By ROBBIE NEISWANGER
Arkansas News Bureau
FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas senior De’Anthony Curtis didn’t really think he’d get a chance to carry the football again.
The former running back and wide receiver figured those days were over when Arkansas moved him to cornerback.
But after Knile Davis went down with a season-ending injury in early August, Curtis knew the door reopened for his return. And the big smile on his face Tuesday night was proof of how much it means to the Camden native.
“The first thing I did, I was like, ‘Aw man, I did miss this,” Curtis said, remembering his first carry.
Curtis, whose last rushing attempt was in the 2009 season opener against Missouri State, will get another opportunity for carries when Arkansas plays the Bears on Saturday.
Curtis was the biggest surprise on Arkansas’ depth chart when he listed as the second-team tailback behind starter Ronnie Wingo Jr. It also cemented his status as the feel-good story from Arkansas’ preseason camp.
His return to offense was predicated by bad news — Davis’ fractured ankle as well as the more recent hamstring issue for Dennis Johnson. But Curtis, according to coaches and teammates, has made the most of the opportunity by impressing them with his performance in practice.
“It’s great seeing De’Anthony Curtis carrying the ball,” Arkansas receiver Jarius Wright said. “He came in with me (in 2008) and played running back. He’s been looking great ever since he’s been moved back to running back and I feel like he’s taken that job full on and he’s ready to do it.”
If so, it has taken a long time. And a circuitous route.
Curtis came to Arkansas as one of the highest-rated members of a signing class that included Wright, Joe Adams, Greg Childs, Tramain Thomas and Tyler Wilson. Curtis was the top-ranked player in Arkansas, according to Rivals.com, and also the No. 6 running back in the nation.
He simply didn’t live up to the billing. The tipping point at running back came during his freshman season at Kentucky when, after starter Michael Smith suffered a fourth-quarter injury, Curtis fumbled with Arkansas clinging to a 13-point lead. Kentucky scored a touchdown, added another a few minutes later, and stunned the Hogs 21-20.
“I told myself everybody fumbles,” Curtis said, looking back on that game. “I don’t think no running back went through their career without fumbling at least once or twice. So I put it behind me and told myself that I’m a good player and good players make mistakes sometimes.”
But Arkansas wasn’t so quick to forgive and forget.
Curtis has only three rushing attempts since, bouncing around to different roles on the team. He played “flyback” in 2009 and caught a touchdown pass in Arkansas’ win against Texas A&M. He played receiver last season and caught two more passes before moving to cornerback.
The limited production made Curtis a logical choice to transfer in search of playing time elsewhere. But Curtis insisted he wasn’t interested in taking off.
“I never had a time I was going to be leaving,” Curtis said. “I don’t know why everybody was thinking that. If it was playing fullback, I was going to be playing for Arkansas. Cornerback, I’m going to play for Arkansas.
“It didn’t matter. I was going to stick.”
It led Petrino to call Curtis the “ultimate team player” Monday, while adding Arkansas is rooting for him to succeed. Offensive coordinator Garrick McGee said last week Arkansas has “forgiven” Curtis for the Kentucky fumble.
“The kid grew up as an Arkansas Razorback,” McGee said. “He wanted to graduate and be a part of what we have going on here. He was willing to do whatever he could do to help this program win. That’s what it’s all about.”
It’s no surprise the sentiment is echoed by teammates and coaches as the Razorbacks prepare for the opener.
“You feel for him in that he’s been all over the place really as far as position-wise,” Wilson said. “Now he’s back on offense and he ran really well the other night in the scrimmage. I’m excited for him. I can’t wait to give him the ball in a game situation and see what he can do.”
Curtis said it didn’t take long to settle back into the position, needing a couple of cuts to get back on track.
Now that he’s there, Curtis is confident there will be a better outcome when he gets the ball Saturday. There’s no doubt the senior is thrilled to be in the backfield again.
“It is a big excitement,” he said. “I’m just thinking about when I first came in and we played the first game. I’m just thinking about a lot of stuff right now. I’m just thankful for another opportunity to play running back.”