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The Year of the Running Back

Aug. 20, 2007
Aug. 20, 2007

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Aug. 20, 2007

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College Football Preview 2007

The Year of the Running Back

With a deep stable of tailbacks at USC and most of last year's premium talent, the game has its best collection of rushers since the late 1970s--and coaches are devising new ways to get the ball in their hands

The USC Trojanswere seated on the turf in orderly rows, stretching their hamstrings. It wasthe first official practice of the new season, but Ken Norton was talking thesame old smack. "I guar-an-tee," Norton, the lantern-jawed linebackerscoach was shouting, "the running backs will not get a yard today. Not . . .get . . . a . . . yard!" While it had the desired effect, generating astorm of woofing between offense and defense, Norton's declaration didn't holdup for long. ¶ In an ensuing 11-on-11 drill sophomore tailback Allen Bradfordfound a crease off left tackle, but his path was quickly impeded by a freshmandefensive end. This was not just any freshman defensive end. This was EversonGriffen, a.k.a. Super Freak, a.k.a. Big E, a.k.a. E Train, thenation's top-rated schoolboy at his position last season, the one defensivecoordinator Nick Holt was referring to last February when he said, "The guyis a frickin' beast!" ¶ But so, it turns out, is Bradford, who derailed theE Train--knocked him on his butt--with a stiff-arm to the left ear holethat served the dual purpose of welcoming the freshman to the Pac-10 andtemporarily silencing Norton. ¶ The cold truth for Bradford is that he'll needto keep making special plays like that to earn even a modest number of touchesthis season. No other team has more depth at any one position than USC has attailback, where Bradford will compete with nine other former high schoolphenoms for the right to be the feature back on the nation's top team.

This is an article from the Aug. 20, 2007 issue

As SouthernCalifornia goes in 2007, so goes the nation. Following an era in collegefootball that could fairly be described as the Quarterback Cult--passers havewon six of the last seven Heisman Trophies--the most dominant players headinginto this season are running backs. Seven of the top 10 rushers from a year agoreturn, and there hasn't been such a constellation of star ball carriers sincethe late 1970s, when the careers of Marcus Allen, Earl Campbell, Tony Dorsett,George Rogers, Billy Sims and Charles White overlapped.

But just becausewe're entering the year of the running back doesn't mean some of these guyswon't be throwing the ball (See: McFadden, Darren, page 70). One of thefan-friendly developments in the college game is a move away from Neanderthal,power football to more imaginative schemes. Whether it's McFadden taking snapsin Arkansas's Wildcat formation or Florida wideout Percy Harvin lining up inthe backfield and scoring on counter plays, we are entering a period in whichcreative, contrarian coaches are more willing than ever to use the running gamein nontraditional ways.

One wrinkle wewon't be witnessing anytime soon is a halfback pass from Boise State's IanJohnson. While that play is still in the Broncos' arsenal, there's a reasonthat Vinny Perretta was the back who threw for the touchdown against Oklahomain overtime of the Fiesta Bowl: Johnson has accuracy issues, which wereapparent following his game-winning two-point conversion on a Statue of Libertyplay. In celebration he flung the ball into the University of Phoenix Stadiumstands in the direction of his father, and, Johnson says, "I overthrew himby 20 rows."

He also allowed ashow he'd drawn motivation from a pre-Fiesta Bowl response to a reporter'squestion by Sooners tailback Adrian Peterson, who said he didn't know whoJohnson was. Well, Johnson was the second-leading rusher in the nation in yardsper game (behind Garrett Wolfe of Northern Illinois) and gained1,713 yards on 276 carries for a hefty 6.21 yards per touch. Healso scored a Division I-A-high 25 touchdowns, including five in a 42-14victory over Oregon State, the team that had slow-played him during his highschool recruitment. (Be patient, the Beavers told him, and we might have ascholarship for you at the end of the recruiting season.)

