Five days before Miami's season finale, tailback Willis McGahee was already cornering the spotlight. Positioned in front of a photographer's backdrop in an athletic department office, McGahee was trying, with limited success, to screw his smile into a scowl for the latest camera crew (this time ABC's) that had begged him for face time. Observing the scene from the shadows, junior safety Maurice Sikes offered mock encouragement to the 21-year-old sophomore whom some upper-class teammates have nicknamed Heisman. "Yeah, Heisman! There you go, Heisman!" Sikes hollered before gesturing in the manner of an attorney making his closing argument. "Take one look at that guy. How can we lose with that guy?"
Last Saturday, Virginia Tech became the 12th team this season to fail to provide an answer to that question. In a humid, cacophonous Orange Bowl, the 6'1", 224-pound McGahee again grabbed the attention in a two-pronged onslaught that resulted in a 56-45 win for the undefeated and top-ranked Hurricanes. With its 34th straight victory, Miami clinched a berth in the national championship game against Ohio State at the Fiesta Bowl in Tempe, Ariz., on Jan. 3.
Slipping through and sometimes plowing over his pursuers, McGahee gained a career-high 205 yards on 39 carries (tying a school mark). He ran for a Big East-record six touchdowns against a defense that had yielded just 12 rushing scores all year, and he raised his school records for, rushing yards to 1,686 and touchdowns to 27. Asked afterward about McGahee's impact, Hokies coach Frank Beamer chuckled ruefully and replied, "He's tough, he's patient—he's something. [Quarterback Ken] Dorsey should have stopped giving [the ball] to him in the third quarter and kept the Heisman for himself."
Despite his numbers and Beamer's endorsement, McGahee might not fulfill the promise of his nickname when the Heisman winner is announced on Saturday at the Yale Club in New York City. Dorsey, for one, has made a strong case for the award. The senior has thrown for 3,073 yards and 26 touchdowns, including 300 yards and two scores against the Hokies. The teammates could cancel each other out in the voting—ironic, given that the Hurricanes' success has depended in large part on the two players' combined efforts. In the pin-ball game with Virginia Tech, all but five of Miami's 68 plays (excluding clock-killing possessions at the ends of each half) were either carries by McGahee or pass attempts by Dorsey. After the Hokies closed to within 49-37 at the end of the third quarter, Dorsey handed the ball to McGahee on nine of the next 10 plays, setting up Dorsey's clinching 11-yard touchdown strike to tight end Kellen Winslow Jr.
That a Miami tailback could earn equal billing with—or upstage—his own quarterback says much about the way the Hurricanes' offense has evolved. While the Miami powerhouses of the 1980s and early '90s revolved around prolific throwers such as Jim Kelly, Bernie Kosar, Vinny Testaverde and Gino Torretta, the offense in recent seasons has achieved a near-perfect balance. Much credit goes to the nation's best offensive line, as well as to second-year coach Larry Coker, a shrewd play-caller who was formerly the team's offensive coordinator. But running backs coach Don Soldinger says that the offensive symmetry was envisioned by Coker's predecessor, Butch Davis, as he rebuilt the Hurricanes in the wake of NCAA penalties that stripped the team of 31 scholarships from 1996 to '98. "Butch was always working toward having the balance of those Dallas Cowboys teams of Emmitt Smith and Troy Aikman," Soldinger says of Davis, who was a Cowboys assistant before going to Miami, "but the NCAA sanctions made it tough to build depth." In five of the past six seasons, though, Miami has produced a 1,000-yard rusher, including Edgerrin James (now with the Indianapolis Colts) and Clinton Portis ( Denver Broncos).
Few would have predicted that McGahee would be the latest, and perhaps greatest, member of this group. A knee injury limited his production as a senior at Miami Central, and Hurricanes coaches redshirted him in his freshman season in 2000 because they believed he lacked the field sense that would allow him to break into the rotation. Just as McGahee began to make strides as the second-string tailback last fall, rushing for 264 yards in five games of mop-up duty, Portis began toying with the sophomore's confidence. "Clinton liked to say, 'You'll never be better than me,' " McGahee says. "Since I didn't want to get into it with him, I spent a lot of last season cursing inside my head."
Portis's needling might have fired up some guys, but the sensitive McGahee, says Soldinger, "just shrank." As if these blows to his ego weren't enough, McGahee sprained his left knee in late October 2001, and feisty freshman tailback Frank Gore played ahead of him for the rest of the season. But that low point also became the turning point. Rather than think about quitting, McGahee says he listened to pep talks from his mother, Jannie Jones, a tough-as-nails South Florida rail-yard master and single parent who raised Willis and his older brother Kishara, who died of colon cancer when Willis was 10. "I believed that I could still be the man at Miami," Willis says. "It was just a matter of time."
That time came last March, after Gore tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee in practice. Nearly every coach and senior in the program pulled McGahee aside to tell him, "It's time to step up." He responded over the summer, working hard to improve on the combination of speed and strength he'd enjoyed since he was a self-described "big kid with a big butt" who wormed his way into older kids' street games in his Miami neighborhood. McGahee, who's been clocked at a school-record 4.29 seconds in the 40, lifted weights every morning with the offensive linemen until he boosted his squat to 500 pounds and his bench press to 375. As often as five days a week he followed team workouts with three-hour sessions overseen by his half brother, Eugene Poole, whose draconian drills included strapping McGahee into a padded harness and having him pull an old pickup truck around a paved lot.
"He'd lift with 300-pound linemen and then get pissed when we put up more than him," says senior center Brett Romberg. "That's Willis. He's so eager." Other Hurricanes talk admiringly of a recent practice in which coaches told the players they wouldn't have to do an additional set of 20-yard wind sprints if McGahee ran a 40 in less than 4.5 seconds. After a two-hour practice, in sweat-soaked pads, McGahee put up a 4.48.
Before McGahee introduced himself to the rest of the nation with a 204-yard rushing performance against Florida on Sept. 7, he'd already convinced his coaches that he was ready for his close-up. For the better part of the past decade Miami has played a two-tailback system: In 1998 Edgerrin James split minutes with James Jackson, who would go on to share snaps with Portis, who would divide time with Gore. This season Coker and Soldinger have gone with a one-man show. "Willis has separated himself the way none of those other backs did," says Soldinger.