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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

Posted: Tuesday August 14, 2007 9:31AM; Updated: Thursday August 16, 2007 9:17PM
C.J. Gable.
C.J. Gable.
Peter Read Miller/SI

By Austin Murphy

The USC Trojans were seated on the turf in orderly rows, stretching their hamstrings. It was the first official practice of the new season, but Ken Norton was talking the same old smack. "I guar-an- tee ," Norton, the lantern-jawed linebackers coach was shouting, "the running backs will not get a yard today. Not ... get ... a ... yard !" While it had the desired effect, generating a storm of woofing between offense and defense, Norton's declaration didn't hold up for long.

In an ensuing 11-on-11 drill sophomore tailback Allen Bradford found a crease off left tackle, but his path was quickly impeded by a freshman defensive end. This was not just any freshman defensive end. This was Everson Griffen, a.k.a. Super Freak, a.k.a. Big E, a.k.a. E Train, the nation's top-rated schoolboy at his position last season, the one defensive coordinator Nick Holt was referring to last February when he said, "The guy is a frickin' beast!"

But so, it turns out, is Bradford, who derailed the E Train knocked him on his butt with a stiff-arm to the left ear hole that served the dual purpose of welcoming the freshman to the Pac-10 and temporarily silencing Norton.

The cold truth for Bradford is that he'll need to keep making special plays like that to earn even a modest number of touches this season. No other team has more depth at any one position than USC has at tailback, where Bradford will compete with nine other former high school phenoms for the right to be the feature back on the nation's top team.

As Southern California goes in 2007, so goes the nation. Following an era in college football that could fairly be described as the Quarterback Cult passers have won six of the last seven Heisman Trophies the most dominant players heading into this season are running backs. Seven of the top 10 rushers from a year ago return, and there hasn't been such a constellation of star ball carriers since the late 1970s, when the careers of Marcus Allen, Earl Campbell, Tony Dorsett, George Rogers, Billy Sims and Charles White overlapped.

But just because we're entering the year of the running back doesn't mean some of these guys won't be throwing the ball. One of the fan-friendly developments in the college game is a move away from Neanderthal, power football to more imaginative schemes. Whether it's McFadden taking snaps in Arkansas's Wildcat formation or Florida wideout Percy Harvin lining up in the backfield and scoring on counter plays, we are entering a period in which creative, contrarian coaches are more willing than ever to use the running game in nontraditional ways.

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