The USC Trojans
were seated on the turf in orderly rows, stretching their hamstrings. It was
the first official practice of the new season, but Ken Norton was talking the
same old smack. "I guar-an-tee," Norton, the lantern-jawed linebackers
coach was shouting, "the running backs will not get a yard today. Not . . .
get . . . a . . . yard!" While it had the desired effect, generating a
storm of woofing between offense and defense, Norton's declaration didn't hold
up for long. ¶ In an ensuing 11-on-11 drill sophomore tailback Allen Bradford
found a crease off left tackle, but his path was quickly impeded by a freshman
defensive end. This was not just any freshman defensive end. This was Everson
Griffen, a.k.a. Super Freak, a.k.a. Big E, a.k.a. E Train, the
nation's top-rated schoolboy at his position last season, the one defensive
coordinator Nick Holt was referring to last February when he said, "The guy
is a frickin' beast!" ¶ But so, it turns out, is Bradford, who derailed the
E Train--knocked him on his butt--with a stiff-arm to the left ear hole
that served the dual purpose of welcoming the freshman to the Pac-10 and
temporarily silencing Norton. ¶ The cold truth for Bradford is that he'll need
to keep making special plays like that to earn even a modest number of touches
this season. No other team has more depth at any one position than USC has at
tailback, where Bradford will compete with nine other former high school
phenoms for the right to be the feature back on the nation's top team.
California goes in 2007, so goes the nation. Following an era in college
football that could fairly be described as the Quarterback Cult--passers have
won six of the last seven Heisman Trophies--the most dominant players heading
into this season are running backs. Seven of the top 10 rushers from a year ago
return, and there hasn't been such a constellation of star ball carriers since
the late 1970s, when the careers of Marcus Allen, Earl Campbell, Tony Dorsett,
George Rogers, Billy Sims and Charles White overlapped.
But just because
we're entering the year of the running back doesn't mean some of these guys
won't be throwing the ball (See: McFadden, Darren, page 70). One of the
fan-friendly developments in the college game is a move away from Neanderthal,
power football to more imaginative schemes. Whether it's McFadden taking snaps
in Arkansas's Wildcat formation or Florida wideout Percy Harvin lining up in
the backfield and scoring on counter plays, we are entering a period in which
creative, contrarian coaches are more willing than ever to use the running game
in nontraditional ways.
One wrinkle we
won't be witnessing anytime soon is a halfback pass from Boise State's Ian
Johnson. While that play is still in the Broncos' arsenal, there's a reason
that Vinny Perretta was the back who threw for the touchdown against Oklahoma
in overtime of the Fiesta Bowl: Johnson has accuracy issues, which were
apparent following his game-winning two-point conversion on a Statue of Liberty
play. In celebration he flung the ball into the University of Phoenix Stadium
stands in the direction of his father, and, Johnson says, "I overthrew him
by 20 rows."
He also allowed as
how he'd drawn motivation from a pre-Fiesta Bowl response to a reporter's
question by Sooners tailback Adrian Peterson, who said he didn't know who
Johnson was. Well, Johnson was the second-leading rusher in the nation in yards
per game (behind Garrett Wolfe of Northern Illinois) and gained
1,713 yards on 276 carries for a hefty 6.21 yards per touch. He
also scored a Division I-A-high 25 touchdowns, including five in a 42-14
victory over Oregon State, the team that had slow-played him during his high
school recruitment. (Be patient, the Beavers told him, and we might have a
scholarship for you at the end of the recruiting season.)
Not blessed with
blinding speed, Johnson has had to become patient and cagey with the ball. He
is masterly at setting up his blocks. Those traits were on display after Jared
Zabransky took the snap and faked a throw to the right on that Statue of
Liberty play. Check out the replay: Johnson essentially loiters behind the
quarterback, hands on his hips--"futzing around," he says--projecting
boredom and mild resentment. Suddenly, Johnson pivots left, takes the ball from
Zabransky's outstretched arm and motors toward the end zone.
knows who Johnson is now.
A week later, in
the same stadium, Florida won the national championship by discombobulating
favored Ohio State with an array of options, counters, motions, two-quarterback
sets, fakes and reverses. Florida had to resort to such exotica because the
team lacked a top-shelf back. "We would rather not have to be [so] creative
to run the football," says coach Urban Meyer. On the other hand, he says,
to start at tailback at Florida, "you have to have great ability or we're
not going to hand you the ball."
It is one of
Meyer's tenets that his best players will get the rock, regardless of position.
That's why Harvin lined up all over the field as a freshman last season. His
105 rushing yards in the SEC title game included a 67-yard touchdown run
featuring a cut to the inside so blinding and sudden that half the Arkansas
defense, it seemed, was caught in quicksand. On a counter play in the Gators'
previous game, Harvin streaked 41 yards for a score against Florida State.
"Some people call that creative," Meyer said afterward. "I call it
a counter play to a very fast player."
It was in 2001
that Meyer, then the new coach at Bowling Green, decided to install a spread
offense, so he called West Virginia coach Rich Rodriguez to pick his brain.
"All wishbone offenses look alike," says Rodriguez, but spread offenses
are all "a little different. Everybody has their own deal, and fast players
make it look better."