Last season quarterbacks overshadowed running backs so much that for just the fourth time in the award's 67-year history, not a single tailback was named as one of the four Heisman Trophy finalists. With many prolific passers returning, pundits from coast to coast declared 2002 the Year of the Quarterback before a down was played. But with defenses putting more emphasis on stopping the passing game, running back has once again emerged as the most important position on the field.
It's no coincidence that the top three teams in the nation have Heisman candidates lining up behind their quarterbacks—senior Quentin Griffin of Oklahoma (950 yards, 6.7 per carry), sophomore Willis McGahee of Miami (1,034 yards, 16 touchdowns) and freshman Maurice Clarett of Ohio State (1,019 yards, 13 touchdowns despite missing nearly three games with shoulder and knee injuries). Eighth-ranked Virginia Tech is a national championship contender because it has two terrific running backs in senior Lee Suggs and sophomore Kevin Jones, who have combined to rush for 1,664 yards and 23 touchdowns. "If Virginia Tech's offensive line doesn't get the block," says Temple running backs coach Blair Thomas, "[ Suggs and Jones] still have the stuff to go get it done themselves."
Thomas, who is one of only four tailbacks in Penn State history to gain 1,400 yards in a season, is about to be joined by a fifth. Nittany Lions senior Larry Johnson has outshone stellar sophomore quarterback Zack Mills, rushing for 1,221 yards and 11 touchdowns, including a school-record 279 yards in Penn State's 18-7 defeat of Illinois.
The resurgence of the running game is the result of teams' spreading out defenses by often going with three and four receivers. Unlike in recent years, many schools are using the run to set up the pass instead of the other way around. "There's a push to mix up your play calls," says N.C. State offensive coordinator Marty Galbraith, whose freshman tailback T.A. McLendon has opened passing lanes for quarterback Philip Rivers. "Defenses want you to be one-dimensional. A running back who can do lots of different things helps a great deal in throwing opponents off balance."
For those who live for the moment when a tailback bursts through the line into the open field, this season has been full of highlights. When the Heisman ceremony is held on Dec. 14, there's a good chance that running backs will outnumber quarterbacks.