FAYETTEVILLE — Kiero Small wasn’t used to holding the football during his Arkansas career. So when the fullback pulled in a short pass from Brandon Allen and looked at the goal line last Saturday, a thought flashed into his head.
Better make it count.
"When I saw the goal line, I said, ‘Man, I’ve got to get in,’" Small said. "There’s no telling the next time I’ll be able to get that close. So I said, ‘I’ve got to get in now.’"
Small made good on that plan, showing enough athleticism to stay in bounds and then power to bull through two defenders for a 10-yard touchdown. It was the second touchdown of his career and part of a big return for the senior, who missed all but one game last season because of a broken foot.
Arkansas coach Bret Bielema and offensive coordinator Jim Chaney insisted all summer Small would play a big role in the Razorbacks’ offensive plans this season and proof came last week. The tailback touched the ball seven times (four rushing attempts, three receptions) and logged roughly 50 snaps in the win.
It was more than Small had ever played in a game at Arkansas. Bielema could tell.
"I had to give him a hard time and said he looked like a worn out dog on Saturday afternoon when we got done," Bielema said. "He said that was the most snaps that he’d taken since high school. Obviously, it was a big spike in his production and the reason we did that is he gives us a very good chance to have success."
Small only managed four touches during the first 14 games of his career, serving primarily as a run blocker in an offense built more around quarterbacks and multiple-receiver formations under former coach Bobby Petrino. Small still made an impact when he was on the field, proving to be a punishing blocker. But it wasn’t unusual for his snap total to top out between 25 or 30 plays on good days.
It changed when Bielema arrived with plans to build an offense around a power run game. The coach immediately recognized Small as someone who appeared to be a perfect fit for what they were trying to accomplish.
"I’ve counted my blessings in many ways since coming to Arkansas, and he might be my favorite," Bielema said. "For him to be able to be around with us this year — to realize he got hurt a year ago and have the opportunity to be with us this year — has been worth its weight in gold."
Small’s top responsibility remains in his run blocking. He did his job well Saturday, helping tailbacks Jonathan Williams (151 yards) and Alex Collins (131 yards) top the 100-yard mark. But Small was happy to get involved in other ways.
"He touched it seven times for a fullback? Well he’s done for the year. We don’t have to do that anymore now do we?" Arkansas offensive coordinator Jim Chaney. "No, he’s earned the right to touch that ball. … He’s a good little running back. I don’t have a problem with him touching the ball. He’s a good football player."
Small said it felt good to make an impact with the ball in his hands.
But he’s not expecting to evolve into a primary ball carrier.
"We got the win. I helped put some points on the board, but I don’t see myself as a pretty boy in any way, shape or form," Small said. "If it’s thrown, I’m going to catch it and try and make something happen. We’ve got a lot of guys that can make plays over here. When my number’s called, I just try and make the best out of it."
Small does intend to play plenty this season whether he gets the ball or not, though.
That’s the reason he worked hard in the offseason, becoming one of strength coach Ben Herbert’s most visible success stories. Small committed himself to the program, trimmed weight and added strength. Small said he weighed 268 pounds when he arrived on campus two years ago, but is 240 pounds now.
Arkansas quarterback Brandon Allen said it shows on the field.
"That comes down to conditioning," Allen said of Small’s ability to log more than 50 snaps. "I know Kiero got himself in the best shape of his life and he’s able to go a lot more plays in a row without getting winded. And his strength is still up too.
"So having him be able to just power people just like he used to and run a lot more routes is definitely huge for us. In both the run and the pass game."
It wouldn’t have been possible if Small was healthy last season.
The fullback stopped short of saying he’s happy about the foot injury that sidelined him because of the good fortune of being able to play under Bielema. But after logging more than 50 snaps and getting seven touches in the new offense’s debut Saturday, he’s further convinced that things "happen for a reason."
"It’s not the worst thing in the world anymore," Small said.