Column: Arkeel Newsome on the verge of greatness

UConn running back Arkeel Newsome runs the ball downfield during the Huskies' game against East Carolina at Pratt & Whitney Stadium at Rentschler Field in East Hartford, Connecticut on Friday, Oct. 30, 2015. Newsome finished the game with 179 rushing yards, 244 all-purpose yards and two touchdowns. (Ashley Maher/The Daily Campus)

Anyone that went to high school in Connecticut and even vaguely followed high school football could tell you that Arkeel Newsome was phenomenal before he even stepped foot onto campus at UConn.

If you aren’t from around here, let Newsome’s numbers paint a picture for you. In four years at Ansonia High School, Newsome amassed a state-record 10,672 yards, and even passed NFL legend Emmitt Smith in career rushing yards. He also scored a state-record 187 career touchdowns and 1,162 points. In his senior season alone, he ran for 3,867 yards with 68 touchdowns and 422 points. Those are all single-season state records.

Those are numbers that are hard to put up in Madden, let alone in four years of varsity high school football. 

Connecticut is not usually a football recruiting hotbed, and it probably never will be. But Newsome was an elite talent, and was named a first team Parade Magazine All-American. 

Newsome was one of three running backs selected to the first team. The other two? Elijah Hood, who is now at North Carolina, and Leonard Fournette, who is now this season’s leading Heisman Trophy candidate at Louisiana State and the best running back in the country. 

Despite the gaudy numbers and accolades, Newsome was not as high-profile of a recruit as either of his fellow All-American running backs. Maybe it was because he was from Connecticut. Maybe it was because of his size. Maybe it was because Newsome is different than Fournette and Hood. He isn’t a one-man wrecking crew that runs through defenders like Fournette has in his fantastic season so far. He doesn’t excel at running between the tackles like Hood does. Instead, Newsome thrives in open space, using his speed and quickness to make tacklers miss.

When head coach Bob Diaco took the job two seasons ago, one of his biggest priorities was to make sure Newsome retained his verbal commitment and signed with the Huskies. Diaco managed to keep Newsome in-state and became the first high school All-American to suit up for UConn.

With high expectations, Newsome showed flashes of potential in his freshman season, rushing for 203 yards and catching 12 passes for 151 yards and one touchdown in limited action. With a quarterback carousel and a struggling offensive line, Newsome couldn’t find holes or open space to make defenders miss. Not to mention, he was plagued with ball security issues, and eventually became too much of a liability to be trusted with the football.

This season has been a much different story.

Newsome wrestled the starting running back role away from Ron Johnson and hasn’t looked back. Diaco has made the Ansonia native the centerpiece of a rapidly-improving offense. He’s been in the backfield, getting his touches. He’s lined up in the slot as a receiver, and has done a ton of damage in the screen and short pass game and excelled at returning kickoffs.

Diaco has figured out that Newsome is an offensive Swiss Army knife. The goal isn’t to give Newsome a certain number of rushes or receiving targets. It’s simply to get the ball in his hands as much as possible in any way possible. When he has the ball, good things happen.

This season, Newsome leads the Huskies with 591 rushing yards and six touchdowns. He demonstrated his speed last Friday against East Carolina when he ripped off a 90-yard touchdown run for his second rushing score of the night for the third-longest rush in UConn history.

Newsome is also tied for the lead in receiving touchdowns with two, and has racked up 386 yards on 34 attempts, good for 11.4 yards per catch. Serving primarily as a screen pass and short pass specialist, quarterback Bryant Shirreffs has relied on Newsome to make something out of nothing. More times than not, Newsome has come through.

On top of all of this, Newsome has solidified the kick return game with 341 yards on 14 attempts, including a 71-yard run. And he hasn’t fumbled once either.

The ECU game was Newsome’s best of the year, and showcased how talented he truly is. Newsome ran for 179 yards and added one catch for 41 yards and 24 kickoff return yards to finish with 244 all-purpose yards. It marked the third time in UConn’s last four games that he totaled over 200 all-purpose yards.

Newsome was named to the American Athletic Conference Honor Roll for his performance against the Pirates, and now ranks 16th in the country in all-purpose yards with 1,318 total yards.

Only in his sophomore season, Newsome has already shown that he is one of the most electrifying players in the country. When the ball is in his hands, the UConn offense is usually successful. There are not too many players that can do the things Newsome does as well as he does.

It might be too early to tell, but I’m going to say it anyway: Newsome is a NFL talent. He may not have the size, he may not be from a football hotbed or a football school, but he’s talented.

It’s been done at UConn before. The Huskies have seen numerous defensive players succeed in the NFL, and players like Donald Brown and Anthony Sherman have carved out careers on the offensive side. Jordan Todman, perhaps Newsome’s best comparison, has bounced around the league but has found a home in Pittsburgh this season.

Todman broke out for the Huskies in his sophomore season, racking up 1,373 yards from scrimmage and 14 touchdowns. Newsome is on pace to do something very similar, currently sitting at 973 yards from scrimmage and eight touchdowns with three games left, but in a different way.

While Todman was almost exclusively used for running the football (he only has 283 career receiving yards), Newsome is much more balanced (587 rushing yards, 386 receiving yards), which could help him excel in the NFL.

Of course, Todman isn’t the only running back that is similar to Newsome. Guys such as Darren Sproles of the Eagles, Dion Lewis of the Patriots and Danny Woodhead of the Chargers have all found success in the NFL despite their size by utilizing their speed and quickness to make defenders miss.

If he keeps this pace, Newsome could be the next UConn running back suiting up in the NFL. He’s been doubted before, and there’s no reason he won’t prove the doubters wrong once again.