College kids certainly seem to be getting a better foundation in
economics than they used to. Let's see: Work for room and board,
or do pretty much the identical labor for $7 million a year.
What to do? It's not quite that cut-and-dried; a diploma does
come with the meal money. Still, a lot of kids today, it turns
out, would rather have the $7 million instead of free textbooks.
It makes you wonder. What are they teaching in these
For whatever reason, and we suspect it's often the $7 million,
more and more juniors and seniors who would have once rushed for
malt-shop glory on the campus gridiron are now rushing into the
NFL marketplace to become miniature moguls. Did you happen to
catch the story about second-year Cincinnati Bengals running
back Ki-Jana Carter's investments in The New York Times business
section recently? This is no slam against all you guys who
promised Mom you would get your degrees first, but a senior
football player is, almost by definition, a kind of failure.
What in the world is wrong with him?
With pro prospects going to the NFL pretty much whenever they
feel like it--oh, the hardship!--another trend has emerged. Look
around, coast to coast, and notice how young this season's
college running backs are. Theories abound: The scholarship
limitations mean smaller teams and bigger opportunities for
younger players; athletes are just better sooner; it's a big
country, so there ought to be an 18-year-old here and there who
can knock your socks off. In any event, the guys carrying the
ball are babies. With no upperclassmen around to fill the jobs,
freshmen and sophomores are increasingly being pressed into
duty, often with spectacular results. There are now so many kids
doing man's work that Kathie Lee Gifford ought to be weeping
anew. (Her man of course did four-and-out, but that was a
hundred years ago.)
Anyway, here's a little gallery of football precocity--nine
ballcarriers coming off fabulous freshman years. Hey, we would
love for them all to stay, get their degrees and become
collegiate institutions, but it's not going to happen. So let's
celebrate sophomores, the game's elder statesmen.
Hard to know who should head the list--they're just kids,
remember, so they can be kind of unpredictable--but Texas's
Ricky Williams should be somewhere near the top. Between his two
seasons in baseball's minor leagues (he spent this summer
playing outfield for the Class A Piedmont Boll Weevils in the
Philadelphia Phillies' system), he rushed for 990 yards,
breaking the Longhorns' freshman record, set by Earl Campbell in
1974. The comparisons between the two are apparently so vivid
that the six-foot, 215-pound Williams is called Little Earl
after Campbell, who was six feet, 210 pounds as a freshman. And,
so far, neither seems to mind the comparison. "He could be
great," says Ancient Earl.
Right up there, too, is Kevin (No Relation to Marshall) Faulk,
who gained 852 yards last year at LSU, while sharing the
position with, wouldn't you know it, another freshman, Kendall
Cleveland, who rushed for 562 yards and 10 touchdowns. The
5'10", 192-pound Faulk is a shifty type who plays Lightning to
the 6'1", 221-pound Cleveland's Thunder. Each lightning strike,
by the way, was good for five yards last season.
Both Williams and Faulk were true freshmen, not grizzled
redshirts. These guys were so good, their schools couldn't wait
for them, no matter what an extra year of maturity might have
provided. Chris Fuamatu-Ma'afala of Utah was also a genuine
freshman. A 275-pound bruiser from Honolulu, the man of many
vowels and few years broke his boss's ankle during preseason
practice in 1995, bowling over coach Ron McBride as he ran out
of bounds. How good was Fuamatu-Ma'afala? He played every game
anyway and gained 834 yards on only 141 carries.
Then there was Ahman Green of Nebraska. How good was he? Good
enough, cynics say, for the Cornhuskers to afford morality and
suspend Lawrence Phillips (for a little while, at least) after
he pled no contest to battering his girlfriend. It's unfair to
suggest that coach Tom Osborne wouldn't have disciplined
Phillips without a phenom like Green, who rushed for 1,086
yards, on hand, but having another 1,000-yard rusher in the
pantry must have made him more comfortable about the decision.
Going into last season, only 37 freshmen in Division I-A history
had gained at least 1,000 yards--and none had played for
Nebraska. Imagine if Green, a six-foot, 210-pounder with 4.34
speed in the 40, had started before the sixth game of the
season? No running back last year, no matter his vintage, had a
better yards-per-carry average than Green's 7.7.
