Five days before Miami's season finale, tailback Willis McGahee
was already cornering the spotlight. Positioned in front of a
photographer's backdrop in an athletic department office, McGahee
was trying, with limited success, to screw his smile into a scowl
for the latest camera crew (this time ABC's) that had begged him
for face time. Observing the scene from the shadows, junior
safety Maurice Sikes offered mock encouragement to the
21-year-old sophomore whom some upper-class teammates have
nicknamed Heisman. "Yeah, Heisman! There you go, Heisman!" Sikes
hollered before gesturing in the manner of an attorney making his
closing argument. "Take one look at that guy. How can we lose
with that guy?"
This is an article from the Dec. 16, 2002 issue
Last Saturday, Virginia Tech became the 12th team this season to
fail to provide an answer to that question. In a humid,
cacophonous Orange Bowl, the 6'1", 224-pound McGahee again
grabbed the attention in a two-pronged onslaught that resulted in
a 56--45 win for the undefeated and top-ranked Hurricanes. With
its 34th straight victory, Miami clinched a berth in the national
championship game against Ohio State at the Fiesta Bowl in Tempe,
Ariz., on Jan. 3.
Slipping through and sometimes plowing over his pursuers, McGahee
gained a career-high 205 yards on 39 carries (tying a school
mark). He ran for a Big East--record six touchdowns against a
defense that had yielded just 12 rushing scores all year, and he
raised his school records for rushing yards to 1,686 and
touchdowns to 27. Asked afterward about McGahee's impact, Hokies
coach Frank Beamer chuckled ruefully and replied, "He's tough,
he's patient--he's something. [Quarterback Ken] Dorsey should
have stopped giving [the ball] to him in the third quarter and
kept the Heisman for himself."
Despite his numbers and Beamer's endorsement, McGahee might not
fulfill the promise of his nickname when the Heisman winner is
announced on Saturday at the Yale Club in New York City. Dorsey,
for one, has made a strong case for the award. The senior has
thrown for 3,073 yards and 26 touchdowns, including 300 yards and
two scores against the Hokies. The teammates could cancel each
other out in the voting--ironic, given that the Hurricanes'
success has depended in large part on the two players' combined
efforts. In the pinball game with Virginia Tech, all but five of
Miami's 68 plays (excluding clock-killing possessions at the ends
of each half) were either carries by McGahee or pass attempts by
Dorsey. After the Hokies closed to within 49--37 at the end of
the third quarter, Dorsey handed the ball to McGahee on nine of
the next 10 plays, setting up Dorsey's clinching 11-yard
touchdown strike to tight end Kellen Winslow Jr.
That a Miami tailback could earn equal billing with--or
upstage--his own quarterback says much about the way the
Hurricanes' offense has evolved. While the Miami powerhouses of
the 1980s and early '90s revolved around prolific throwers such
as Jim Kelly, Bernie Kosar, Vinny Testaverde and Gino Torretta,
the offense in recent seasons has achieved a near-perfect
balance. Much credit goes to the nation's best offensive line, as
well as to second-year coach Larry Coker, a shrewd play-caller
who was formerly the team's offensive coordinator. But running
backs coach Don Soldinger says that the offensive symmetry was
envisioned by Coker's predecessor, Butch Davis, as he rebuilt the
Hurricanes in the wake of NCAA penalties that stripped the team
of 31 scholarships from 1996 to '98. "Butch was always working
toward having the balance of those Dallas Cowboys teams of Emmitt
Smith and Troy Aikman," Soldinger says of Davis, who was a
Cowboys assistant before going to Miami, "but the NCAA sanctions
made it tough to build depth." In five of the past six seasons,
though, Miami has produced a 1,000-yard rusher, including
Edgerrin James (now with the Indianapolis Colts) and Clinton
Portis (Denver Broncos).
