TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — The truly great players don’t compare to those who came before them. Arkansas running back Darren McFadden is an example of this. He’s a combination of size, speed and strength rarely seen in the college game.
This presents a problem not just in trying to accurately describe just how good McFadden is. It also makes practicing to try and stop the 6-foot-2, 215-pound junior especially difficult.
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Alabama will use several scout-team players to try and give their defense a "look" at what they might be facing when McFadden and the No. 16 Razorbacks (1-0) visit Bryant-Denny Stadium to face the Crimson Tide (2-0, 1-0 Southeastern Conference) on Saturday night. Coach Nick Saban said he’s not sure it will do much good.
"If we could simulate (McFadden) in practice, we’d play the guy," Saban said. "I wish we had one. But we’ll try to take some of the guys that are fast guys, even if they aren’t exactly running backs and try to put those guys in there, that we can get a picture of what we need to get.
"But one of the things that’s most difficult about this offense, especially their perimeter (plays), on reverses, options, how do you get the speed at which they do it in practice?"
Defensive end Wallace Gilberry has his own ideas. They would entail bringing in some of the stars of the superhero world.
"Superman, Spider-man, maybe," Gilberry said, "one of those Marvel Comics guys.
"(Other backs) don’t compare to (McFadden). He’s definitely a man among boys when it comes to the running back position."
Then again, Alabama has faced McFadden twice, which is more than enough of an opportunity to figure out just how good he is. He rushed for 95 yards and a touchdown against the Crimson Tide in 2005, then followed that up with a 112-yard, one-touchdown effort against the Tide last season.
McFadden was just a freshman in that first meeting, and was not fully recovered from offseason toe surgery in the latter. He’s rushed for 2,911 yards and 26 touchdowns — averaging better than 6 yards per carry — in his Arkansas career.
Alabama safety Rashad Johnson got a taste of trying to tackle McFadden last season, Johnson’s first as a starter.
"It’s very tough," Johnson said. "He’s a very gifted athlete, one of the best running backs in the nation, and the top (one) in this conference. As far as stopping him, we’re going to put some things in this week and we’ve just got to gang-tackle. One guy can’t expect to tackle him by himself every time. Everybody needs to get to the ball this Saturday."
But just getting to McFadden is only half the battle. He’s got long, powerful arms, and is able to deal a punishing stiff-arm to defenders who don’t get to his body quickly enough.
Ask former Alabama safety Roman Harper. In the 2005 game against the Razorbacks, Harper helped McFadden make the first memorable play of his career, when he stiff-armed Harper to the ground on his way to a 70-yard touchdown run in Alabama’s 24-13 victory at Bryant-Denny Stadium.
The play became an Internet highlight staple and remains legendary among the Alabama defenders still on the team two years later. Linebacker Darren Mustin has a strategy in mind if he finds himself in a situation similar to what Harper faced in 2005.
"You try to break his arm when he sticks it out," Mustin said. "He’s going to try to break your face."
But it’s not enough to blindly barrel toward McFadden’s body while try to avoid the stiff arm. He’s just as likely these days to pull up and pass, as witnessed by four career touchdowns, including one in the season-opener against Troy two weeks ago.
McFadden often lines up at quarterback in the Razorbacks’ "Wild Hog" formation, a special package put in by former Arkansas running backs coach Danny Nutt in order to better utilize McFadden’s talents. The Razorbacks didn’t use the formation much against Alabama last year, but ran it to great effect down the stretch in their SEC West championship run last season.
Saban said the idea of McFadden playing quarterback is a nightmare for opposing defenses, which always have to worry about the possibility of the All-American running first.
"It would be better if he couldn’t pass, we wouldn’t have to worry about it," Saban said. "But the way you have to play, especially when he’s at quarterback, it's basically a spread-out offense, running a lot of wishbone principles, and there’s zone option, creating a pitch man with somebody on the motion. Running a misdirection zone read, he comes out with the ball, so you’ve got to get enough of them down there to have run support on both sides.
"And it’s not always easy to do without loading the box. And when you load the box, things happen. Obviously, you give them some opportunities to throw the ball, and he does it off of play-action, which is going to make so many people on your defense cover the people that can run down the field."