Tulane's Matt Fort� has quietly become the nation's leading ground gainer, and NFL scouts are taking notice
TULANE RUNNING BACK Matt Fort� may have found the tipping point for his beleaguered team. All season the leading rusher in Division I-A has been facing defenses playing eight-in-the-box run-blitz schemes that dared the Green Wave to throw—a winning formula against a passing attack that ranks 100th in the country. But in Tulane's 34--19 upset of UTEP last Saturday, a funny thing happened. To stop Fort�, the Miners overloaded the box with a ninth defender, boldly walking up both safeties and isolating their cornerbacks in one-on-one coverage. The result was not only a career day for wideout Jeremy Williams, who caught eight passes for 188 yards and two touchdowns, but also a rare victory for the Green Wave (3--7).
For his part, the 6'2", 223-pound Fort� barely noticed that extra safety. The senior ran for a robust 4.5 yards per carry, gaining 171 and scoring two touchdowns. "Against those kinds of defenses, we try to get everybody blocked but one guy, and making that guy miss is Matt's responsibility," says Tulane running backs coach Greg Davis Jr. "He's got such exceptional feet. They're so quick for a big man."
Indeed, there is a nimbleness to Fort�'s game rarely found in running backs his size. In the third quarter of a 34--9 loss to LSU in the Super-dome on Sept. 29, he took a handoff on a play that was designed to go up the middle, bounced to his right to avoid blitzing safety Craig Steltz, squeezed through a tiny hole to his left and bounded into the Tigers' secondary, where he juked safety Curtis Taylor onto his backside before being dragged down from behind after a 21-yard gain. It's little wonder that scouts from seven NFL teams and one pro general manager watched the Green Wave practice last week.
Not bad for a kid so lightly recruited out of Slidell (La.) High that his only scholarship offers came from the Green Wave and a pair of area I-AA programs. The snub made Fort� burn with a desire to become great. In the summer of 2004, a few weeks before he arrived at Tulane for his first preseason camp, his parents once awoke at two in the morning to find him in the street running sprints. (He once ran a 10.6 100 meters at Slidell.) This year he spent the off-season going through two workouts a day rehabbing a torn posterior cruciate ligament in his left knee that he suffered late last year. It's hard to dispute the result of all that effort. Six times this fall Fort� has carried the ball more than 30 times in a game, and he has surpassed 200 yards rushing on five occasions; he gained a school-record 342 in a 41--34 overtime win over SMU on Oct. 20. " Ricky Williams was the same way," says Davis, who was on the Texas staff in 1998 when Williams won the Heisman. "As the game goes on, Matt gets stronger."
It's been a bittersweet season, but with two games left, Fort�, who's on schedule to graduate in the spring with a degree in finance, should have no problem surpassing the 2,000-yard mark. (He's at 1,813.) After that, the pros await, no matter how many more games Tulane loses.
ONLY AT SI.COM News and analysis from Stewart Mandel.