Freshmen Vying For Playing Time

FAYETTEVILLE -- Arkansas true freshmen running backs Felix Jones, Darren McFadden and Michael Smith understand that history is on their side.

They watched Peyton Hillis make the successful transition from high school star to big-time contributor as a true freshman at Arkansas last season. They also know about Cedric Cobbs, who rushed for 668 yards as a true freshman and was named most valuable player of the 2000 Cotton Bowl. And they haven't overlooked DeCori Birmingham, who split time at running back and receiver in 2001, played in 11 games and finished with 397 all-purpose yards.

So the trio knows that Arkansas coach Houston Nutt won't shy away from giving them a chance to make an immediate impact this fall.

"He tells us that he's going to depend on some freshmen to come in and contribute to the team," said McFadden, the prize of Arkansas' signing class after rushing for 1,965 yards and 27 touchdowns at Little Rock's Pulaski Oak Grove High School last season.

"I know that I have to work hard to get myself into the mix, but I'm really excited about getting a chance to play as a freshman."

That feeling has spilled onto Arkansas' practice field the first three days of preseason drills. The freshmen have shown off their blazing speed and impressive athleticism, which could be important components of a retooled offense.

Nutt said it's too early to pick out which freshmen, if any, will fit into Arkansas' offensive plans. Experienced backs like Hillis, De'Arrius Howard, Dedrick Poole and Kyle Dickerson already are fighting for playing time. But Nutt said the newcomers' development will be worth watching the next few weeks.

"We feel like we have a couple of home run hitters there," Nutt said about his freshmen class. "I still believe in De'Arrius Howard, Peyton Hillis and Dedrick Poole. That's your experienced group. Then you've got some guys right on their heels.

"It's going to be interesting to see what happens with the younger guys."

Said Poole: "To be honest, I can't remember the last time a team had three freshman backs so capable of breaking the long run at any time. They're all different sizes and shapes, too. Little Michael is 5-7, 170. McFadden (6-2, 210) is long, like a horse. Felix (6-0, 195) is more my height (5-10), but he's thick."

Nutt said the Razorbacks will spoon-feed pieces of the offense to the three freshmen every day. For now, he wants the tailbacks to concentrate on learning two plays a day and become familiar with Arkansas' practice routine.

They've gotten a crash course so far, carrying the ball behind the offensive line throughout 2 1/2-hour practices. They've also been used as receivers out of the backfield. Smith has even fielded punts during special teams drills.

"It's a cool deal because coaches usually come in and throw the whole playbook at you at once and you have to learn on your own," Jones said. "But the way (running backs) coach (Danny) Nutt teaches it, he tries to explain each play. Before the play, he'll come back and tell me what to do. After the play, we'll do it again.

"It's real helpful. That's the best way to learn."

The Razorbacks are hoping Jones and McFadden can learn quickly and begin to fulfill enormous expectations. Both tailbacks came to campus after being named his respective state's player of the year in 2004.

McFadden was the only Arkansas player named to the prestigious Parade All-American team last season and compiled 4,871 rushing yards in his high school career. Jones was equally impressive during at Tulsa's Booker T. Washington High School, rushing for a staggering 2,282 yards and 41 touchdowns last fall.

"You can see why they're both highly, highly recruited," Nutt said. "Any team in America would love to have those two backs. They're awesome players.

"The thing about Darren McFadden is that he can go play linebacker and free safety. But he's going to have to play his way out of tailback because he runs 4.3 and he is (6-2) and has good hands. Felix Jones can also play corner.

"What I love about both of them, you can see them right now being in the back yard playing any pickup game you got. Whether it be basketball, baseball, football, they're gym rats. It just excites you."

But the Hogs won't overlook Smith, whose parents are coaches. Nutt said the Tallahassee (Fla.) Rickards High School product understood blocking schemes better than his teammates Monday and has a "bounce in his step."

Smith, who rushed for 800 yards and 15 touchdowns last season despite an ankle injury, said there's no tension between the freshmen even though they're competing for playing time. Instead, they're trying to help each other learn to wait for blocks, develop deft moves and understand blocking schemes.

Smith knows the Arkansas true freshmen running backs that have earned playing time in the past have done those type of things correctly.

So, if any one of the three intends to get on the field this fall, they'll have a few weeks to prove they can handle the workload.

"I want to play," Smith said. "I can't lie. I want to make an impact. Mainly, because I feel like this year we're coming in the back door and we're going to sneak in and surprise a lot of teams. I want to be a part of that. I want to contribute to that.

"But I know that I have to make sure I do things right. They're just not going to let me play because of the hype that I had coming out of high school."

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