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April 5, 2007To most of the 81,000 people at Bryant-Denny Stadium on Sept. 24, 2005, Darren McFadden's scintillating 70-yard sprint against Alabama was just an impressive touchdown run.
To Arkansas football coach Houston Nutt, it was a moment of clarity.
"Very few people could do that at 18 years of age in the (Southeastern Conference)," Nutt said. "That's when I knew, 'Guys, we have something special.' "
Everyone knows it now.
Only the seventh player in SEC history to rush for 1,000 yards as a freshman, McFadden followed a brilliant freshman year with a record-setting sophomore season. He finished as the runner-up to Ohio State quarterback Troy Smith in the Heisman Trophy voting.
He will enter the 2007 season as the leading candidate for the Heisman. And that surprises him almost as much as that amazing run against Alabama stunned his coach.
"Coming out of high school I figured I would just continue on playing football," McFadden said. "I didn't think it would blow up like this."
His reputation blew up when he blew by opponents.
Not only did he have that 70-yard run against Alabama, but he also had a 70-yard run against Georgia and a 64-yard run against Mississippi State. Those scampers prompted high praise from former Auburn coach Pat Dye.
"I believe that the running back at Arkansas is the best freshman running back I've seen come in this conference since Bo Jackson," Dye said.
McFadden was better as a sophomore. He rushed for an Arkansas-record 1,647 yards and scored seven touchdowns from 43 yards or further. Five of those TDs were on running plays, one was a 70-yard reception and he had a 92-yard kickoff return. He had an 80-yard touchdown run against the LSU defense, which ranked No. 3 nationally.
He has rushed for 25 touchdowns thus far, and 14 have been on runs between 14 and 72 yards.
"It takes him a few steps to get going, but once he gets going he's gone," Arkansas quarterback-turned-receiver Robert Johnson said. "(LSU safety LaRon) Landry runs a 4.35 and he ran right past him. He has another gear.
"I understand what it is to be fast, but we're talking about 'next-man-to-you-speed.' If the dude chasing him runs a 4.3, then Darren runs a 4.28."
Even though the Razorbacks are overflowing with offensive talent in receiver Marcus Monk and running backs Felix Jones and Peyton Hillis, they still want McFadden to get the ball between 25 and 30 times a game.
Last season he averaged just more than 20 carries a game, but caught 11 passes and returned 10 kickoffs. He also played quarterback in the "Wildcat" set and completed seven of nine passes with three going for touchdowns.
This spring Arkansas coaches have been working to expand the "Wildcat" to further utilize McFadden's ability. They've also agreed to let him return punts.
"He wanted to do it," Nutt said. "That's one area he wanted to improve. He will make (opponents) think twice because you don't want to punt to him. And, of course, he has good hands."
Good enough to take hold of the Heisman? His teammates hope so.
"I could sit here and tell you we don't think about it, but I guarantee you every person on the team wants him to win the Heisman," Johnson said. "If he wins the Heisman we're doing what we need to do. You don't win the Heisman without doing something right as a team."
The first thing the Razorbacks did right was put McFadden at running back. He was rated a five-star recruit as an athlete by Rivals.com, and he had the versatility to play several positions.
"He can block and tackle and do anything we ask him to," Nutt said. "When we first signed him everybody was telling us he could be an All-American free safety or linebacker. I think we kept him in the right position."
Olin Buchanan is the senior college football writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.