Return of the running backs
Sproles, Williams, Benson put ground force back into college game
Posted: Thursday August 5, 2004 2:05PM; Updated: Thursday August 5, 2004 2:30PM
By Stewart Mandel, SI.com
If last season was the Year of the Receiver in college football, 2004 could be the Year of the Running Back. And it's about darn time.
It's been five long years since a runner, Wisconsin's Ron Dayne, won the Heisman Trophy -- and that came after four running backs had won it in a six-year span.
And just five years ago, the sport's career-rushing record was being shattered on an annual basis (Texas' Ricky Williams broke it in '98 only to be eclipsed by Dayne the next season). The top rusher in 2003, North Texas' Patrick Cobbs, had the lowest per-game average to lead the country since 1990 (152.7).
Though there's been a dearth of elite running backs lately, it's not necessarily their fault. The college game has changed rapidly, with the move toward more wide-open, spread offenses taking off right about when Williams and Dayne moved on to the NFL. Also, a lot more teams are utilizing a two-back rotation these days rather than handing it to the same guy 35 times a game.
"Running backs take a beating because the guys chasing them are bigger, stronger and faster than at any time in the history of the game," Kentucky coach Rich Brooks said. "I'd love to have a guy you can hand the ball 25 times a game and he'd always get 100 yards, but that's not an easy thing these days."
This year, however, the landscape is loaded with a fine group of every-down runners who, if they can make it through the entire season unscathed, might just restore glory to their fabled position. A look at the most likely candidates:
The cream of the crop:
Darren Sproles, Kansas State: The top running back in most preseason Heisman lists, Sproles opened a lot of eyes last December when he torched then-undefeated Oklahoma for 235 yards rushing and another 88 receiving. Just 5-foot-7, 180 pounds, Sproles is as fast as any runner in the country and cuts on a dime. "I don't know if I've ever seen anyone better all the years I've been in it," Iowa State coach Dan McCarney said. "He's right up there with all the best."
Wildcats coach Bill Snyder has been reluctant in the past to use Sproles as a featured back -- he gained 1,986 yards last season despite carrying 25 times in a game just three times -- but may have no choice this fall what with the departures of mutli-threat QB Ell Roberson and top receiver James Terry.
Carnell Williams, Auburn: The Cadillac, 5-11, 204, is a versatile back with the speed to get outside and the strength to pound it when necessary. A workhorse when he needs to be, he's had four career 30-carry games, including a 40-carry, 202-yard performance against Syracuse as a sophomore. "He runs hard, he runs behind his pads, he protects himself pretty good," Tigers coach Tommy Tuberville said. "One guy can't get him down -- that's what makes him a great back."
The only thing potentially holding Williams back: He often shares carries with teammate Ronnie Brown, himself a former 1,000-yard rusher. But new offensive coordinator Al Borges' West Coast scheme promises to get both on the field at the same time more often.
Cedric Benson, Texas: He grew up in Midland, Texas, idolizing Ricky Williams, and his career thus far hasn't been all that different from Williams' (at least on the field), gaining at least 1,000 yards each of his first three seasons. He's even got the dreadlocks. "Cedric, like Ricky, gets better in the fourth quarter than the first quarter," Longhorns coach Mack Brown said.
Traditionally, Benson has also improved as the season progressed, starting off slow then finishing with a bang (last year he averaged 60 yards his first six games, 167 his last six). This offseason, however, Benson, 6-0, 220, gave up minor league baseball and is in much better football shape.
Others: Anthony Davis, Wisconsin; Justin Vincent, LSU; T.A. McLendon, N.C. State; Walter Reyes, Syracuse; Cobbs, North Texas; Marion Barber/Laurence Maroney, Minnesota.
Poised for a breakout:
Lorenzo Booker, Florida State: The nation's No. 1 recruit in 2002, the sophomore has become somewhat of a spring practice legend but hasn't had much of a chance to show it on the field -- just 62 carries last year playing behind Greg Jones and Leon Washington. With Jones out of the picture, however, Booker figures to take on a more prominent role, and having added 15 pounds (5-11, 200) and possessing 4.3 speed, he's becoming too good for Bobby Bowden to keep on the sidelines.
Kay-Jay Harris, West Virginia: Following in the footsteps of Amos Zereoue, Avon Cobourne and Quincy Wilson, the 25-year-old former baseball player should be the Mountaineers' latest 1,000-yard rusher if he stays healthy. A 2003 junior college transfer, the 6-1, 228-pounder gained 524 yards in relief of Wilson last season and showed off more speed (4.35) than any of his West Virginia predecessors.
Ciatrick Fason, Florida: Most of the attention in Gainesville is paid to quarterback Chris Leak and the receivers, but the Gators' best weapon may be in the backfield. Fason only had 84 carries last season, but made the most of them, averaging 6.9 yards per attempt. He was the star of the Gators' win over eventual-national champions LSU, carrying seven times for 92 yards and catching a 35-yard touchdown pass, and sprang for 190 yards on 20 carries against South Carolina.
Others: Reggie Bush, USC; Vernand Morency, Oklahoma State; Damien Nash, Missouri; Kregg Lumpkin, Georgia; Noah Herron, Northwestern; JaJa Riley, UNLV.
Highly touted newcomers:
Adrian Peterson, Oklahoma: The No. 1 running back recruit in the country, the Palestine, Texas, native arrives with a similar legend to that of previous Lone Star prep standout Benson. Though the Sooners have an experienced returnee in Kejuan Jones, they averaged just 3.8 yards per carry on the ground last season and could use the big-play capability of the 6-2, 210-pound Peterson.
George Bell, Virginia Tech: Coaches initially planned to move the 5-10, 225-pounder, who participated in spring drills, to fullback, but that was before starting tailback Cedric Humes broke his leg and backup Mike Imoh was suspended for the first three games. Bell's extremely strong, a different kind of back from previous Hokies stars like Lee Suggs and Kevin Jones.
Joe Harris, Wyoming: A juco All-America last season at Butler County (Kan.) Community College -- the same school that produced Cincinnati Bengal Rudi Johnson -- Harris rushed for 1,697 yards on 227 carries last season in leading Butler County to a national title. He could be just the spark the moribund Cowboys' offense needs.
Others: Max Martin, Michigan; Andre Brown, N.C. State; Andre Hall, USF; Antonio Pittman, Ohio State; Charlie Jones, Miami.