Similarly, nobody is prepared to deny Ricky Williams's dreams. Part of his deal at Texas is that he can continue his two-sport career, spending summer vacations in the Phillies' farm system. But football is his first love, and he doesn't at all mind being linked with Campbell, who won the Heisman Trophy in 1977. "There's an empty little case next to Campbell's," says Williams. "Hopefully, it's for my trophy."
In Campbell's day it was rare for young players to get the opportunity to stand out. With scholarships limited to 85, it's no surprise when freshmen bail a team out. It's not even odd that several of these running backs, in addition to being freshmen, were recruited as defenders. Hard to imagine that in another time a young player would have been able to make such an impression that a coach would switch him from one unit to the other. But with fewer players to look at, a coach is better able to scrutinize the ability of each.
In the course of that scrutiny, coaches have discovered that today's 18-year-old is more physically qualified than yesteryear's. "It's still a huge difference between high school and Division I," says Pasqualoni, "but because of the technology, the coaching, the availability of weight rooms, you're getting a lot of players who are physically advanced. Just the fact that a true freshman like Rob can hold up in summer practice is something."
Still, the biggest reason for the wave of underclassmen is the virtual elimination of the senior class. DiNardo argues that this is a gross overstatement, that every good team today has a solid group of seniors. But you can bet they won't be running backs, not the kind with pro potential. It's one thing for an offensive lineman to stay down on the campus feedlot, beefing up for a pro career, quite another for a tailback to risk million-dollar legs for the sake of another varsity letter.
Two years ago Ki-Jana Carter signed a seven-year, $19.2 million contract with the Cincinnati Bengals after his junior year at Penn State. Last spring Lawrence Phillips signed a three-year, $5,625 million contract with the St. Louis Rams after his junior year at Nebraska. It's impossible for a coach to argue that the greater good is an academic degree, not with the dollars being offered to first-round picks. ("For fourth-and fifth-round picks," Pasqualoni says, "there might be different advice.")
Players with NFL credentials now have brief, flashy college careers. Carter's brilliant tenure as a Nittany Lion, for example, was not annotated by many career records, and he will be identified in football history as a Bengal not a Lion.
Another effect of early departures is that the Heisman Trophy, when given to a running back, as it most often is, will tend to be an underclass award. Any back still playing as a senior has to be regarded as a plugger; if he's overlooked by the NFL, he will be similarly invisible to Heisman voters.
And the recruiting process must now take these shortened careers into account. Fewer outstanding freshmen will be redshirted. "Who are you going to redshirt them for? The NFL?" asks Lee Corso, a former coach at Indiana who is now an analyst for ESPN. "A coach today has got to get his money's worth. You recruit one great running back, you let a year go, you better recruit another one. This is the 1990s."
Maybe Corso is wrong and this year's concentration of young running backs is a bulge moving through the python of college football. But everything argues against that idea. Now that NBA teams routinely sign high school students—and how long ago was it that the NBA wouldn't touch a college junior?—it may be time to acknowledge the shifting timetable of athletic careers. They begin sooner and produce monetary rewards that mock anybody old-fashioned enough to insist on the college "experience."
So here's to all those veteran sophomores, old-timers all.