They're In The Game

FAYETTEVILLE -- Robert Johnson can't believe someone would underestimate his skills like that.

The scouting report on the Arkansas wide receiver is that he has good speed but isn't that strong and doesn't have the best hands.

"I'm way stronger than that," Johnson said.

The knock against Peyton Hillis is that he's just another slow fullback who's limited in what he can do with the football. Naturally, the senior took offense to that assessment.

"They're missing a little bit of my speed," Hillis said. "I'm not the fastest guy in the world, but I think I'm faster than what they put me at."

Apparently, life doesn't always imitate a video game -- even if the controller is in your own hands.

But at least Johnson and Hillis have reached a certain level of success that's considered much cooler nowadays than appearing on the front of a Wheaties cereal box.

They're both video-game characters.

Every year, EA Sports releases its highly popular video game -- NCAA Football. This year's edition is appropriately titled, EA Sports' NCAA Football 08.

Because of NCAA regulations, the game's creators are not allowed to use actual player names. But jersey numbers are acceptable.

So there is no mystery as to whom the Arkansas running back with the No. 5 jersey is supposed to be. Or who's the other tailback with the No. 25.

"I'm just happy to say that I am on the game," Arkansas running back Felix Jones said. "I made it."

Each player in NCAA Football 08 is designed to match the strengths and weaknesses of his real-life counterpart. Of course, good luck in finding a player who actually agrees with how he's portrayed in two-dimension.

"It's kind of accurate," Arkansas linebacker Freddie Fairchild said, not sounding too convincing.

Speed is considered one of Fairchild's strengths in the video game. But one of his weaknesses is awareness. Coincidentally, he took notice of that.

"I do (take offense)," Fairchild said with a smile. "I'm a good cover guy."

Even Darren McFadden believes the EA Sports creators could have portrayed him more accurately in the video game. It doesn't matter that the Heisman Trophy runner-up is considered the game's top running back with a 99 out of a possible 100 rating.

The higher the rating, the better the player.

"I feel like they did (a good job) to a certain extent," McFadden said. "I just feel like I can do a little bit better."

As for wide receiver London Crawford, he's just glad that his digital self looks like the real thing.

"They made him look just like me," Crawford said, though the him he's referring to is actually his video-game self. "I look the same way."

As one might expect, some players are sensitive to how they're portrayed in NCAA Football 08. After all, the video game is hugely popular and played in college dorm rooms and fraternity houses around the country.

"That's my fourth love right there," Arkansas wide receiver Reggie Fish said of the video game. "It's God, family, football, then that."

Fish is an avid player of NCAA Football 08. He challenges teammates like Elston Forte, Adrian Davis and Fred Bledsoe in a video-game version of what they do for real every Saturday during the college football season.

"So far, I've only lost once to Adrian," Fish said. "So me and Adrian need a rematch. But I've swept the rest of them."

Not surprisingly, most Arkansas players say they use the Razorbacks when they play the video game. They know the players, and they know the playbook.

"That's all I play with is Arkansas. I play myself and most of the time it's the Wildcat formation I'm in," Johnson said. "You can't stop it in the game."

Johnson said he bought the video game as soon as it was released earlier this summer.

Of course, as soon as he got home, he made sure to customize his digital self. He wanted to make himself stronger and have better hands than the creators had originally programmed.

For most players, though, the idea of being a video-game character that they can control is surreal.

The real Felix Jones can use his digital self to score touchdowns and run over defenders. And with a few presses of the button, the real Robert Johnson can have himself go up and make a leaping touchdown catch on the video game.

"My best friends back home always ask me how does it feel to be on a game, to play with yourself on the game," Johnson said. "It's pretty good."

Morning News reporter Ryan Malaschock also contributed to this report.

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