Few would have predicted that McGahee would be the latest, and
perhaps greatest, member of this group. A knee injury limited his
production as a senior at Miami Central, and Hurricanes coaches
redshirted him in his freshman season in 2000 because they
believed he lacked the field sense that would allow him to break
into the rotation. Just as McGahee began to make strides as the
second-string tailback last fall, rushing for 264 yards in five
games of mop-up duty, Portis began toying with the sophomore's
confidence. "Clinton liked to say, 'You'll never be better than
me,'" McGahee says. "Since I didn't want to get into it with him,
I spent a lot of last season cursing inside my head."
Portis's needling might have fired up some guys, but the
sensitive McGahee, says Soldinger, "just shrank." As if these
blows to his ego weren't enough, McGahee sprained his left knee
in late October 2001, and feisty freshman tailback Frank Gore
played ahead of him for the rest of the season. But that low
point also became the turning point. Rather than think about
quitting, McGahee says he listened to pep talks from his mother,
Jannie Jones, a tough-as-nails South Florida rail-yard master and
single parent who raised Willis and his older brother Kishara,
who died of colon cancer when Willis was 10. "I believed that I
could still be the man at Miami," Willis says. "It was just a
matter of time."
That time came last March, after Gore tore the anterior cruciate
ligament in his right knee in practice. Nearly every coach and
senior in the program pulled McGahee aside to tell him, "It's
time to step up." He responded over the summer, working hard to
improve on the combination of speed and strength he'd enjoyed
since he was a self-described "big kid with a big butt" who
wormed his way into older kids' street games in his Miami
neighborhood. McGahee, who's been clocked at a school-record 4.29
seconds in the 40, lifted weights every morning with the
offensive linemen until he boosted his squat to 500 pounds and
his bench press to 375. As often as five days a week he followed
team workouts with three-hour sessions overseen by his half
brother, Eugene Poole, whose draconian drills included strapping
McGahee into a padded harness and having him pull an old pickup
truck around a paved lot.
"He'd lift with 300-pound linemen and then get pissed when we put
up more than him," says senior center Brett Romberg. "That's
Willis. He's so eager." Other Hurricanes talk admiringly of a
recent practice in which coaches told the players they wouldn't
have to do an additional set of 20-yard wind sprints if McGahee
ran a 40 in less than 4.5 seconds. After a two-hour practice, in
sweat-soaked pads, McGahee put up a 4.48.
Before McGahee introduced himself to the rest of the nation with
a 204-yard rushing performance against Florida on Sept. 7, he'd
already convinced his coaches that he was ready for his close-up.
For the better part of the past decade Miami has played a
two-tailback system: In 1998 Edgerrin James split minutes with
James Jackson, who would go on to share snaps with Portis, who
would divide time with Gore. This season Coker and Soldinger have
gone with a one-man show. "Willis has separated himself the way
none of those other backs did," says Soldinger.
McGahee's trajectory has been so brief that he says he didn't
think about awards until three weeks ago, when Miami sports
information director Doug Walker called the tailback into his
office and told him he should be prepared to field questions
about his candidacy for the Heisman--as well as for the Walter
Camp and Doak Walker awards. McGahee looked a little confused.
"Who was Walter Camp?" he asked. After Doug explained that Camp
was the father of modern football, McGahee, in his congenial way,
asked Doug if he was related to that Doak guy. (He isn't.)
The way McGahee is running, this could be his last season to
claim any college football accolade. Having been enrolled at
Miami for three years, he's eligible for the 2003 NFL draft.
Soldinger says he'd have to give McGahee his blessing should the
tailback decide to leave. "If it looks like Willis is going to be
one of the top picks, he might want to go," says Soldinger. "You
never know what's going to happen next year."
Basking in the postgame adulation of the dozen family members and
hangers-on who flanked his path to the team bus last Saturday,
McGahee didn't appear overly concerned about topping his breakout
season. At that moment, at least, thoughts of jumping to the pros
seemed as distant as Miami's last loss. "Me?" he asked, pointing
to his chest, the mere gesture prompting a cheer from one fan in
the throng. "I ain't going anywhere."