Not blessed withblinding speed, Johnson has had to become patient and cagey with the ball. Heis masterly at setting up his blocks. Those traits were on display after JaredZabransky took the snap and faked a throw to the right on that Statue ofLiberty play. Check out the replay: Johnson essentially loiters behind thequarterback, hands on his hips--"futzing around," he says--projectingboredom and mild resentment. Suddenly, Johnson pivots left, takes the ball fromZabransky's outstretched arm and motors toward the end zone.

Adrian Petersonknows who Johnson is now.

A week later, inthe same stadium, Florida won the national championship by discombobulatingfavored Ohio State with an array of options, counters, motions, two-quarterbacksets, fakes and reverses. Florida had to resort to such exotica because theteam lacked a top-shelf back. "We would rather not have to be [so] creativeto run the football," says coach Urban Meyer. On the other hand, he says,to start at tailback at Florida, "you have to have great ability or we'renot going to hand you the ball."

It is one ofMeyer's tenets that his best players will get the rock, regardless of position.That's why Harvin lined up all over the field as a freshman last season. His105 rushing yards in the SEC title game included a 67-yard touchdown runfeaturing a cut to the inside so blinding and sudden that half the Arkansasdefense, it seemed, was caught in quicksand. On a counter play in the Gators'previous game, Harvin streaked 41 yards for a score against Florida State."Some people call that creative," Meyer said afterward. "I call ita counter play to a very fast player."

It was in 2001that Meyer, then the new coach at Bowling Green, decided to install a spreadoffense, so he called West Virginia coach Rich Rodriguez to pick his brain."All wishbone offenses look alike," says Rodriguez, but spread offensesare all "a little different. Everybody has their own deal, and fast playersmake it look better."

So swift andexperienced are West Virginia's skill players that Rodriguez will preside overthe nation's most electric offense. The fastest Mountaineer might be juniorquarterback Patrick White, who rushed for 1,219 yards in addition tothrowing for 1,655 last season. Or it might be junior running back SteveSlaton, a breakaway threat who ran for 1,744 yards and scored18 touchdowns.

West Virginiawound up with Slaton only after Maryland withdrew its scholarship offer midwaythrough his senior year at Conwell-Egan High in Fairless Hills, Pa. "Weknew we really had something in Steve," recalls Rodriguez. "Watch threeor four plays on his tape, and you were saying, 'Wow. Nobody's catching thisguy.' He's a great fit for what we're doing--get him the ball in space and givehim a chance to outrun some people."

Speaking ofbreakaway threats, Rodriguez has another in new recruit Noel Devine, a 5'8", 170-pound dynamo from North Fort Myers (Fla.) High. True, signingDevine was touch-and-go for a while; there was the question of whether he wouldqualify academically, and in the fall of 2005 he became a father for the secondtime. "But he's got the right attitude," says Rodriguez. "He wantsto prove himself."

Rodriguez can useDevine to spell Slaton or put them on the field together with the freshman inthe slot. The Mountaineers are loaded, and they know it. Asked what he hopes toaccomplish this season, Slaton cuts to the chase: "Our goal around here isto go undefeated and get a ring."

Funny, that's thesame goal around Piscataway, N.J., where Greg Schiano, coach of West Virginia'sBig East-rival Rutgers, says, "I think we're at the point where our bestcan be the best." Having achieved in '06 their long-awaited breakthroughseason, the Scarlet Knights appear set up for a lengthy stay in theTop 25. The most critical player in that quantum leap was Ray Rice, whocarried the ball 335 times for a conference-record 1,794 yards andscored 20 touchdowns.

That Herculeanworkload came at a cost, though. After spring drills Rice had surgery to cleanbone chips from his right ankle. The good news: He has been noticeably fasterand more explosive in preseason practice, during which, Schiano notesapprovingly, "he's taking the top off every run"--meaning the 5'9", 205-pound junior takes the ball through the secondary after everycarry, for extra work and to set an example for younger teammates.

