He is consistency may fail to beat out the wizardry of Boston College's Doug Flutie in the voting for this year's Heisman Trophy, but Ohio State junior tailback Keith Byars is already guaranteed at least two superstar turns in this season's highlights film. The leadoff clip will show Byars taking a pitchout from quarterback Mike Tomczak against Iowa on Sept. 22. He's in the secondary before anyone realizes it, and he runs between two Hawkeye cornerbacks on his way to a 50-yard touchdown. That put the Buckeyes ahead 10-3, and they never looked back, winnning 45-26.
"I wasn't scouting Byars when I saw the film of that play," says Redskins general manager Bobby Beathard, "but I couldn't believe what I was seeing. These were cornerbacks, not safeties, and both had great angles on him. And Byars just turns the jet on and goes right between them."
"When Keith's even with ya'," said Ohio State coach Earle Bruce after viewing the same play, "he's leavin' ya'."
Clip No. 2 is from the Illinois game on Oct. 13. In the press box, offensive coordinator Glen Mason sends down "lead draw," which calls for Byars to slice off-tackle. Byars gets the hand-off at his own 33, angles for the sideline, turns the corner with a burst of speed and makes a sharp cut to the middle of the field. At the Illinois 40 his size 14 left shoe comes off, but Byars, whose time in the 40 is 4.55, runs on and away from everyone for a 67-yard touchdown—one of five he scored while rushing for a school-record 274 yards in State's 45-38 win. CBS showed the replay, oh, maybe 100 times. "What happened was that after Keith reached full speed he had a blowout," says Tomczak. "I picked the shoe up and carried it off the field, sort of like the pit crew."
"He's like a tank with speed," says Illinois safety David Edwards. "I gave him some shots that would usually take guys down. One time he ran right through me. They'd be an average team without him."
Last week against Wisconsin, Ohio State looked like an average team with Byars. Led by senior Marck Harrison, who gained 203 yards on 31 carries in his first start at tailback, the Badgers won 16-14 to gain their third victory over the Buckeyes in the last four years. But don't blame the loss on Byars. The 6'2", 235-pounder ran for 142 yards on 26 carries and scored one TD to keep his NCAA lead in scoring (108 points), all-purpose running (238.5 yards per game) and rushing (167.4 per).
Not bad for a guy rated behind Flutie, Auburn's Bo Jackson and even Pitt offensive tackle Bill Fralic in preseason Heisman talk. Why? Well, the story line on Byars isn't juicy. Flutie and Jackson both played major roles in lifting their teams to higher levels. On the other hand, Ohio State, which is now 6-2, seems to have a powerhouse back and a fine team most every year. Further, Byars just didn't have it in the charisma department. Flutie, for instance, is an engaging sprite who gives a good quote. Byars? He's the son of a Dayton preacher, and he describes himself as "very family oriented." With Tomczak, he organizes Saturday morning team chapel meetings. He works as a jack-of-all-trades at Mosier Industries near Dayton in the summer and says bowling (he has a 180 average) is his favorite off-the-field activity. "I can't say anything about what they base the voting on," says Byars. "I just have to think positive and keep thinking I can win it."
Actually, Byars has lowered his profile even more since he was quoted earlier this season as saying he was going to win the Heisman. "What I said was that there was no doubt I want to win it," he says. "It came out that I said there was no doubt I was going to win it. I don't want that to happen again." Honest mistake or misquote, Byars felt bad enough about it to approach Iowa coach Hayden Fry after their game and explain it to him.
What he should've explained was how he did what he did to the Hawkeyes' tough defense. He rushed for 120 yards, caught five passes for 55 yards, scored three touchdowns and even threw a 35-yard TD pass to flanker Mike Lanese. "He's the fastest big man I've ever seen," says Fry. "That separates him from the other backs they've had at Ohio State. They've had big ones, strong ones and fast ones, but I've never seen one like him who could do it all."
And all means all. Byars runs inside and outside, he returns kickoffs, he catches the ball. His blocking could use a little work, but so could Horowitz's right hand. "He's an unusual package," says NFL Hall of Fame wide receiver Paul Warfield, who's now a color man on Ohio State telecasts. Said Washington State coach Jim Walden after absorbing a 44-0 pasting at Columbus on Sept. 15, "They've got a lot of weapons in their arsenal. As a matter of fact, they've got a whole arsenal in one uniform."