SI.com college football writer Stewart Mandel shares his commentary, analysis and random tidbits on the latest developments around the country.
8/15/2007 04:02:00 PM
Can These Star-Studded RBs Break Dayne?
Rutgers RB Ray Rice could break the all-time rushing record if he stays at Rutgers for his senior season.
The theme of Sports Illustrated’s 2007 college football preview issue (which should be arriving in your mailbox shortly) is “The Year of the Running Back,” and while I had absolutely nothing to do with its selection (I just write what they tell me), I do think it’s an apt choice.
Though this is probably not the first time that we in the media -- always on the look out for the next trend sweeping the sport -- have declared a particular season to be “The Year of the Running Back” (actually, it’s not even the first time this Web site has declared a Year of the Running Back) -- this time, we really, really mean it. Seriously.
Take a look around the country. Darren McFadden. Steve Slaton. Mike Hart. Ian Johnson. Ray Rice. These aren’t just your average, run-of-the-mill college running backs, people. Arkansas’ McFadden and West Virginia’s Slaton are not only leading Heisman contenders but likely Sunday stars of the not-too-distant-future. Michigan’s Hart is 793 yards away from breaking the career rushing record at a school that’s had ... oh, just a few talented tailbacks in its time. Boise State’s Johnson rushed for a staggering 25 touchdowns last season and one highly memorable two-point conversion. And Rice carried the ball an unfathomable 335 times for 1,794 yards, tops among all returning running backs.
And if you think those guys are special, look at some of the youngsters following closely behind them. Clemson’s C.J. Spiller notched a dazzling 7.3-yards-per-carry average as a freshman last season while splitting time with James Davis. Ohio State’s then-freshman backup Chris Wells, who most believe will follow in the footsteps of Buckeye greats Archie Griffin, Robert Smith and Eddie George, offered a glimpse into the near future with his 52-yard touchdown run in last year’s Michigan game. And celebrated USC recruit Joe McKnight is already drawing comparisons to recent Trojans star Reggie Bush with some of his eye-popping practice runs this month, including a 75-yard Bush-esque punt return in a scrimmage last weekend.
As my colleague Austin Murphy so eloquently put it in this week’s magazine, “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 Simms and Charles White overlapped.”
All this running-back talk -- including a phone conversation I had last weekend with Dorsett, who appears in a side-by-side photo comparison with Slaton in this week’s issue -- got me to thinking about that most sacred of college football records, the one Dorsett himself held for 22 years before Ricky Williams (1998) and Ron Dayne (’99) broke it in consecutive seasons. Yep -- the all-time rushing record.
No one’s come close recently to touching Dayne’s benchmark of 6,443 yards, both because there haven’t been a whole lot of epic running backs, and those who were either did not play much early in their careers (LaDainian Tomlinson, Larry Johnson) or turned pro early (Bush, Adrian Peterson). Seeing as all of the aforementioned current stars besides Hart are underclassmen, I thought it would be fun to figure out which ones have the best shot.
When calculating such things (like during Barry Bonds’ home-run chase), writers always extrapolate a player’s stats using his current “pace.” However, since most of these guys played more extensively as sophomores than they did as freshmen, I used only their 2006 stats as the projected “pace” for 2007-08. In other words, if they were to run for the same number of yards the next two seasons as they did this past one, they would finish with X number of yards.
Steve Slaton: 2005-06: 2,872 2007-08: 3,488 Total: 6,360
Ray Rice: 2005-06: 2,914 2007-08: 3,588 Total: 6,502
Ian Johnson: 2005-06: 2,377 2007-08: 3,428 Total: 5,805
So there you have it. Rice is already on pace to eclipse Dayne, Slaton and McFadden aren’t far behind while Johnson faces an uphill climb. That said, you’d be hard-pressed to find too many folks who believe McFadden and Slaton will still be in college in 2008 (McFadden’s own mother already said as much), Rice’s workload figures to drop a bit this year now that Rutgers has some more weapons in its passing game and, with all these guys, you never know how injuries and/or number of games (for instance, Arkansas playing in the SEC title game last year) will affect their statistics.
What do you think? Will this current crop of running backs go down in history as one of the greatest? Or will we just be talking about another “Year of the Running Back” in 2010?
Last season, Indiana's Marcus Thigpen led the nation in kick return average (30.1) and touchdowns (three).
AJ Mast/Icon SMI
Think back to the first few weeks of last season. Remember how all anybody could talk about were those horrific new clock rules that were taking away plays, screwing with two-minute drills and threatening to destroy college football as we know it?
That ill-fated experiment ended after just one season (thank you, Bret Bielema), but there's a new rule change going into effect this season that many predict will have every bit as big an impact on the game -- if not more so -- than last year's. Whether that's a good thing or a bad thing remains to be seen.
Last February, the NCAA's Football Rules committee quietly pushed through another set of rules changes designed to shorten the length of games. Their most notable change: Moving kickoffs from the 35-yard line back to the 30. Those 5 yards might not seem like a big deal to you or me, but they are to football coaches. Never ones to leave any detail to chance, many coaches have already expressed to me the huge ramifications this amendment will have.
"It's going to be one of the most significant rules changes to come about in maybe a decade," said Kentucky coach Rich Brooks. "Very few teams will have a guy who can kick it into the touchback area or out of the end zone."
He's right. Just as the rule-makers intended it, there are going to be a whole lot more kickoffs that actually get returned now -- which means a whole lot more teams putting their most dangerous runners back there (players usually reserved for punt returns), a whole lot more teams starting with far better field position and, quite possibly, a whole lot more kickoffs returned for touchdowns.
"You're going to see scoring averages go up because of this rule change," said Brooks. "You're going to see a lot more gimmicks on kickoff coverage -- pooch kicking, possible squib kicking. There may be some people that decide they want to kick it out of bounds and give it to the team on the 35-yard line rather than kicking it deep and having a return out to the 40 or 45."
I saw this first hand last week while attending a practice at Virginia Tech, well known as one of nation's the premier special-teams programs. The Hokies have two legitimately strong-legged kickers right now -- Jud Dunlevy and Jared Develli -- yet during about a 10-minute period I watched, they were able to land just one kick in to the end zone.
All of that said, this is hardly the first time coaches have worked themselves into a frenzy over some obscure rules change, and it's possible they're all just overreacting. A columnist for The State in Columbia, S.C., pointed out that even under the old rules, only 32.9 percent of kickoffs went for touchbacks in the SEC last season. And the nation's top four kick returners last season all played for losing teams -- so obviously they can only help so much.
But Florida coach Urban Meyer doesn't think it's any small matter. He had his staff chart tape and determined that the average kick will now land at about the 9-yard line (as opposed to the 4-yard line previously). "You give [Gators kick returner] Brandon James the ball at the 9-yard line with a running head start? Whew, that's big right there. That's going to have a major impact. You have to have a horse to kick that thing out of the end zone now."
Meyer is so intrigued by the rule, in fact, that he's already decided if his team wins the toss in its opener against Western Kentucky, he will elect to receive. "In the past," said Meyer, "we deferred about 86 percent of the time."
And then there's this scenario someone laid out to me last week: Let's say a team scores a touchdown to go up two with less than a minute left. Understandably, the guys on the field will be excited, and, as is often the case in such situations, the refs might flag them for excessive celebration. That's a 15-yard penalty tacked on to the ensuing kickoff -- which will now start at the 15. You might as well just go ahead and let the other team try its game-winning field goal.
So what do you think? Do you think more games will now be decided by kick returns and kick coverage? Or are coaches just giving themselves another reason to worry?