Green was one of three freshmen who gained more than 1,000 yards
last season. Denvis Manns of New Mexico State, who played in
near total obscurity on a losing team, might have gained much
more than his 1,120 yards if Aggies coach Jim Hess, by his own
admission, packed a few more IQ points. "Just plain dumb," says
Hess, who didn't start the 5'9", 180-pound Manns until the
fourth game. "I wanted to play some older players, but it just
became apparent he had something very few have." Smarter than
Hess was junior running back Ernie Montez, who started the first
two games and then left the Aggies after Game 5. "Montez, I
guess, saw [Manns's potential] faster than any of us," Hess
says. Montez is back for his senior year but has lost his
starting spot for good.
Hess wasn't stupid, not really. A coach's natural inclination is
to tilt toward veterans. At Central Michigan, Silas Massey, who
ran for 1,089 yards as a redshirt freshman, didn't get a start
until the season's sixth game, when an upperclassman went down.
Massey is a runt like Manns and produces yardage in similar
Finally, there are three other sophomores worthy of note: Curtis
Enis of Penn State, a redshirt freshman last year, gained 683
yards after starting the first game of the 1995 season at
linebacker. Florida's Terry Jackson, who began his college
career in the defensive backfield, gained 780 yards after being
moved to offense the previous spring--"C'mon, Terry, give it a
try," coach Steve Spurrier implored. Rob Konrad at Syracuse, who
was a true freshman last year when he averaged 6.9 yards per
carry, is a fullback made from the same stuff as former
Orangeman Daryl Johnston, now with the Dallas Cowboys. Konrad's
importance to Syracuse is suggested simply by his number. "We
don't give [number 44, previously worn by Ernie Davis, Jim Brown
and Floyd Little] to people with just great potential," coach
Paul Pasqualoni says.
Why is there so much precocity now? According to some coaches,
it dates back to 1973, when the NCAA made freshmen eligible.
"It's perfectly normal," says LSU coach Gerry DiNardo, "that of
your freshmen, 15 percent will play and five percent will start.
It's always been that way."
Maybe, but it's hard to recall as strong a corps of sophomore
running backs. Assuming something's going on, what could be at
work here? Ara Parseghian, who used freshmen to help produce a
national championship at Notre Dame in 1973 (no traditionalist,
he), says look at golf. The PGA Tour was once dominated by two
or three players, but now a different name wins every week.
"There are so many more athletes, so much more talent," says
Parseghian. Leave it to a coach to decide that it's just a
numbers game--is this a big country, or what?--but there may be
something to his theory. Either this great land is getting
better at producing freakish physical specimens who excel at
football, or coaches are getting better at knowing where to look.
"I do know," Parseghian continues, "that when I was coaching or
looking at personnel [as a broadcaster], I didn't see 300-pound
linemen. Now everybody has them. Anybody who wonders about the
change in the game ought to go down on the field. They look
different when you get up close."
Parseghian isn't surprised that running backs come to the fore
earlier than other players. Quarterbacks have a lot to learn,
and so, for that matter, do offensive linemen. "All the
audibles, all the blocking schemes, it's hard to develop
quarterbacks and offensive linemen as freshmen," says
Parseghian. "But running backs, it's a lot of reaction. That
kind of instinct, hitting holes, is not something we coach."
Surely there have always been these physical geniuses, but they
had to wait their turn. The bias against young players was such
that the NCAA actually institutionalized it. Such prejudice
still exists. Syracuse's Pasqualoni never did start Konrad last
year, preferring to ease him into games behind an upperclassman.
"We didn't want to put him under any unnecessary pressure," says
Also, like Hess, who wanted to get his older players in the game
ahead of freshman Manns, most coaches believe loyalty is a
concept that works best when it applies to both player and
coach. A player who sticks with the program deserves a coach who
will stick with him. But nowadays coaches have reason to wonder
what their approach should be when athletic directors can't
guarantee them long-term employment and players can't guarantee
them that they'll stick around for the long term. Maybe it's
best to win however you can, whenever you can. Might be a good
idea to put the best players on the field, and let it go at that.
That's DiNardo's method, one he learned the merits of long ago
as a player at Notre Dame. "Fall of '73, I was a junior, and
we're told freshmen would be eligible," he remembers. "I spout
off: 'Ain't ever gonna be a freshman that will play here.' Big
mouth. Prospect comes in, lines up across from me in practice,
and I play him right onto the first team. So I'm thinking, maybe
they will play, one or two of them."
