J.R. and Henry: Life Without McFadden
It hurts to write that headline. It hurts more the more you think about it. The curse of the sophomore running back at Arkansas lives on. And this time it struck before the first practice of the season.
Take a look at this list of running backs since Arkansas joined the SEC. Oscar Malone. Madre Hill. Cedric Cobbs. Fred Talley. They all have something in common. Each of those backs suffered season ending injuries before their junior year.
And if those names look very familiar, they should. One of those four tailbacks led Arkansas in rushing in 9 of 11 seasons from when Malone first stepped on campus in 1993 until Cobbs’ last year in 2003. And each was the starting tailback at the time of his injury.
Now, it looks like the Razorbacks are going to have to live for at least part of this season without Darren McFadden. That’s right, McFadden. The name Arkansas fans would surely call as the player the Hogs could least afford to lose. The preseason first team All-SEC running back. The player former Auburn Coach Pat Dye called the best freshman running back in the SEC since Auburn’s legendary Bo Jackson. McFadden is the kind of player worth paying to go see play, even if you’re pulling for the other team.
By this time, everyone knows that McFadden injured himself in a fight outside a notorious Little Rock night club early Saturday morning. We have no desire to pile on the kid. But when you’re 20 months away from being a multimillionaire, you would think that Darren would 1) not go to places where big name athletes walk around with bullseyes on their chests; and 2) walk away from fights with people who have nothing to lose. McFadden didn’t, and now he’s laying in bed wondering when he’ll get better while Razorback fans wonder what Arkansas will do without him.
The only good thing about this little episode is that McFadden didn’t get himself killed. If the police report is true, his fight was with a man in his 20’s who was trying to steal his stepbrother’s car. A person willing to commit grand theft auto probably isn’t too far from pulling out a weapon to get away with it. McFadden should count himself fortunate to be toted off in an ambulance for toe surgery rather than by the county coroner.
But for his Razorback teammates who have suffered through two straight losing seasons, McFadden’s injury is more than just an unwanted distraction. The official word is that McFadden is “doubtful” for the USC game. Unfortunately, from the accounts we’ve heard of this injury, requiring emergency surgery including the placement of a pin to stabilize the top joint of the big toe, it’s doubtful McFadden will play at least until the Alabama or Auburn game, and then probably only sparingly. Not only will Darren likely be unable to run at all for 4 to 6 weeks, he will miss all of fall practice, including two-a-days. Remember that Arkansas is reportedly installing a new offense, complete with new running plays and blocking schemes. Something much more difficult to pick up from the sidelines.
But even more worrisome than how long McFadden will miss and how long it will take for him to pick up the offense and get into football is shape is, when he returns, whether he will be the same explosive back who tore off 70 yard runs against two of the SEC’s best defenses in Georgia and Alabama. McFadden is a tough, strong runner. That’s not likely to change. But his speed is what sets him apart. It’s not just a toe that he hurt. It’s his big toe on his plant foot. The million dollar question (literally) is whether the injury will forever prevent him from regaining that breakaway speed.
On a positive note, there is no doubt that Arkansas has a very talented back up to McFadden in sophomore Felix Jones. He was a freshman All-American as a kick returner, and also rushed for 626 yards, averaging an outstanding 6.3 yards per carry, a figure identical to the more heralded McFadden’s average.
Still, there is a reason that McFadden was the starting tailback. He proved it on the field every time he carried the ball, including running up some gaudy numbers against the SEC’s best on his way to shattering Arkansas’ freshman rushing record.
McFadden had a man among boys quality at age 18. Pat Dye saw it. Will we see ever it again?
J.R. and Henry are two local sports nuts who blog their sports column at Little Rocking twice a week.