FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. — Chase Hayden took a handoff around his own 24-yard line and charged toward a hint of an opening in the offensive line.
When he reached the line of scrimmage, his lane was narrowing. A defender was closing in, poised to stop him for a short gain. Would-be tacklers were circling like vultures, and it appeared Hayden was out of options.
Until he created his own.
The true freshman bounced off an initial hit and cut a few yards to his left, avoiding a second defender. As Hayden glided outside toward the first-down marker, he hit another gear and burst down the sideline.
There was only one defender left for Hayden to beat. It was a cornerback who had just enough speed and the right angle to coax him out of bounds. But, in just his sixth carry of his first college scrimmage, the newcomer wasn’t going to be denied. He fought off the final defender and tight-roped along the sideline for the final steps of a 74-yard touchdown run against the first-team defense.
“To me, the definition of a great running back is when you can make something out of nothing,” said Arkansas coach Bret Bielema. “When it breaks down, what are they going to do? Chase has the ability to make something out of nothing in a hurry.”
That ability is like a sixth sense for Hayden. He doesn’t even know exactly how to describe it. It’s just sort of always been there.
“I would say it’s instincts,” Hayden said. “You don’t really plan that going into the play. You’ve just got to kind of feel it.”
Chase carries himself with a noticeable calmness. It’s in the way he plays and conducts himself on and off the field. If he’s even the least bit overwhelmed in his first college fall camp, it’s not showing.
Indeed, he’s been well prepared by his father, Aaron, a former running back who played at Tennessee in the 1990s and spent four seasons in the NFL with San Diego, Green Bay and Philadelphia.
“This is like a culmination of years and years of conversations and planning,” Aaron said. “My buddies that played in the NFL and played with me in college were always sharing stories and telling him what to expect. He’s been talking to college coaches and former pros for a long time.”
Andre Lott and Charlie Garner are two of the former pros who have mentored Chase, and he still taps his father for advice all the time. He talks with Aaron on the phone most nights, going over practices and what to expect going forward.
“My dad can tell me about the little things,” Chase said. “He’s been through the college process, he played in the SEC and then the NFL. Just the little things like preparing, working hard, doing extra stuff, studying the playbook. Those are the things he’s taught me. It’s definitely a plus, I would say.”
Dad has also always been quick to inform his son of one thing he believes is certain — playmakers get playing time. Chase saw that approach work in high school and is attempting to do the same at the college level.
“I don’t think there’s a coach out there that won’t play somebody they think can make explosive big plays and help them win games,” Aaron said. “And I feel like that’s what he’s doing. I think he’s out to prove people wrong but do it the right way.”
As his father points out, it seems obvious Chase indeed approaches each day with something to prove. And he has his reasons.
Chase had offers from schools such as Florida, Michigan and Tennessee, but he felt like Arkansas placed a higher priority on securing his commitment. Some schools didn’t believe he could make an impact as a running back and recruited him to play slot receiver or cornerback. Those positions were viewed as a better fit for someone his size (5-foot-10, 191 pounds). Others pushed too hard for his commitment right away and made him wonder if they had his best interest at heart.
Although Chase ranked among the top performers among many elite prospects at Nike’s The Opening finals the summer before his senior season, he was only listed as a 3-star recruit by 247 Sports. He didn’t receive an invitation to the Under Armour or U.S. Army All-American games despite racking up more than 7,000 yards and 92 touchdowns in high school. It all serves as motivation for the 18-year-old.
“I always teach him to find different reasons to have a chip on his shoulder so that once you step between those lines, you’re angry,” Aaron said. “So, I think that plays a lot into why he’s so focused. And I think he does play with a chip on his shoulder.”
Aaron was listed at 6-foot, 216 pounds during his NFL days and prided himself on having a bruising running style. Similarly, Chase is determined to defy anyone who thinks someone his size should avoid contact. He intends to make an immediate impact for the Razorbacks.
“Chase Hayden is a guy that belongs on the field,” Bielema said last Saturday. “He’s a guy that stands out.”
At the conclusion of the scrimmage, Hayden unofficially had 115 yards on 16 carries. Hayden impressed again a week later in the Hogs’ second scrimmage. It seems he’s taking advantage of every opportunity to play right away. As a result, the coaching staff views Hayden as an equal to sophomore Devwah Whaley and senior David Williams in the backfield.
The headlines from his scrimmage performances have served as a pleasant surprise to Arkansas fans. No fan base expects to hear of such efforts from a true freshman. At least not one that was a 247Sports composite 3-star recruit.
But for those who know Hayden best, surprised isn’t the right word for what he’s doing. It’s more a sense of reassurance for those folks, serving as affirmation that he can do at this level what he’s always done. See, Hayden has been taking advantage of such moments to make a big impression for years.
It started with AAU basketball. The Memphis, Tenn., native began playing at the AAU level when he was 8 years old. Aaron served as his coach for the Memphis War Eagles. Their teams regularly played on the biggest stages, including three national championship game appearances that resulted in one title.
Chase was always far from the tallest kid on the team. What he lacked in height, he made up for in fearlessness as a capable two-way point guard. Before football took over as the sport of his future, he was billed as a future top basketball recruit.
While playing in high school at St. George’s Independent School, a small private school in Collierville, Tenn., he was twice named Tennessee’s Division II-A Mr. Basketball. He averaged 24.4 points, 6.5 assists and 2.8 steals per game as a senior.
On the football field, he proved himself immediately when given the opportunity at the high school level. He earned a starting spot on the high school varsity team as an eighth-grader. Four years later, he led St. George’s to the Tennessee Division II-A state championship, rushing for 266 yards in the title game.
“One of my [AAU assistant coaches] called him ‘Bright Lights Bob’ and that was one of the things coaches always said about Chase growing up,” Aaron told SEC Country.
“When the lights are on, he tends to kind of step up his game and he meets the challenge. He’s been doing that for a long time.”
To hear Aaron tell it, Chase’s pursuit of goals borders on obsession.
Back in high school, Chase would pull a sled twice a week after practice to work on his speed. He ran hills on Saturdays, even during football season after playing the previous night. On Sundays, he would do sprint work with a track coach to improve his acceleration — then head to the gym for a basketball workout.
Until now, that sort of commitment also made him an outlier. Not many of his peers had the same vision and focus on improvement. He was, as Bielema likes to call his recruits, uncommon.
Chase said that isn’t the case at Arkansas. When he first arrived at school in early June, he admits he felt a little homesick. Those feelings were alleviated as he bonded with similarly motivated teammates. He’s become fast friends with fellow freshmen such as wide receiver Koilan Jackson and defensive backs Chevin Calloway and Kamren Curl.
“He’s having a ball up there,” Aaron said. “He came home for a weekend and he was ready to go back after one day. He was like, ‘Dad, you know I love y’all, but I’ve kind of gotten used to being at Arkansas.’ We knew Arkansas was the fit for him because of Coach [Bielema’s] personality. But I think it’s important he’s also found a fit socially as well.”
Chase is destined to be right at home as a regular in the Arkansas Razorbacks backfield when the competition counts for something this season. And when he gets his first carry against Florida A&M on Aug. 31, b e sure not to look away too soon. He might just make something out of nothing.
The post Arkansas freshman Chase Hayden poised to make immediate impact appeared first on SEC Country.
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