After learning the ropes early, five first-year backs broke out in the season's second half
Texas freshman tailback Cedric Benson's performance in the Longhorns' 21-7 victory at Texas A&M last Friday resembled his season: a slow start and a big finish. Benson had minus-five net yards after his first six carries against the Aggies but then rushed for 84 yards and two fourth-quarter touchdowns that broke open a tie game. Heading into Saturday's Big 12 championship game, Benson is 24 yards short of becoming the first Texas freshman to rush for 1,000 yards, which is remarkable considering that the 6'1", 200-pounder was used sparingly until becoming a starter in the sixth game of the season, supplanting struggling sophomore Ivan Williams. Since then Benson has rushed for 788 yards and eight touchdowns. It's no accident that the third-ranked Longhorns (10-1), who finished atop the Big 12 South thanks to Oklahoma's 16-13 loss to Oklahoma State last Saturday, have won those games by an average of 31.6 points.
"Some guys are slashers," Texas running backs coach Bruce Chambers says. "Some guys are power guys. Some guys make people miss. Cedric is all those things. He's got great vision, and he's very intelligent."
Georgia Tech coach George O'Leary espouses a theory stipulating that the farther away a player lines up from center, the better chance he has of playing as a freshman. It's a different way of saying that tailbacks, wide receivers and defensive backs rely more on natural skill than do linemen, linebackers and quarterbacks, who must be physically strong and/or technically proficient. "I really think, if you're a Big Ten-caliber running back, either you can do it or you can't do it," says Minnesota coach Glen Mason, whose freshman tailback, Marion Barber III, finished the season with 742 rushing yards and 6.3 yards per carry.
Benson and Barber were the best of an impressive group of freshman running backs this fall who excelled in the second half of the season. At 5'11", 190 pounds, Texas A&M's Derek Farmer rushed for 503 yards and two touchdowns in his first eight games but hyperextended his left knee against Oklahoma on Nov. 10 and missed the Aggies' final game. Five-foot-11, 185-pound Auburn tailback Carnell Williams appeared indestructible in rushing for a total of 344 yards (170 after contact) on 60 carries in consecutive games against Arkansas and Georgia. However, he suffered a broken left clavicle on the sixth play of the Tigers' meeting with Alabama on Nov. 17, after having gained 614 yards and six touchdowns. A season-ending knee injury to Virginia Tech junior Lee Suggs in the Hokies' opening game forced Kevin Jones to play a bigger role, and he has responded with 797 yards and five touchdowns this fall.
What these five freshmen have in common is that they were given roughly half a season to get acclimated to the college game before they became a significant part of their offenses. The rise of the pro-style passing attacks demands that running backs block to help protect the quarterback. "What caught me off guard was blitz pickup," says Benson, who finished his career at Midland (Texas) Lee High last fall with 8,423 rushing yards. "If we were passing at my high school, I was out on a route."
That's typical, especially in a high school offense built around a star tailback. The college tailback must recognize defensive schemes and be ready to adjust on the fly. "If you change your plays at the line of scrimmage," says Maryland running backs coach Mike Locksley, "you send him in there thinking he's going to carry the ball, and you wind up changing to a pass play. He's got to figure out what front it is. He has got to understand what blocking schemes are in front of him and whom to pick up."
Many coaches believe that the more a freshman plays, the better he will adjust from the high school game to college, simply because the demands on him are so great that he doesn't have time to get homesick. Benson isn't so sure. "Playing makes it a little more difficult," he says. "You've got to devote a lot of time to school. You have to watch film, study plays, study defenses. You're a little more sore, so you stay in the training room longer. When you're doing well, you've got to do more to stay up."
Filling Bowl Berths
Teams' Proximity Will Be Factor
The drop-off in air travel since the Sept. 11 attacks has bowl representatives across the country concerned that fans won't journey as far as they normally would to see their team play. The proximity of schools to bowl venues is more important than ever. "There's kind of a shared philosophy," says John Junker, executive director of the Fiesta and Insight.com bowls, "that you want to have as little travel as possible."