Shouldering the load
HOOVER, Ala. -- The nation's preseason Heisman favorite is a modest, soft-spoken jokester who dressed as a clown for Halloween last year. Sitting next to him in a quiet suite on the third floor of the Wynfrey Hotel on Wednesday, watching him nervously but enthusiastically answer a long series of questions, one can't help but wonder just how much weight must be resting on the wide shoulders of Darren McFadden.
After a dazzling sophomore season in which the Arkansas tailback rushed for 1,647 yards and 14 touchdowns, threw for three scores and finished second to Troy Smith in the Heisman Trophy voting, McFadden enters 2007 facing super-human expectations. Playing in the nation's toughest defensive conference, anything less than 160 yards each week will be considered a disappointment by someone. Now that he's given us a glimpse of that tricky "Wildcat" formation, we're going to want to see him at quarterback at least four or five times a game.
"I know it's going to be crazy," McFadden said of the season-long Heisman hoopla. "If you have a good game one week, they say he's a great Heisman candidate, and if you come back and have a bad game, it's, 'We're not sure if he's a Heisman candidate.' It probably will bother me, if I'm going to be honest, but I won't allow it to affect my playing ability."
Generally speaking, players who've returned to school recently after a Heisman-finalist season have succeeded in returning to New York. Witness Jason White (2003 winner, 2004 finalist), Matt Leinart (2004 winner, 2005 finalist) and Reggie Bush (2004 finalist, 2005 winner). Injuries prevented Adrian Peterson from duplicating his runner-up finish as a freshman.
McFadden's situation, however, may involve far more variables than those before him.
To have another storybook season, the 6-foot-2, 205-pound junior will need to conquer more than just opposing defenses. He'll also have to overcome a litany of potential off-the-field roadblocks that have sprouted up since the end of last season.
The turmoil surrounding Arkansas' program this offseason has been well documented. The January departures of quarterback Mitch Mustain and offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn touched off a firestorm of criticism toward Razorbacks coach Houston Nutt, even prompting opinion polls in the state's media asking whether Nutt -- last year's SEC coach of the year -- should be fired. Patriarchal Athletic Director Frank Broyles was forced into early retirement. Things got particularly ugly when a disgruntled fan obtained Nutt's cell phone records and posted them on the Internet in connection to rumors about a potential extramarital affair.
Life in Fayetteville has calmed down of late, and both Nutt and McFadden swear the firestorm had little effect on the Razorbacks' players. "We know what's going on inside our facilities," said McFadden. "We're all sticking together and staying strong."
Nevertheless, the speculation regarding Nutt's job security isn't going away anytime soon. The 10th-year coach spent a large chunk of Wednesday's media session answering questions about his "trials and tribulations" and lamenting his detractors who are "spreading gossip and spreading lies." If the Razorbacks stumble early (despite winning the SEC West last season, most magazines are picking the Hogs to finish third or fourth in their division), it's easy to envision things imploding under the weight of constant speculation, which certainly wouldn't help McFadden's chances of winning the Heisman.
Of more direct impact to the running back was last week's resignation of his position coach, Danny Nutt (Houston's brother), who is suffering from a recurrence of the bleeding from his brain for which he underwent surgery in 1998. Arkansas has hired Air Force offensive coordinator and former Hog running back Tim Horton as a replacement. Danny Nutt recruited both McFadden and backfieldmate Felix Jones and was extremely close to them. McFadden said his coach called him daily last August to check up on him while recovering from a toe injury that slowed him early last season.
"We knew this day was coming, but boy, you didn't expect it to be this quick," Houston Nutt said of his brother's situation. "He really wanted to get through this year because of the backfield he recruited, probably the best backfield Arkansas' ever had. He has tremendous relationships with those guys."
Finally, there's the question of whether Arkansas, with or without the distractions, will be good enough to keep McFadden in the national spotlight.
Recently, the Heisman has been reserved almost exclusively for players from BCS contenders. The Razorbacks won 10 games last season on the strength of not only their powerful McFadden-Jones backfield (which helped produce the nation's No. 4 running offense) but also an underrated defense that produced first-round draft pick DE Jamaal Anderson and second-round selection CB Chris Houston. Both are gone, as are three offensive line starters (including second-round pick Tony Ugoh) and veteran linebacker Sam Olajubutu. To duplicate last year's performance, Arkansas will almost certainly need to get better production out of oft-maligned quarterback Casey Dick (he completed just 49.2 percent of his passes last season) and find some new stalwarts on defense.
"It's really hard to get to Atlanta," said Nutt. "You never pick us. That's okay. We probably won't be picked again this year, and that's okay. We've got a good group coming back."
Of course, for all the potential issues that could affect McFadden's Heisman, there are no questions about his ability. With blazing speed and a physical running style, the North Little Rock native has drawn comparisons to another running back Nutt once coached as an assistant at Oklahoma State: Barry Sanders. Nutt says the association is valid.
"He's the real thing," said Nutt of McFadden. "I put him in that category. He's a fierce competitor who's almost 6-3 and has long, long arms. He runs a 4.3 or less and he can take it home each and every time."
While Nutt raves about McFadden's work ethic, both on the field and in the classroom, the one thing he's had to work on hardest of all lately has been acclimating himself to the spotlight. At last year's Heisman festivities, McFadden was notably camera-shy, uttering little more than a few words to most questions at a post-ceremony press conference. While he's not exactly ready to star in his own TV show, he did seem far more comfortable with the attention Wednesday. But he admits that developing his media savvy has been a process.
"I was just looking to come up [to Arkansas] and play ball, go to school," said McFadden. "I didn't think it would blow up like this."
Things could blow up even further this fall. The question is whether it will be an explosion or an implosion.
When he takes the field on Sept. 1 against Troy, McFadden will be playing not only for himself and his teammates. He'll be playing for a program and a state that have long thirsted for this kind of national attention -- but one which has also found itself fiercely divided over the past six months. It's not a stretch to say both the fate of Nutt and course of the Razorbacks' future may hinge on McFadden bringing back a certain bronzed trophy.
"It would be tremendous for Arkansas to be able to put a Heisman Trophy in the Broyles Complex in Coach Broyles' last year," said Nutt. "There would be nothing like it. I think it would mean so much."
Hopefully McFadden will be wearing thick shoulder pads under his jersey this season. He's going to need them to support all that weight.