Surprising Freshmen Generating Excitement

FAYETTEVILLE -- Arkansas tailbacks Felix Jones and Darren McFadden are surprising everybody.

Neither true freshman has gained a yard for the Razorbacks, but excitement -- most of it coming from coach Houston Nutt -- has grown with each broken tackle or long run in preseason practices.

"The sky's the limit," Nutt said. "They're outstanding because they can do so many things. They both have such exceptional quickness and speed and still have great vision.

"They can do whatever they want."

What has surprised Nutt about Jones and McFadden is how much better they are than the coaching staff expected after recruiting evaluations.

Sure, Nutt figured they would be good or he wouldn't have recruited them in the first place. He just didn't anticipate they'd be this good, this soon.

"They're not going to be redshirted," Nutt said. "They have the talent. Now, it's about how they use that talent on the next level and everybody is faster, stronger and quicker now because they're freshmen."

Of course, quarterback Robert Johnson is excited. He figures the elusive tailbacks will boost an already talented running game that includes De'Arrius Howard, Peyton Hillis and Dedrick Poole. It also should help draw defenses in, relieving some of the pressure on Johnson, a first-year starter, in the passing game.

"It surprised me how fast they were," Johnson said. "Usually, coming out of high school, it takes awhile for guys to adjust and get up to the speed, but these guys came in from the first day and went with it.

"I think they'll be among the best freshman running backs in the country this year."

Few have been more surprised -- or weary from doing up-downs because of missed tackles -- than the defense.

Jones, a 6-foot, 195-pounder, began splitting defenders for big gains on the first day of full-contact practice. McFadden, a 6-2, 210-pounder, was slowed early because of a knee injury and didn't hit full stride until last Saturday's scrimmage when he gained a team-high 79 yards on 10 carries. Jones had 10 carries for 34 yards.

Senior strong safety Vickiel Vaughn has tackled the likes of Auburn's Carnell Williams and Ronnie Brown and Texas' Cedric Benson (all first-round NFL draft picks this year). He believes the Hogs' freshmen can be in that class one day.

"They're both going to have great careers," Vaughn said. "If you make a mistake, you might as well forget it. They're the kind of running backs that are tough all around and if you give them too much, they'll burn you quick.

"They have a great possibility of being as good as any of the running backs I've faced, if not better. They're good enough right now to start on any team in the country."

Perhaps, the most surprised have been the freshmen themselves. Both heard glowing stories about the other before they arrived at Arkansas, but did not anticipate this much competition.

Like Williams and Brown did at Auburn, Jones and McFadden don't mind splitting time as long as the team benefits.

"It's exciting to know we've got the next four years together," McFadden said. "And we're going to constantly be an influence on each other because we know that if we don't go hard, the next person will be in there because he's just as good.

"It motivates you to work harder."

Neither has had to share the spotlight before.

McFadden was named a Parade All-American at Pulaski Oak Grove after rushing for 4,871 yards on 497 career attempts, an average of 9.7 yards per carry. Jones was named the Tulsa World Player of the Year in 2004 after gaining 2,282 yards and 41 touchdowns on 205 carries (11.1 yards per carry). He also led Tulsa Booker T. Washington to a 13-1 record and runner-up finish in Class 5A.

While competition can create animosity, but Jones and McFadden said they'll remain friendly while they fight for carries.

"It really doesn't matter who starts as long as we win the game," Jones said. "We're all about championships and we're going to need each other when it comes down to it. He's going to take some hits and I'm going to take some hits. There's going to be times where I want him to go in there and times where he wants me to go in.

"We're going to rely on each other."

As far as styles, Jones uses quick feet to make people miss and turn inside runs into big gains. McFadden, by all accounts, is the better outside runner with a unique combination of speed and power.

Both also have shown the ability to be solid blockers and receivers, traits needed for any tailback to play at Arkansas.

"McFadden, if you watch him on film, you would think it was (former Razorback) Cedric Cobbs all over again," said senior tailback Dedrick Poole. "The way they stand, the way they run, the way they make cuts. He's a spitting image of Cedric Cobbs."

Jones is said to have great balance, similar to that of his favorite NFL rusher, Emmitt Smith.

"With Felix, you've got to get on your horse, period," Vaughn said. "There ain't no way around it because he cuts back at the same speed he was running at you. He's so quick and so elusive that you can break down and be in position and still miss."

Now, Arkansas is hoping the freshmen will surprise opponents this season.

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