FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. — Week after week, Darren McFadden calmly answered questions, doing his best to shrug off all the hype about the Heisman Trophy.
Then he’d take the field — and hear about it some more.
“A lot of trash talk going on after plays,” McFadden said. “They were always just like, ‘Come on, Heisman.’ They say anything when they tackle you, you know?”
McFadden should excuse those defensive players if they were a little mouthy. Tackling him is quite an accomplishment. After finishing second in the Heisman voting last year, the Arkansas tailback is again a top candidate to win college football’s most prestigious award.
McFadden’s run at this year’s honor really began last season, when he rushed for 1,647 yards and led the Razorbacks to the Southeastern Conference title game. He had no chance to overtake Ohio State’s Troy Smith, but as the Heisman runner-up, he had a head start this season. Everyone wanted to know what was in store for McFadden’s junior season.
The answer: more of the same.
“I feel like I had a great season,” McFadden said. “I feel like I accomplished my main goal — for me to exceed what I did last year. I feel like I did that.”
McFadden rushed for 1,725 yards in 12 games — more than he did in 14 games last season. His versatility is common knowledge by now. McFadden occasionally lines up at quarterback. He’s completed six passes this season, four for touchdowns.
McFadden also returns kickoffs, and at 6-foot-2, he’s a bruising blocker when he doesn’t have the ball.
Is that enough to win the Heisman? He’ll find out this week. McFadden has strong competition, particularly from Florida quarterback Tim Tebow. Missouri quarterback Chase Daniel, who will face McFadden and 25th-ranked Arkansas in the Cotton Bowl, also is a contender.
“When Darren McFadden is at his highest level, there’s not a defense in this country that can stop him,” said Reggie Herring, who took over as Arkansas’ interim coach when Houston Nutt resigned last week. “He needs blockers just like every other great running back, but what he’s done over the past two years is more than enough to secure a Heisman Trophy.
“Just by the prerequisite of what’s been in the past, looking at stats and what you’ve done on the field and how important you are to a football team, I think Darren McFadden exemplifies that and then some.”
McFadden’s campaign was on track in September. He ran for 195 yards against Alabama in a 41-38 loss. It’s easy to wonder how different the Razorbacks’ season could have been if they’d won that game — and they might have if McFadden hadn’t missed the end with a concussion.
The following weekend, he ran for 173 yards in a 42-29 loss to Kentucky.
Those two defeats increased fan outcry against Nutt, and McFadden faded a bit in October. He ran for only 43 yards in a 9-7 loss to Auburn that dropped Arkansas to 0-3 in the SEC. That game remains a significant blemish on his resume.
Needing a big November to save his Heisman hopes, McFadden delivered. In Arkansas’ first game of the month, he tied an SEC record by running for 321 yards against South Carolina. Then came the regular-season finale Nov. 23: McFadden ran for 206 yards and three touchdowns and also threw for a touchdown to lead the Razorbacks over then-No. 1 LSU 50-48 in triple overtime.
“I just want my guy to be mentioned in that Heisman (race),” Nutt said after the LSU game, shortly before he left the Razorbacks and was hired by Mississippi. “He was second last year in the Heisman Trophy ballot and he’s having a better year this year, so why wouldn’t he be there?”
McFadden is third on the SEC’s career rushing list at 4,485 yards. He can turn pro after this season, so if the Cotton Bowl is his last game, he’ll need 73 yards on New Year’s Day to pass Kevin Faulk for second place.
McFadden also became the second SEC player to rush for 1,000 yards as a freshman, sophomore and junior — the first was Herschel Walker. No wonder McFadden isn’t sure he needs the Heisman to validate his college career.
“It’s just a dream come true if I could win it,” McFadden said. “At the same time, I know I’m still a good ballplayer. I don’t feel like I have to just win the Heisman to set my mark in college football because I feel like I’ve done that already.”
For McFadden’s home state of Arkansas, though, the Heisman is important. The Razorbacks have never had a Heisman winner, and their fractured fan base could use a reason to cheer as a tumultuous year draws to a close.
McFadden has made his bid. Now it’s up to the voters.
“It would make you feel like you made your history around the state,” McFadden said. “You made your mark. It would be a great feeling for me.”