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Sports Illustrated JANUARY 14, 1998
THE END WAS NEAR. IT WAS EARLY December, 13 days after Michigan had finished its regular season with a victory over Ohio State, and Charles Woodson was sprawled across two chairs in Schembechler Hall.
"No rest," said the busiest man in college football. "Been going nonstop since Ohio State, doing interviews, schoolwork, lifting and running." He let his head drop back, as if he could fall asleep on the spot. In another week Woodson would become the first defensive player to win the Heisman Trophy, edging favorite Peyton Manning of Tennessee on the strength of a remarkable performance against the Buckeyes in the regular-season finale. After that would be the Rose Bowl victory over Washington State, and then he would have less than two weeks to make the decision regarding his early entry into the NFL. No rest.
But Woodson had a plan. "Right after the Rose Bowl, I'm going to get away for about two or three days," he said. "Just me and my girlfriend, kicking back, nice and quiet." Talk about a guy who has earned a little comp time. In the autumn of this, his junior year at Michigan, Woodson had become the first player in the two-platoon era of major college football to command opponents' attention in all three aspects of the game—offense, defense and special teams. He collected slashes as the season progressed, and by the time the Wolverines were crowned national champions, he was a cover corner/blitzer/punt returner/pass receiver/running back/quarterback. The slashes stopped there only because coach Lloyd Carr wouldn't let him return kickoffs. Woodson was the central figure on the best defense in the country, and when the spotlight was brightest, he burned Ohio State on a 78-yard punt return for a touchdown, a key 37-yard pass reception and a drive-killing interception as the Wolverines won their 11th straight game on the way to an undefeated season. His performance that day turned the tide of the Heisman voting in his favor for good.
His regular-season statistics were deceptively modest—except for the number of keystrokes required to list all of them: seven interceptions; five pass breakups; 43 tackles (four for losses); one sack; three rushes, for 33 yards and one touchdown; 11 pass receptions, for an average of 21.0 yards and two touchdowns; 33 punt returns, for an average of 8.6 yards; and, in a 26-16 victory over Wisconsin, a 28-yard pass to quarterback Brian Griese that set up a touchdown.
Woodson's worth, however, could not be measured with arithmetic. On Nov. 8 against Penn State he came in at wideout midway through the second quarter and lined up in the left slot on the Nittany Lions' 37-yard line. The Penn State defenders began chittering in desperation—"There's Woodson, there's Woodson"—and scrambled to cover him. Confused and intimidated by his presence, the defense didn't pick him up, and he sailed up a seam to catch a touchdown pass from Griese. Says Carr, "We believe if you aren't prepared, Charles is going to beat you."
In his first two seasons the Wolverines corner earned a reputation as being all but unbeatable in man-to-man coverage. This year, in search of more creative ways to use him, Carr and first-year defensive coordinator Jim Herrmann deployed Woodson as a nickelback in passing situations, lining him up inside the corner, usually over the slot receiver. From there the 6' 1", 198-pound Woodson posed a blitz threat, which made the Wolverines' already powerful rush lethal. "He's an unbelievable blitzer," says Vic Adamle, wide receivers coach for the Minnesota Gophers. "He gets to the quarterback in a big hurry, and when he gets there, he packs a punch."
Because Woodson is so aggressive in bump-and-run coverage, locked down in his Deion Sanders-like one-foot-forward stance, offensive coordinators would try to bait him with pump-fakes and hitch-and-goes, hoping to throw over his head. "His plan is to eliminate you totally, and he does it," says Adamle. "We tried to get him to bite. He did, but he recovers so fast it didn't matter."
As for throwing short, good luck. Northwestern quarterback Tim Hughes attempted to throw an out on Woodson, putting the ball low and away as the book says one should, but Woodson reached across Hughes's target and scooped the ball in for the interception before rolling out-of-bounds. Michigan State quarterback Todd Schultz tried to throw a pass high and out-of-bounds as he was being dragged down, but Woodson, in a "Hello, Heisman" moment, snatched the ball out of the air with one outstretched hand and landed, impossibly, with one foot inbounds. Later Schultz tried to force a curl into the middle of the field, but Woodson blanketed the route and stole the pass from the receiver's gut. "Probably the quickest guy I've ever seen," says Schultz.
On offense Michigan sprinkled Woodson around like cayenne pepper: sparingly, but to great effect. He averaged a little more than six offensive plays a game in '97 and created defensive chaos every time he took to the attack, as he showed on a 33-yard reverse for a touchdown against Minnesota and his TD reception against Penn State. He was equally dangerous on punt returns. Opponents kicked the ball out-of-bounds, to the left, to the right or painfully short to avoid putting it high, deep and into Woodson's hands.