Professional optimism

Former Hogs ready to tackle pivotal seasons

By: Troy Schulte
Published: Saturday, July 12, 2014
Former Arkansas Razorback football players who currently play in the NFL, Darren McFadden, Peyton Hillis and DJ Williams talk to participants in the youth NFL Legends at Verizon Arena in North Little Rock on Friday.
Photo by Benjamin Krain
Former Arkansas Razorback football players who currently play in the NFL, Darren McFadden, Peyton Hillis and DJ Williams talk to participants in the youth NFL Legends at Verizon Arena in North Little Rock on Friday.

Darren McFadden has a one-year contract and that much time to prove himself with the Oakland Raiders.

It's been six years since McFadden stormed into the NFL as the No. 4 overall draft pick, fresh off a career at Arkansas in which he was twice runner-up for the Heisman Trophy. Other than one standout season, the running back is still trying to gain traction in a career that has been slowed by toe, knee, hamstring, foot and ankle injuries.

"I feel like they still haven't seen the best of Darren McFadden," he said Friday while working the Arkansas Legends ProCamp at Verizon Arena in North Little Rock.

McFadden took a break this weekend from his offseason routine in Dallas to help run the camp with a pair of fellow former Razorbacks who also have found the NFL to be a tougher grind than their college days.

Running back Peyton Hillis will report to New York Giants training camp July 21 with a new two-year contract after shuffling between the Denver Broncos, Cleveland Browns, Kansas City Chiefs and Tampa Bay Buccaneers since 2008. Two days later, tight end D.J. Williams will report to New England Patriots training camp after having been cut by three different teams last season.

"I'm sure it's a lot harder than we all expected," McFadden said of carving out an NFL career.

McFadden, 26, still has a chance to be the premier player most expected him to be. Entering his seventh season, the key for McFadden will be the same as it's always been: He has to stay on the field rather than in the trainer's room.

McFadden has never played more than 13 games in any of his six NFL seasons, and last year he was limited to 10 games while battling hamstring and ankle injuries.

His best season came in 2010 when he rushed for 1,157 yards, had 507 receiving and scored 10 touchdowns, but injuries have kept him from equaling those statistics.

His contract expired after last season, but the Raiders signed him to a one-year deal worth a reported $4 million.

The stakes for this season are clear: He has one last chance to come through for the Raiders.

"That's something that I try not to think about, but I know the reality of it is that's what it is," said McFadden, who played in high school at Pulaski Oak Grove. "It's all or nothing for me. That's what I feel like."

At least McFadden is heading into this season with reasons to be encouraged. He said he is 100 percent healthy, he was married this spring in a ceremony at Las Vegas, and he is motivated by the Raiders' offseason acquisitions. Oakland signed veteran offensive linemen Kevin Booth, Austin Howard and Donald Penn, as well as former Jacksonville Jaguars running back Maurice Jones-Drew.

Jones-Drew, 29, had his own injury problems last season in Jacksonville, rushing for just 803 yards and 5 touchdowns in 15 games, but he led the NFL in rushing in 2011.

Jones-Drew signed a three-year deal with the Raiders, but McFadden said he views the three-time Pro Bowl selection as help rather than a deterrent.

"I feel that me and Maurice complement each other really well," he said. "I've learned a lot of things just being there and talking to him, so I'm looking forward to getting back out there on the field and playing with him."

Hillis also must deal with his team adding pieces at his position, too.

Hillis re-signed with the Giants in March, but the Giants also signed Rashad Jennings and drafted Andre Williams out of Boston College. Hillis has yet to return to the form he showed in 2010, when he rushed for 1,117 yards and 11 touchdowns, but he said the Giants' acquisitions run parallel to the rest of his career.

"I feel like there's always somebody else in front of me," said Hillis, who is from Conway.

Still, he has a roster spot and he's appreciative of that considering how last season went. He signed last July with the Buccaneers, was cut in September, then signed with the Giants in October and rushed for 247 yards and 1 touchdown over the final 7 games.

Aside from a minor muscle strain during organized team activities in May, Hillis has had few complaints since landing with the Giants.

"I went through a rough patch there for a couple of years, but I feel like I finally found a home," Hillis said. "Football hasn't gone exactly the way I've wanted it to be, but I have a wonderful family, I have a great wife, great kids. I just love where I'm at."

Williams' 2013 season was similar to what Hillis experienced. He was cut by the Green Bay Packers last August, signed with the Jacksonville Jaguars but was cut in November, then was signed, cut and signed again by the Patriots in December.

Williams, who won the John Mackey Award with Arkansas in 2010 as college football's best tight end, said last year changed how he looks at his career.

"I caught myself, I'm not going to lie, making excuses," said Williams, a product of Central Arkansas Christian. "Then after getting cut three times in a matter of a month, you start looking at it and say, 'Maybe it's me.' Now that I see that.

"I just want to work harder and not have an excuse for a coach to let me go."

Sports on 07/12/2014