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Grantland Rice is no longer around to call him the—uh—the One Horseman, but the pro scouts will happily oblige, for he is bigger than Tom Harmon, faster than Glenn Davis, more punishing than Doc Blanchard, more durable than Ernie Nevers and, with all of this, he has moments of elusiveness that rival Red Grange. One speaks, naturally, of O. J. Simpson, that fellow from USC who keeps running through the folklore of college football the way Henry V ran through Agincourt. If the scouts know a thing or two, O.J. is the finest collegiate runner—live, tape or film—who ever strolled back to a huddle. And yet Simpson is far from all they watch, for a lot more royalty than Lord Orange Juice is on the loose this season. There are, to cite a few, the Earl of Sellers, the Duke of Kwalick, the Marquis de Hendricks. In fact, as far as the talent hunters are concerned, there hasn't been such a majestic gathering of first-round draft choices in years.
Professional football scouts talk about good years like gentlemen discussing wines. "Oh, yeah, '51," a scout will say. "Gifford, Matson, McElhenny, Howton." Or he will reflect on that marvelous autumn of '56. "Hmmm, yes. Jim Brown, Hornung, Brodie, McDonald. Truly splendid." And so shall it be, apparently, when they gaze back on the draftable seniors of 1968. At some once and future motel coffee shop in Starkville or College Station, a scout is going to be saying, "Ah, '68. That was a crop. Simpson, Keyes, Hanratty, Smith, Sellers, Kwalick. What studs!"
All of this is borne out in a SPORTS ILLUSTRATED poll conducted last week. Head scouts representing the 26 NFL and AFL teams arrived at these conclusions: one-third called this season's first-round draft choices the best group ever; most of the other two-thirds agreed that they rate among the best groups; and nearly all the scouts expected the year to produce the most glory-bound collection of pointmakers—runners, throwers and catchers—in years. In the process the scouts resolved the running battle between the Midwest and Pacific Coast over which of two athletes deserves the Heisman Trophy, O. J. Simpson or Leroy Keyes. If it were up to the scouts, O.J. would win by several broken tackles. The USC halfback received 25 out of 26 votes as the No. 1 draft choice, and 10 scouts said Simpson is the best collegiate runner they have ever seen.
A total of 50 different collegians drew votes from the scouts, who were asked to name their 11 best football players in order of preference, regardless of position and regardless of the urgent needs of their employers. O.J. came as close to being unanimous as any player is ever likely to, and he would have been if a single scout had not chosen to have some fun, perhaps. The fellow could not resist playing an old scouting game that might be called Obscure Split Endmanship, his first choice being Edward Cross, a receiver from Arkansas AM&N in Pine Bluff. Simpson he placed second.
As much as scouts relish finding a rough diamond in the sticks, they agree that 1968 is a year for knowns instead of unknowns. Simpson and Keyes alone would be enough to make this a special draft. The argument over their relative virtues has almost reached the Security Council. All O.J. does is run, says the Midwest, while Leroy runs, catches and defends. Sure, but nobody ever ran like Simpson, says the Pacific Coast. The scouts prefer O.J., and one of the group, all of whom insisted on anonymity, explained why.
"They're both superb," he said. "The difference is that you've seen others like Keyes before. Donny Anderson, for instance. At Texas Tech he was a terrific runner, he could catch, he punted, and a lot of us always felt his best position would be free safety. But nobody ever suggested he was the best there ever was On the other hand, you've never seen a guy like Simpson. There has never been anyone with his combination of size, speed, toughness and elusiveness."
Simpson will be a running back, and very possibly the best as a pro since Jim Brown. Keyes could be a runner, but more probably will be used as a flanker or defensive back. " Keyes has a history of fumbling and getting hurt," said one scout. "So you have to think he can't take the wear and tear O.J. can. He's going to cost good money, so why risk that money on him as a runner? Put him out at flanker or on defense where he'll last."
Simpson's halfback-fullback proportions (6'2", 207 pounds), together with his authentic speed (9.3) and proved durability, led one scout to call him, perhaps too lavishly, a combination of Jim Brown and Gale Sayers. O.J. has comfortably carried as much as 212 pounds; he weighed 210, in fact, when he ran a leg of USC's world-record 440-yard relay two springs ago. It is the endurance of such a fast man that keeps amazing the pro scouts. Speedy backs, historically, have never carried the ball much, but McKay has run Simpson like Hal the Computer. Since transferring to USC from City College of San Francisco in 1967, Simpson has never carried less than 17 times in a game, which used to be plenty, and has gone as high as 47. This has been done against consistently stern opponents—the likes of Notre Dame, Michigan State, Texas, UCLA—who had sworn on old copies of the NCAA Guide that they would stop him.
Last Saturday was a typical example. USC faced California, which came into Los Angeles with the nation's No. 3 defense overall and the top defense against scoring—Cal had allowed only 5.6 points per game. It was a burly team led by a sure All-America middle guard, Ed White, and it had begun to scent—faintly but distinctly—the Rose Bowl. But O.J. kept on doing his thing, which is almost single-handedly keeping the Trojans ahead in their grinding, burdensome task of trying to defend their national championship with a team that is not as strong as last year's.
USC started the game as if it intended to run O.J. about 95 times and do nothing else. He carried the first six plays on a hot, clear day before 80,871, all of it power stuff right into the heart of the Cal defense. There was little letup for him through three quarters, as usual, and he finished with 164 yards in 31 carries and two touchdowns, his 16th and 17th of the season, one of them on a bursting 39-yard run just when he had begun to look weary and battered. Simpson's hammering inside enabled the Trojan offense to destroy the Bears with some of Quarterback Steve Sogge's finest passing of the year. Overall, USC was at its best of the season while running up a 35-3 lead and winning 35-17. Simpson sat out the whole last quarter.