yard rushing effort in a 24-20 win.
But Robinson said the Razorbacks have debated something about the other running back — Trent Richardson — as they prepared for the Tide.
"He’s a big-time football player," Robinson said. "Not to take anything away from Ingram — Ingram was a great football player — but we had such great admiration over the last two years for Richardson that we sometimes wondered if he wasn’t really the better back."
Ingram is now in the NFL, meaning the 14th-ranked Razorbacks (3-0) should see plenty of Richardson when they play at No. 3 Alabama (3-0) in Bryant-Denny Stadium on Saturday.
The junior waited his turn behind Ingram and now is the featured figure in Alabama’s offense and an early-season Heisman Trophy contender.
Richardson is averaging 105 rushing yards a game and has scored eight times, which is tied for the NCAA lead after three games. He is coming off a career game, too, rushing for 167 yards and three touchdowns on 11 carries in Alabama’s 41-0 win against North Texas.
Slowing him — and Alabama backup running back Eddie Lacy — will be the top priority for a defense that hasn’t allowed a rushing touchdown. And a group determined to prove last week’s struggles against pass-happy Troy was merely a hiccup as SEC play begins.
"Their run game is pretty impressive," Arkansas defensive lineman D.D. Jones said. "They’ve got two good backs and a great offensive line. The challenge is up to us and how we come out and handle it. We’re putting the weight on our shoulders, man, to go out and perform and help our team get the win."
Richardson has enjoyed success against the Razorbacks the past two seasons, rushing for 85 and 65 yards. But a good chunk of his production came on one memorable play.
No one has forgotten the highlight Richardson reeled off when he was a freshman in 2009. He was hit in the backfield by Arkansas linebacker Wendel Davis for what looked like a sure loss, but shook the tackle, broke three more and raced to the end zone for a 52-yard score.
It set the tone for Alabama’s 35-7 win.
"It just hurts when you see it," Arkansas linebacker Jerico Nelson said of the run. "We should have made that play and we didn’t. If we make that play, the game could be different."
Richardson remembers it as one of the best of his career. He’d like another Saturday.
"It’s always going to be a big run," Richardson said. "It’s always going to be a big highlight, that I’ll never forget. ... I know they’re going to bring everything to me on Saturday. That means I’ve got to be prepared."
Arkansas has done a good job against the run in its nonconference games, allowing 87.7 yards (and just 3.3 yards a carry). The Hogs have spent three years building their defensive line, believing it now possesses a talented group that will win games in the trenches.
Arkansas has tinkered with its newfound strength, too, experimenting with five-man fronts. It’s no secret the work is aimed to challenge power running teams like Alabama.
Richardson knows he’ll be the focal point of Arkansas’ defensive efforts. He’s OK with it.
"I don’t care if people try to shut me down or not," he said. "As long as my team has a good time and we’re winning, it’s fine with me."
It helps Richardson doesn’t have to shoulder the load alone. Much like Richardson teamed with Ingram to combine for an impressive one-two punch the past two seasons, Lacy has been a productive running mate this season. The sophomore is averaging 101.3 yards a game.
The duo was impressive in last week’s 41-0 win against North Texas, combining for 328 rushing yards and five touchdowns. Four of the scores were from 43 yards or more, including Richardson’s 71-yard run in the fourth quarter.
"It’s not like either one of those guys can’t pop that hole and take it to the goal line," Robinson said. "There’s not much changed there.
"Both of them are outstanding players and they rotate the both of them as well as they rotate the quarterbacks, so they keep them fresh."
It’s a tandem that gives Alabama a big advantage. Richardson called himself Lacy’s "biggest cheerleader" when the backup is on the field. He said there are "no worries."
Instead, that’s reserved for opponents trying to stop Alabama. Arkansas, which has allowed 229.7 rushing yards in the past three meetings, knows the task begins with Richardson.
"He’s a good back, man," Jones said. "He breaks a lot of tackles. When you hit him, you’ve got to make sure you wrap up. It will take more than one of us to get him down."