Shouldering the load
Heisman favorite McFadden must carry Hogs in 2007
Posted: Thursday July 26, 2007 12:19PM; Updated: Thursday July 26, 2007 12:47PM
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.