Back On Track

FAYETTEVILLE -- Arkansas coach Houston Nutt sees the wide smile on tailback De'Arrius Howard's face.

He also notices the bounce in Howard's step and the burst in his stride after taking handoffs from quarterback Matt Jones. Then there's the power, the trait that reminds Nutt of 2002, when Howard burst onto the scene with 595 yards and 7 touchdowns as a redshirt freshman.

That can mean only one thing.

"I've got my Mojo back," Howard said. "It feels good."

The 6-foot, 228-pound junior, who put together solid performances the past two games, has snapped a sophomore slump and is confident his productive streak will continue when the Hogs play at No. 16 Florida on Saturday in Ben Hill Griffin Stadium.

The West Memphis native never lived up to expectations in 2003 when he was consumed by personal issues and a nagging ankle injury that troubled him the second half of the season. It was obvious in Howard's rushing totals, which slipped to 267 yards and a lowly 2.8 average per attempt.

But Howard has emerged as a valuable option this season behind starter DeCori Birmingham, rushing for 221 yards and 3 touchdowns in four games.

"I know De'Arrius well enough, when I see his big smile on his face on the sideline, I know he's into it and he wants the ball," Nutt said. "He's really growing. Maturity is at an all-time high right now and we've got a lot of confidence in him."

That's because Howard had to grow up fast last season.

He admitted football was one of last things on his mind in September, when he discovered he was a father during Texas week. He kept the surprising news of his daughter, Destiny, to himself because "he didn't know what to do." But Howard said he was drowning in the time-consuming task of parenthood.

He finally turned to Nutt and the two had a "father-son" meeting that helped him embrace the responsibilities.

"You've got a daughter and you've got to get up at 3, 4 in the morning and change a diaper, fix a bottle," Howard said. "Sometimes they don't want to go back to sleep. You've got to sit up and play with them. Sometimes you've got to go without. You've got to go buy Pampers and can't go to the mall like you used to.

"But it teaches you a lot of responsibility and made me mature."

But his experiences as a young father couldn't prepare Howard for an injury.

He started the season as senior Cedric Cobbs' backup and put together a solid beginning, rushing for 209 yards and 5 touchdowns in five games. But Howard sprained an ankle in Arkansas' 33-28 loss to Florida last October, missed two games and never recovered from the time off.

Instead, Howard watched Birmingham move from receiver and team with Cobbs as Arkansas' one-two punch the last half of the year.

"When you've got so many good backs, you can get lost in the rotation," said Howard, who was available for the regular-season finale at LSU but didn't play. "I never got a chance just to get back out there.

"When you're hurt, you can't practice and you put on all those extra pounds by eating because you're not running that much. That took a lot out of me."

Strength coach Don Decker said Howard never had a problem in the weight room, where he owns school records in the squat (665 pounds) and the power clean (380). But he followed a strict diet in the offseason to trim down and worked feverishly to gain stamina by training with Arkansas sprints coach Lance Brauman.

The work paid off when Nutt noticed a leaner, better-conditioned Howard return for spring practices. He also had a clearer head because there was "nothing to worry about" at home.

Howard began running harder and it has carried over this fall.

"He's running kind of like he did his freshman year," Jones said. "He's a real strong back, fast. You feel like if you give him the ball he can get five yards. He definitely has the strength to run folks over and be a strong runner. He's one of the strongest runners I've ever seen and probably the strongest I've ever played with."

Howard's biggest contribution during last Saturday's 27-10 win against Alabama didn't appear on highlight reels, but came on Arkansas' first drive of the second half. Birmingham was sidelined with a bruised back and Nutt turned to Howard to carry the load while the Hogs held a 14-10 lead and were pinned at the 4-yard line.

He got the call on six consecutive plays, churned out yards behind solid blocks and helped the Hogs move to their 44. Arkansas punted a few plays later, but the field position battle shifted in its favor when Alabama's next possession started at the 6.

Howard rushed for 38 yards on the drive and finished with a team-high 65.

And it was a sign that his sophomore slump really was in the past.

"Last year I experienced a lot of different stuff," Howard said. "It just seemed like nothing would go right. I don't know what it is, but you come off a good game and it just brings your confidence back up to where you say, 'Hey, I'm unstoppable.'"

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