Except to Tempe, for a date with Ohio State.
SIX-PACK of Scores
Virginia Tech had allowed just 12 rushing touchdowns until last
Saturday, when Willis McGahee hit paydirt a Miami-record six
1 First quarter, 11:13 left, one yard
2 Second quarter, 9:27 left, four yards
3 Second quarter, 6:19 left, three yards
4 Second quarter, 3:16 left, 10 yards
5 Third quarter, 12:58 left, one yard
6 Third quarter, 11:15 left, 31 yards
TOP SENIORS in the Big Bowls
An NFL scout sizes up the pro prospects of the best senior on
each team in the eight January bowls.
OUTBACK BOWL JAN. 1, TAMPA
MICHIGAN TE Bennie Joppru "First-round receiving ability, and
really improved as an in-line blocker this year. Makes tough
catches look easy."
FLORIDA WR Taylor Jacobs "He's very fast and and a good route
runner. Curious to see how he'll get off the jam at the line of
COTTON BOWL JAN. 1, DALLAS
TEXAS G/T Derrick Dockery "He's 6'6", 345 and very athletic. Not
much dropoff from [2002 NFL first-round tackle] Mike Williams to
LSU RB Domanick Davis "In some games he carried the whole load
for the offense. A punishing runner with great intangibles. He
runs every play hard."
GATOR BOWL JAN. 1, JACKSONVILLE
NORTH CAROLINA STATE FS Terrence Holt "[St. Louis Rams wideout]
Torry Holt's little brother. Rangy player with great ball skills
and great hands. One of the best special teams players in the
NOTRE DAME WR Arnaz Battle "Everyone knows he's the only
playmaker on that offense, and he still makes a couple of plays
every game. Good hands, excellent runner after the catch."
CAPITAL ONE BOWL JAN. 1, ORLANDO
PENN STATE RB Larry Johnson "He's made so many yards against
subpar defenses, we'll watch to see how he does under the
spotlight against a good rush defense. He takes a few strides to
really get going--I'd like to see him hit the hole faster."
AUBURN P-K Damon Duval "A legitimate prospect who will definitely
be drafted. His problem is his consistency--he'll hit one from 51
and miss one from 37."
ROSE BOWL JAN. 1, PASADENA
OKLAHOMA RB Quentin Griffin "A Warrick Dunn--type back, with
great ability to make people miss. A probable second-round guy
who needs to show some toughness between the tackles to raise his
WASHINGTON STATE QB Jason Gesser "Might be a second-day pick
because of his moderate arm strength, but he was a bigger winner
than Drew Bledsoe out there, and he's very accurate."
SUGAR BOWL JAN. 1, NEW ORLEANS
FLORIDA STATE DE Alonzo Jackson "Has the ability to get around
even quick tackles and get to the quarterback. Rare combination
of size and speed. Nobody in the NFL doesn't like him."
GEORGIA LB Boss Bailey "Bruising hitter, rare
sideline-to-sideline pursuit ability--just what NFL teams are
looking for. A first-round pick, could go in the top 10."
ORANGE BOWL, JAN. 2, MIAMI
IOWA QB Brad Banks "NFL teams will see him as a clipboard holder,
a career backup. But he's efficient, accurate and mobile, with a
great work ethic. A solid late-round pick."
USC QB Carson Palmer "Turned around his career with great
coaching and work on fundamentals. Love his arm, love his
FIESTA BOWL JAN. 3, TEMPE, ARIZ.
MIAMI DE Jerome McDougle "Really quick first step. He reminds me
of [Philadelphia Eagles defensive end] Hugh Douglas. He's not
going to overpower you, but he's one of the best penetrators in
OHIO STATE SS Michael Doss "Excellent centerfielder-type safety.
Very aggressive, excellent ball instincts. His drawback is his
harness and having him pull a pickup truck around a paved lot.