It is unlikelythat Rice will even approach 300 carries this season; sophomore KordellYoung, his gifted (faster) backup, will handle more of the load. Schiano isalso ready to take the wraps off junior quarterback Mike Teel. If Teel's youngreceivers drop, say, only half the passes that slipped through their hands lastseason, Rutgers's offense will blast off. Opposing defenses will be forced totake players out of the box to defend the pass.

"I can't waitto see our passing game explode," says Rice. "It'll make everythingeasier."

Like Boise Stateand Rutgers, Michigan uses a zone-blocking system that allows the back tochoose the most promising hole he sees. For the Wolverines that back is seniorMike Hart, who is similar to Rice in stature and production. Last season the 5'9" 196-pounder carried the ball 318 times for 1,562 yards and14 touchdowns. He loves the zone-blocking scheme, which Michigan installedlast season. "I think it goes right to my strengths," says Hart, whoidentifies them as "vision and cutting." He is leaving out ballsecurity: In 750 carries as a collegian Hart has fumbled three times.

"Mike is asquirrelly guy," says senior tackle Jake Long. "He can hide behind theline and pop out wherever he wants."

Ohio State knowsall about the Squirrel. In the Big Game last November, with a berth in thenational championship game on the line, Hart ran wild in the Horseshoe, yet his142 yards weren't enough to prevent a 42-39 Wolverines loss.

Michigan'sconsolation prize was a trip to Pasadena to face USC, which had been relegatedto the Rose Bowl after a stunning 13-9 loss to UCLA in its regular-seasonfinale. In that game the Trojans were particularly hopeless in short-yardagesituations, due in large part to USC's misfortunes at fullback. With BrandonHancock, Ryan Powdrell and Stanley Havili out with season-ending injuries,Southern California went from having three fullbacks who excelled atpass-blocking and receiving to relying on a dog's breakfast of walk-ons andconscripts who struggled with both skills.

That explains whycoach Pete Carroll was so jacked up about Havili after that first practice. Thesophomore was breaking runs into the secondary and turning short passes intolong gains. "[If we] take care of him," said Carroll, "he'll do alot of good things for us."

And what of themob at tailback? Chauncey Washington, whose underwhelming 744 rushing yards ledthe team last season, looked streamlined and speedier than a year ago. C.J.Gable, who started five games as a freshman, tore off some tough runs; fellowsophomore Emmanuel Moody broke into the secondary on almost every carry.Sixth-year senior Hershel Dennis showed no signs of the knee injuries that havesidelined him since 2004. Still getting touches is senior Desmond Reed, eventhough he hasn't been the same since blowing out a knee in '05. A forgotten manlast year, local hero Stafon Johnson starred last Thursday. Freshmen BroderickGreen (whom Carroll sees as another LenDale White) and Marc Tyler (son ofex-UCLA Bruin Wendell) set themselves back by missing the first two days ofpractice as they dealt with NCAA eligibility issues.

But no tailbackgenerated more buzz than Joe McKnight (SI, July 23), the goateedfreshman from River Ridge, La., whose otherworldly cuts and acceleration havedrawn comparisons with Reggie Bush. Midway into the first practice, McKnightbounced an off-tackle play to the outside, turned the corner and was suddenlyplaying the game at a different speed from everyone else. He was 45 yardsdownfield before he was knocked out-of-bounds.

The primebeneficiary of a rejuvenated running game will be senior quarterback John DavidBooty, who will gain precious seconds in the pocket if defenses are forced torespect the run. Though he was referring to teammates, Booty might as well havebeen talking about the state of college football when he observed, "Thosebacks are looking pretty good."

IAN JOHNSON

BOISE STATE JUNIOR

THESE ARE MEN with smooth moves, and not only whenthey're carrying a football. Six weeks before Johnson made his cheerleadergirlfriend swoon by getting down on one knee and popping the question onnational TV, Smith teamed with a lovely partner to cha-cha his way to a Dancingwith the Stars championship. Who knew that either man could be so suave,especially when they are far less flashy on the field. The same runningstyle--less dependent on sheer speed than on deft cutting and skillful readingof blocks--that made Smith a Gators star and the NFL's alltime leading rusheralso explains why Johnson gained 1,713 yards in 2006 and helped BoiseState to a Fiesta Bowl victory. Quiet consistency has taken them far, butJohnson and Smith add a dash of panache when they need it.

