Is This The Real Arkansas Team?

FAYETTEVILLE -- Arkansas running back Darren McFadden is as close to full strength as he has been since mid-September.

Wide receiver Marcus Monk has returned from a nagging knee injury to finally give the Razorbacks a big-play target after going nearly two months without one.

And Arkansas' defense has rebounded from its horrendous start and is beginning to play with the type of confidence that defensive coordinator Reggie Herring had hoped for early in the season.

That begs the question: After eight games, three close losses and back-to-back lopsided wins, is this the real Arkansas team that entered August with high hopes and a No. 21 preseason ranking?

It has taken longer than some expected, but are all the pieces finally coming together?

"I guess you could say that because everybody is coming back off injuries and things like that," McFadden said. "We're just trying to put everything together and finish strong."

That begins at 7 p.m. tonight when Arkansas (5-3, 1-3 Southeastern Conference) hosts No. 23 South Carolina (6-3, 3-3) in a game that will help determine how far the Razorbacks have come since August. The game will be televised on ESPN2.

"I think after last year we lost some leaders on the team and had to find some people to look up to," Arkansas center Jonathan Luigs said. "But I feel like right now we're deep in the season, we've all been here for three months together and I think we're finally starting to bond and mesh together and be productive on the field."

The first half of the season didn't go necessarily as Arkansas coach Houston Nutt had hoped.

Monk missed the first six games after needing two arthroscopic surgeries to repair a right knee injury suffered in the preseason.

Nutt made it a point after each close loss to mention how things could have been different if the star receiver were healthy.

Meanwhile, McFadden has not looked as explosive since suffering a slight concussion and bruised ribs in consecutive losses to Alabama and Kentucky in mid-September.

McFadden, once considered the Heisman Trophy favorite, admitted Monday that his ribs have bothered him more than he wanted to let on.

But the mood around Arkansas' locker room has been more upbeat over the past week than it was during the difficult first half of the season.

McFadden and Monk are healthier than they've been in a while. The coaches aren't nearly as much on-edge. And there is a newfound sense of hope regarding the final month of the season after back-to-back wins over Ole Miss and Florida International.

"There is no doubt that right now, I think, this team has as much confidence as they've had all year," Herring said. "You have to earn that confidence. You have to achieve positive things to gain that kind of confidence.

"The one thing, though, you do have to keep in perspective in this league is that you're as good as your last snap."

Naturally, Arkansas' coaches are more optimistic now than they were after a heartbreaking 9-7 loss to Auburn on Oct. 13 dropped the Razorbacks to 0-3 in the SEC.

As has been the case under Herring, Arkansas' defense has shown much improvement as the season has progressed.

The Razorbacks have allowed only two touchdowns and forced 11 turnovers over the past two weeks, a big reason for the 44-8 win over Ole Miss and 58-10 victory over FIU.

"We're a young defense; there is a lot of sophomores," Arkansas defensive end Malcolm Sheppard said. "Of course, it's going to take a little time for us to get to where Coach Herring wants us to be, and I think we're finally getting there."

How far the Razorbacks have come, however, remains to be seen.

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