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The Year of the Running Back
Austin Murphy
August 20, 2007
With a deep stable of tailbacks at USC and most of last year's premium talent, the game has its best collection of rushers since the late 1970s--and coaches are devising new ways to get the ball in their hands
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August 20, 2007

The Year Of The Running Back

With a deep stable of tailbacks at USC and most of last year's premium talent, the game has its best collection of rushers since the late 1970s--and coaches are devising new ways to get the ball in their hands

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So swift and experienced are West Virginia's skill players that Rodriguez will preside over the nation's most electric offense. The fastest Mountaineer might be junior quarterback Patrick White, who rushed for 1,219 yards in addition to throwing for 1,655 last season. Or it might be junior running back Steve Slaton, a breakaway threat who ran for 1,744 yards and scored 18 touchdowns.

West Virginia wound up with Slaton only after Maryland withdrew its scholarship offer midway through his senior year at Conwell-Egan High in Fairless Hills, Pa. "We knew we really had something in Steve," recalls Rodriguez. "Watch three or four plays on his tape, and you were saying, 'Wow. Nobody's catching this guy.' He's a great fit for what we're doing--get him the ball in space and give him a chance to outrun some people."

Speaking of breakaway threats, Rodriguez has another in new recruit Noel Devine, a 5' 8", 170-pound dynamo from North Fort Myers (Fla.) High. True, signing Devine was touch-and-go for a while; there was the question of whether he would qualify academically, and in the fall of 2005 he became a father for the second time. "But he's got the right attitude," says Rodriguez. "He wants to prove himself."

Rodriguez can use Devine to spell Slaton or put them on the field together with the freshman in the slot. The Mountaineers are loaded, and they know it. Asked what he hopes to accomplish this season, Slaton cuts to the chase: "Our goal around here is to go undefeated and get a ring."

Funny, that's the same goal around Piscataway, N.J., where Greg Schiano, coach of West Virginia's Big East-rival Rutgers, says, "I think we're at the point where our best can be the best." Having achieved in '06 their long-awaited breakthrough season, the Scarlet Knights appear set up for a lengthy stay in the Top 25. The most critical player in that quantum leap was Ray Rice, who carried the ball 335 times for a conference-record 1,794 yards and scored 20 touchdowns.

That Herculean workload came at a cost, though. After spring drills Rice had surgery to clean bone chips from his right ankle. The good news: He has been noticeably faster and more explosive in preseason practice, during which, Schiano notes approvingly, "he's taking the top off every run"--meaning the 5' 9", 205-pound junior takes the ball through the secondary after every carry, for extra work and to set an example for younger teammates.

It is unlikely that Rice will even approach 300 carries this season; sophomore Kordell Young, his gifted (faster) backup, will handle more of the load. Schiano is also ready to take the wraps off junior quarterback Mike Teel. If Teel's young receivers drop, say, only half the passes that slipped through their hands last season, Rutgers's offense will blast off. Opposing defenses will be forced to take players out of the box to defend the pass.

"I can't wait to see our passing game explode," says Rice. "It'll make everything easier."

Like Boise State and Rutgers, Michigan uses a zone-blocking system that allows the back to choose the most promising hole he sees. For the Wolverines that back is senior Mike Hart, who is similar to Rice in stature and production. Last season the 5' 9" 196-pounder carried the ball 318 times for 1,562 yards and 14 touchdowns. He loves the zone-blocking scheme, which Michigan installed last season. "I think it goes right to my strengths," says Hart, who identifies them as "vision and cutting." He is leaving out ball security: In 750 carries as a collegian Hart has fumbled three times.

"Mike is a squirrelly guy," says senior tackle Jake Long. "He can hide behind the line and pop out wherever he wants."

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