"I don't know what his 40 time is, and I don'tcare. It's about finding a way to beat the guy trying to bring you down. That'sthe way I approached it, and this kid is pretty good at that." --SMITH ONJOHNSON

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STEVE SLATON

WEST VIRGINIA JUNIOR

E.J. BORGHETTI, the sports information director atPitt, attended his first Panthers game during Tony Dorsett's 1976 Heismanseason and has watched hours of Dorsett highlights. He also witnessed the showthat Steve Slaton put on in two games against Pitt--a combined 394 rushingyards and six touchdowns. "Both remind me of a running back in a videogame," Borghetti says of the two native Pennsylvanians. "They burstinto the secondary, and everybody tries to chase them down." Like the 5'11", 192-pound Dorsett, Slaton (5' 10", 190) is best known for hisbreakaway speed; 10 of his 18 TDs last season went for 30 yards or more.Dorsett ended his career with a then Division I record 6,082 rushing yards. IfSlaton can duplicate his 2006 total (1,744) in each of the next two seasons,he'll surpass Dorsett by 278.

"Great backs see things and react. That's whatSteve does. He cango the distance from anywhere on the field, and that'ssomething I had in my arsenal."

--DORSETT ON SLATON

MIKE HART

MICHIGAN SENIOR

COMPARING A Buckeye with a Wolverine is a dangerousproposition. Ohio State fans would argue that their guy's two-Heisman advantagemakes any discussion laughable. But there are similarities that are impossibleto ignore, and we're not just talking about the backs' 5' 9" frames. AsGriffin did before him, Hart makes up for his lack of height with superiorvision and a knack for finding the hole. Indeed, Griffin professes admirationfor Hart's ability to break tackles and the way he protects the football."You don't see a lot of guys being able to arm-tackle him, that's forsure," says Griffin. "What I like most about him, though, is the way heholds on to the football. Fumbling is a cardinal sin for any running back, andMike Hart just doesn't fumble." Maybe Buckeyes and Wolverines can getalong.

"He runs more powerfully than you'd think. Mike hasvery good vision, and he does a great job of setting up blocks, which issomething people said about me." --GRIFFIN ON HART

PHOTOPhotographs by Peter Read Miller CHAUNCEYWASHINGTON
HERSHEL DENNIS
STAFON JOHNSON
EMMANUEL MOODY
C.J. GABLE
ALLEN BRADFORD
DESMOND REED
Infighting
Which of these athletes will win the battle to be the Trojans' featureback?
PHOTOLOUIS LOPEZ/BEIMAGES SPORTS NOGUARANTEES
Despite averaging a team-high 5.8 yards a carry last season, Moody must workfor playing time at USC.
PHOTO ILLUSTRATIONJOE JASZEWSKI/IDAHO STATESMAN/AP (JOHNSON); BILL FRAKES (SMITH) THEMODERN VERSION OF EMMITT SMITH
FLORIDA, 1987-89 
PHOTORICK SCUTERI/US PRESSWIRE WIDEANGLE
Harvin is listed as a receiver, but Meyer gets his game-breaker the ball oncounters to take advantage of his speed.
PHOTO ILLUSTRATIONWILLIAM E. AMATUCCI JR./WIREIMAGE.COM (SLATON); RICH CLARKSON (DORSETT) THEMODERN VERSION OF TONY DORSETT
PITTSBURGH, 1973-76
PHOTOROB TRINGALI/SPORTSCHROME ALLSYSTEMS GO
Rice returns a faster, stronger player thanks in part to the ankle surgery hehad following his record-setting season.
PHOTO ILLUSTRATIONGREGORY SHAMUS/GETTY IMAGES (HART); WALTER IOOSS JR. (GRIFFIN) THEMODERN VERSION OF ARCHIE GRIFFIN
OHIO STATE, 1972-75