At first glance, he looks like a bigger Dennis Johnson, wearing the same No. 33 jersey, playing tailback, running through arm tackles and grinding for extra yards.
Walk-on Patrick Arinze (33) stiff-arms cornerback Jared Collins during Arkansas' Red-White game Saturday.
At other times, he looks like Kiero Small 2.0, a big bruising fullback who’s clearing holes with punishing blocks.
The one constant: Very few people in Arkansas seem to know much about him.
The mystery man is Patrick Arinze, a 5-10, 254-pound junior who walked on at the UA at midterm without any hoopla. He quickly made a name for himself with his play on the field, though, finishing the spring as the Hogs’ No. 2 fullback.
Despite his immediate success as a backup fullback and situational tailback, Arinze, to a large degree, is still an enigma.
The UA’s spring football guide lists his position, height, weight, class, hometown, high school and junior college. That’s all.
There’s very little information about him in the public domain, either. Internet searches reveal a few statistics here and there from a combined 10 games in 2010 and 2011, but you have to dig. There are some junior college video highlights from 2011, and there's a mention or two from his high school days.
Thanks to his performance during Arkansas’ recent practices – he led the Razorbacks in rushing in the spring game and in another scrimmage – there are mentions of him in relation to the Hogs. But again, not much background info, and he’s given no interviews that can be found.
So who is Patrick Arinze?
Arinze was the leading rusher in the Red-White game.
We’ve been asking ourselves that question this spring, so we did some digging. After talking to Arinze’s former high school coach as well as the trainer who helped him prepare for SEC football, we have a better idea.
‘A WEIGHT ROOM MONSTER’
Believe it or not, Arinze is a former high school offensive lineman – a kid who played very little football until he arrived at San Diego-area powerhouse Helix High School as a junior and became “a battering ram,” as Helix Coach Troy Starr put it.
Starr describes Arinze – 5-10 and 215 pounds at the time – as “a unique kid, real quiet kid,” but also a “weight room monster” who set the school’s squat record at 685 pounds.
“Isn’t that ridiculous? It’s like a small Volkswagen,” Starr said.
But Arinze was raw, and he was playing at a school known for big-time football, one that produced the likes of Reggie Bush and Alex Smith.
Being new to the game, Arinze didn’t have “that swag at all and all that other stuff,” Starr said. But had he “started early and had he done all that other stuff, he would have been a huge player.”
“You know, when he was with us when he was in high school, he only played one year of varsity, and he was a kid that got into football late,” Starr said. “It was kind of one of those things where he didn’t have his … it was kind of like he was in between. And then right at the end of his senior year, he got real good. He’s a guy I wish we would have had one more year – just a classic late bloomer kid.”
Arkansas Coach Bret Bielema named Arinze the No. 2 fullback on Tuesday.
Arinze started at offensive guard for Helix as a senior during the 2009 season and played a little on the defensive line. He helped the Highlanders reach the playoff sectional championship game at the San Diego Chargers’ Qualcomm Stadium.
“He’s the biggest reason why we made a late-season run,” Starr said. “He was just a beast.
“Had we played a pure fullback and had we had the linemen that year … That was when we had a lot of sophomores, we didn’t have big linemen. That’s why he was in there. But in an ideal situation he would have been a fullback in a system where the fullback was utilized.”
Starr, the former director of football operations at Florida, said he told Arinze he needed to go to a nearby junior college, Grossmont College in El Cajon, Calif., and play fullback. Starr felt like that was Arinze’s natural position at the next level “because he’s just so strong and he can run.”
“So he went to Grossmont and got hurt his first year, and his second year he just kept working at it …”
FROM THE GRIDIRON TO REHAB
At Grossmont, Arinze played in six games in 2010 and four games in 2011, according to official statistics. He ran for a combined 21 yards and two touchdowns on nine carries, being used primarily as a blocker.
Tom Cox, the sports performance director at Velocity Sports Performance in San Diego, said Arinze tore an anterior cruciate ligament in his knee while at Grossmont and came to him last summer to train.
Bobby Allen, a former UA assistant who's now director of high school relations, is the guy who got Arinze on campus.
“Basically came in wanting to lose a little bit a weight, kind of lean up, gain some muscle and get faster, so that’s exactly what we did,” Cox said.
“The guy is naturally gifted. He’s naturally strong. When he first came in, he just came off of rehabbing. In no way shape or form he was ready to get back to that same weight he was squatting in high school. Basically took a approach where we did more injury prevention with him. Really loosened up his hips a lot made sure that all of muscles were working properly and activating properly.”
They started working together five days a week. Cox quickly discovered that Arinze is “one of the hardest working and nicest kids you’ll ever meet.”
While they were working together, Arinze was communicating with Arkansas’ former coaching staff. The Razorbacks ended up inviting Arinze to walk on. They “were excited to have him,” Cox said, and Arinze was very excited about the opportunity.
But of course, John L. Smith was out as head coach at the end of last season, and Bret Bielema took that job in December.
“When the staff change happened, he was kind of nervous, thinking his walk-on spot would not be reserved,” Cox said. “We sent film to the DB coach (at the time, Bobby Allen), and they said, ‘No, we’d love to have you walk on.’ It’s actually kind of an inspiration.
“He took a big leap of faith, I think, flying halfway across the country just on a whim that he might get a chance to play.”
HELPING THE HOGS
Starting fullback Kiero Small says temmates have joked that Arinze looks just like him.
Arinze arrived at Arkansas at about 270 pounds – or 16 pounds heavier than his current listed weight.
Cox said Arinze told him Arkansas’ strength and conditioning staff “have done wonders.”
In the Red-White game last Saturday, Arinze certainly didn’t look too slow for the role the Razorbacks have in mind – playing a little fullback and spot play at tailback. Arinze led all rushers with 66 yards on nine carries.
There were a few plays where he looked a little bit like Johnson, the Hogs’ former starting tailback. And again, at others, he looked like Small, Arkansas’ starting fullback.
“When he first got to campus, that’s what a lot of the guys were saying. Like, ‘Man, y’all are built just alike,’” Small said. “He’s a strong guy. Squats the house. Big legs. He can run through arm tackles and things of that sort.”
Bielema called Arinze a “nice surprise” this spring and said he was “very powerful,” comparing him to a “little Tonka truck.”
“Just really built strong, tough and physical,” Bielema said, adding that there’s “a nice combination with him and Kiero – also the two of them in the backfield, possibly together.”
On Monday when Bielema released the Razorbacks’ post-spring depth chart, Arinze was listed as the second-team fullback behind Small.
His high school coach, who learned Arinze was at Arkansas six weeks ago when he talked to another former Helix player, said it’s “surprising to some extent, but not completely surprising." Fullbacks are “a dying breed,” he noted.
“They’re hard to find,” Starr said. “And he fits the bill. He’s got the right height, and he’s so strong and fast for a big guy.
“When you see him, tell him I said hello. I’m proud of him.”