LITTLE ROCK (AP) _ Long before Arkansas fell hopelessly behind against Southern California, Razorbacks fans had a big reason to cheer.
On the first play from scrimmage, Darren McFadden ran off the sideline and lined up as a wide receiver, over near Arkansas' raucous student section.
``I'm just very thankful to get back out on the field,'' McFadden said the following day. ``I'm just happy to be back out there with my teammates right now.''
Arkansas lost 50-14 Saturday night, but McFadden's appearance was one of the Razorbacks' few bright spots. Just over a month after dislocating his toe, the talented running back was able to start in the season opener.
And McFadden _ the 2005 Southeastern Conference freshman of the year _ was no decoy against USC. He finished with nine carries for 42 yards and two catches for minus-6 yards, all in the first three quarters before the game got out of hand. McFadden lined up at both running back and receiver. His first touch was on a reverse in the first quarter.
Afterward, McFadden said he felt about 80 to 85 percent. He had a hard time breaking free against the Trojans _ who are now ranked No. 3 in the country _ but he gave the Razorbacks a lot more than many expected.
``I was just real determined. I was doing everything I could to stay in shape,'' McFadden said. ``I was riding the bike ... trying to stay in shape, so when I did get my chance to get back on the field, I would be ready.''
McFadden hurt his toe early July 29 in a fight outside a Little Rock club. He immediately had surgery, but teammates and coaches weren't sure when he'd be able to play. McFadden was listed as doubtful for the opener, and when he had the pin removed from his foot Aug. 21, the outlook seemed even worse.
``The hardest for me was when I first got the pin out,'' McFadden said. ``My joint was real stiff ... didn't really want to move too much.''
But McFadden returned to practice about a week later, and after days of speculation, that familiar No. 5 was on the field trying to dodge USC tacklers.
``He's worked hard. He's very, very tough,'' coach Houston Nutt said. ``He's a guy that will be at rehab every day, every hour that you ask him to. He'll even do extra. He's a guy that doesn't want to be on the sidelines.''
Last year, McFadden had arthroscopic surgery shortly after Arkansas' final game _ for a small cartilage tear in his knee from the preseason. In between, he rushed for 1,113 yards and 11 touchdowns.
Now, the question is not whether McFadden can play _ it's whether he can regain his 2005 form. The Razorbacks face Utah State (0-1) on Saturday night in Fayetteville _ then open their SEC slate at Vanderbilt the following weekend.
``I think he's getting better,'' Nutt said. ``The best news is he's getting to practice every day, and that's what he's missed.''
Arkansas is adjusting to new offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn, and Nutt said missing preseason work is tough on a player under any circumstances.
``Even with just the plays that he knew _ even the base plays _ it's important that you practice,'' Nutt said. ``Otherwise everybody would just tell everybody, 'Just come in the week of the game.'''
Even without much time to shake off the rust, McFadden was a big part of the Razorbacks' offense against USC, especially after running back Felix Jones fumbled three times in the early going. This week, there's little uncertainty about McFadden's status, and Arkansas hopes to rebound from its opening-game loss.
``You've got to have a short memory,'' McFadden said. ``We're going to come back here and work hard this week in practice and just try to move on from it.''
A month ago, McFadden's season was uncertain. Now, it looks like he has plenty to look forward to.