If DiNardo had any residual prejudice toward underclassmen, he
tamped it down when Faulk showed up in Baton Rouge. Faulk, who's
from Carencro, La., was such a hot prospect that he held a press
conference, televised throughout Louisiana, to announce his
choice of college. After Faulk arrived at LSU, DiNardo, who was
in his first year in Baton Rouge, saw that Faulk would make the
age issue moot. "He's highly competitive, very mature," DiNardo
says. "He's just one of those kids who likes to play. And he's
organized. He was a B-minus student, carrying a full load as a
true freshman. He's off the charts as far as I'm concerned."
Some 18-year-olds will simply not be denied. Says Campbell, who
became the first freshman running back to start at Texas, "You
have to understand how bad I wanted to make it, how much I
wanted to be successful. I wasn't going to go back to Tyler,
Texas, and work in those rose fields."
Similarly, nobody is prepared to deny Ricky Williams's dreams.
Part of his deal at Texas is that he can continue his two-sport
career, spending summer vacations in the Phillies' farm system.
But football is his first love, and he doesn't at all mind being
linked with Campbell, who won the Heisman Trophy in 1977.
"There's an empty little case next to Campbell's," says
Williams. "Hopefully, it's for my trophy."
In Campbell's day it was rare for young players to get the
opportunity to stand out. With scholarships limited to 85, it's
no surprise when freshmen bail a team out. It's not even odd
that several of these running backs, in addition to being
freshmen, were recruited as defenders. Hard to imagine that in
another time a young player would have been able to make such an
impression that a coach would switch him from one unit to the
other. But with fewer players to look at, a coach is better able
to scrutinize the ability of each.
In the course of that scrutiny, coaches have discovered that
today's 18-year-old is more physically qualified than
yesteryear's. "It's still a huge difference between high school
and Division I," says Pasqualoni, "but because of the
technology, the coaching, the availability of weight rooms,
you're getting a lot of players who are physically advanced.
Just the fact that a true freshman like Rob can hold up in
summer practice is something."
Still, the biggest reason for the wave of underclassmen is the
virtual elimination of the senior class. DiNardo argues that
this is a gross overstatement, that every good team today has a
solid group of seniors. But you can bet they won't be running
backs, not the kind with pro potential. It's one thing for an
offensive lineman to stay down on the campus feedlot, beefing up
for a pro career, quite another for a tailback to risk
million-dollar legs for the sake of another varsity letter.
Two years ago Ki-Jana Carter signed a seven-year, $19.2 million
contract with the Cincinnati Bengals after his junior year at
Penn State. Last spring Lawrence Phillips signed a three-year,
$5.625 million contract with the St. Louis Rams after his junior
year at Nebraska. It's impossible for a coach to argue that the
greater good is an academic degree, not with the dollars being
offered to first-round picks. ("For fourth- and fifth-round
picks," Pasqualoni says, "there might be different advice.")
Players with NFL credentials now have brief, flashy college
careers. Carter's brilliant tenure as a Nittany Lion, for
example, was not annotated by many career records, and he will
be identified in football history as a Bengal not a Lion.
Another effect of early departures is that the Heisman Trophy,
when given to a running back, as it most often is, will tend to
be an underclass award. Any back still playing as a senior has
to be regarded as a plugger; if he's overlooked by the NFL, he
will be similarly invisible to Heisman voters.
And the recruiting process must now take these shortened careers
into account. Fewer outstanding freshmen will be redshirted.
"Who are you going to redshirt them for? The NFL?" asks Lee
Corso, a former coach at Indiana who is now an analyst for ESPN.
"A coach today has got to get his money's worth. You recruit one
great running back, you let a year go, you better recruit
another one. This is the 1990s."
Maybe Corso is wrong and this year's concentration of young
running backs is a bulge moving through the python of college
football. But everything argues against that idea. Now that NBA
teams routinely sign high school students--and how long ago was
it that the NBA wouldn't touch a college junior?--it may be time
to acknowledge the shifting timetable of athletic careers. They
begin sooner and produce monetary rewards that mock anybody
old-fashioned enough to insist on the college "experience."
So here's to all those veteran sophomores, old-timers all.