ALAMEDA, Calif.-– Oakland Raiders fullback Marcel Reece said he has been asked the same question about running back Darren McFadden countless times since they came into the league together two years ago.
Friends, fans and fellow NFL players wanted to know if McFadden would ever "live up to the hype" of being the No. 4 overall pick in the 2008 Draft after his record-shattering career at Arkansas.
Reece's answer? "'Just watch. Just watch,'" Reece said. "I already knew it was coming. Once Darren got healthy, once he got confident in this scheme, just watch. He's going to run away with it. I knew it. Darren knew it. This organization has known it, obviously, and now the rest of the world is getting to see it. It's exciting."
After disappearing the past two years as if part of an NFL witness protection program, McFadden has emerged as one of the league's top runners. He ranks third in rushing with 345 yards on 73 carries, averaging 115 yards per game and 4.7 per carry.
Battling turf toe and knee injuries, McFadden rushed for just 499 yards as a rookie and only 357 yards last year. He seemed much closer to becoming a draft bust than having a breakout season. But now he's coming off back-to-back 100-yard rushing games and ranks among the NFL's top rushers entering Sunday's home game against Houston and Arian Foster, the league's rushing leader. "It's not a surprise," McFadden said. "I feel like I should be doing it."
|McFadden faces Houston's Arian Foster in a battle of the NFL's first- and third-ranked rushers. (Getty Images)|
"It's a lot of fun," McFadden said after his 30-carry game. "As a running back you want to go out there and get the ball in your hands and do what you can do. It's a lot of fun being able to carry the ball that much."
McFadden was part of a running back by committee with Justin Fargas and Michael Bush the past two years. Last year Fargas had 129 carries, Bush 123 and McFadden 104. In 2008, Fargas had 218 carries, McFadden 113 and Bush 95.
The Raiders cut Fargas after the 2009 season. Bush missed the first two games after fracturing his left thumb against the 49ers in the preseason. That left McFadden as a committee of one, and he literally took the ball and ran with it.
"Everybody knows the kid can run," Raiders offensive lineman Khalif Barnes said. "I saw him at Arkansas before he came out. I've seen him here, too. He's really not surprising me at all. I don't think he's surprising a lot of guys on the team because we all know that he can do that.
"He's just getting a chance. He's healthy now, and he's running like D-Mac, he's running like he's capable of running."
McFadden gave a hint of what was to come in the Raiders' opener at Tennessee. He carried 18 times for 95 yards and caught a team-high six passes for 55 yards and a touchdown. Coach Tom Cable called it the best game of McFadden's career.
"Consistently ran it hard, read it right, protected it, caught it. When he's healthy, that's who he is," Cable said.
The next week, McFadden gashed the Rams for 145 rushing yards. Then he gained 105 against Arizona, making a strong impression on Cardinals defensive tackle Darnell Dockett.
"I have great respect for that man," Dockett said after the game. "That [expletive] runs hard. I mean harder than anybody I've ever seen."
During his first two seasons, McFadden was criticized for not running hard enough, for going down too easily. Both Cable and Bush said McFadden has used that criticism as motivational fuel.
"He's very competitive, and he's out there to prove people wrong," Bush said. "That's what drives a lot of athletes, people talking down on you or negative about what you do. That makes you go out there and play much harder."
The soft-spoken and consistently upbeat McFadden hasn't used his fast start as an I-told-you-so moment. He said he hasn't proven anything after only three games.
"You have to keep being consistent," McFadden said. "You want to come out and do this week in, week out."
McFadden made some changes during the offseason that helped prepare him for a heavy workload. One of those changes involved his diet. He stopped eating so much fast food, making his chiseled 6-foot-2, 210-pound body even stronger.
"I tried to take a healthy approach as far as eating habits," McFadden said. "I feel it's paying off for me right now. I feel more energized, and I think it helps your body recover faster."
McFadden can thank new Raiders offensive coordinator Hue Jackson, in part, for his success this season. The Raiders were almost exclusively a zone blocking team during McFadden's first two years. Jackson added a large dose of straight-ahead, power blocking to the mix this year, and McFadden has thrived.
"Being in a new scheme, it helps you out a lot," McFadden said. "We have more downhill runs. You can keep your shoulders square to the line and get going."
McFadden had a 33-yard run last week against Arizona and a 30-yarder against St. Louis.
"He's been running so hard," Raiders tight end Zach Miller said. "He's hitting the holes so fast. Even if there's just a little gap he's slipping right through, and once he hits that second level his burst is so great he's getting long-yardage gains, 20-plus yard gains. It won't be long before he breaks a big one."
Now that Bush is back in action –- he carried three times last week in his 2010 debut –- McFadden's 30-carry games could be over. But he's clearly established himself as the team's No. 1 running back, even though McFadden and Bush are still listed as co-starters on the depth chart. Jackson said he'll find ways to get the ball to both McFadden and Bush, who were training camp roommates and are good friends. At times they'll likely line up together, with McFadden in the slot, taking advantage of his receiving skills.
"I think both of those guys complement each other," Jackson said. "There's no egos there. The most important thing that I've found here ... is our players just want to win. It's not about who gets the carries, who does this or who does that.
"Whoever is in there and he's hot, he has the hot hand, we're going to ride it. If that guy isn't getting it done, we'll put the next guy in and let him do it."
So far this season, McFadden has been hotter than almost every other running back in the league, and he's shown no signs of cooling off.