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Tailbacks Galore

Scott Haynes, College Editor

On Campus Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - They are the workhorses out there on the gridiron. The ones that coaches rely on to get the tough yards in tough situations. Often times, they are the centerpiece of an offense. Defenses know they are going to get the ball, but still can't find a way to stop them.

College tailbacks have a knack for taking over a game, sometimes more so than a quarterback.

It is no wonder that last year's national championship game pitted two of the nation's very best rushers in Ohio State's Maurice Clarett and Miami's Willis McGahee. Of course we all know how that turned out, with Clarett raising the Sears Trophy, while medical personnel had to do the same to McGahee after the star tailback suffered a gruesome injury late in the game.

Still, it was McGahee who came out of relative obscurity to lead the Hurricanes to their second straight national title game. He wasn't even supposed to start in 2002, but an injury to projected starter Frank Gore, thrust McGahee into the limelight, a place where he seemed to be born to shine in.

Of course, McGahee wasn't alone last season in grabbing headlines with his rushing exploits. Penn State's Larry Johnson would do the unthinkable, amassing 2,000+ yards on the ground, marking just the ninth time that has been accomplished in NCAA Division IA history.

With both players taking their talents to the NFL, who will be the one to take over the reins as the very best running back in the nation in 2003?

There are a handful of candidates chomping at the bit to become just that.

Maurice Clarett
Ohio State's Maurice Clarett rushed for 1,237 yards during his rookie campaign. What is in store for his Sophomore season?
MAURICE CLARETT:
The Ohio State Buckeye was perhaps the best freshmen in the nation last year, leading his school to a national championship. The question is, does he have anything left to play for? After rushing for 1,237 yards and 16 TDs last year, will he be motivated to do it again? His freshman campaign almost guarantees him a huge payday when he feels he is ready to join the NFL. So, with a national title in hand, will he continue to run with the enthusiasm he had a year ago? Bet on it. The 6-0, 230-pounder has the ability to run through an opponent or around them. He could be a top-10 selection in the draft and that alone is enough of an incentive to continue his punishing ways on the field.

KEVIN JONES: This Virginia Tech Hokie split time in the backfield with an All-American in Lee Suggs, but still managed to average 5.4 yards per carry, while tallying 871 yards and nine TDs. With Suggs now out of the picture, the run-happy Hokies will rely solely on Jones, who could break out this year and really put up some eye-popping numbers. The nation's top high school player three years ago, the 6-0, 215-pound Jones could be the nation's top collegiate this year. A perfect blend of speed and power makes him a threat to take it the distance every time he touches the ball.

ANTHONY DAVIS: The Big Ten certainly has a way of producing excellent running backs, and here is another perfect example in this Wisconsin Badger. The smallish Davis had the unenviable task of coming up behind the likes of Ron Dayne and Michael Bennett, but has made the transition an easy one with his own explosive running style. As productive a back as there has been the last two seasons, the 5-8, 194-pound Davis has thrived as a workhorse, despite his lack of size, eclipsing 1,400 yards each of the last two seasons, including churning out 1,555 yards last year, with 13 TDs. Another solid season in Madison and the Badgers may add another Heisman Trophy to the fold.

MICHAEL TURNER: The MAC had some remarkable QBs last year (Marshall's Byron Leftwich, Miami-Ohio's Ben Roethlisberger, Kent State's Joshua Cribbs and Bowling Green's Josh Harris), but the league also had some top-notch rushing talent, none better than Northern Illinois' Turner. The 5-10, 225-pounder took over for an injured Thomas Hammock and never relinquished the position, as he finished second in the nation in rushing a year ago, chewing up 1,915 yards on the ground, while reaching the end zone 13 times. Certainly not a fluke, Turner has a real chance to reach the sacred 2,000-yard barrier this year.

CEDRIC BENSON: Without Chris Simms under center in Austin this year, the Texas Longhorns may need to rely more on this talented tailback. One of just three returning rushers to amass 1,000+ yards on the ground the last two seasons (Anthony Davis and Mewelde Moore are the others), Benson has provided the Longhorns with a balanced attack of late. The 6-0, 205-pounder is coming off a sophomore season in which he rushed for 1,293 yards on 305 carries, scoring a dozen TDs along the way. A reliable runner, Benson has fumbled just five times in 528 career carries and has the ability to run around or through the opposition.

STEVEN JACKSON: Replacing a rusher the likes of Ken Simonton is an idea that no player could be comfortable with, but Steven Jackson filled the void aptly, leading the Pac-10 in rushing in 2002, while rolling up 1,690 yards on the ground for Oregon State, with 15 TDs. His 130.0 yards per game ranked eighth nationally. A huge back at 6-3, 230 pounds, Jackson is a homerun hitter on the West Coast. With another superb season in Corvallis, it will be awfully hard to keep him in the amateur ranks after this year.

T.A. MCLENDON: Chuck Amato already had his field general in Philip Rivers, but added to the arsenal a year ago, with the addition of this freshman sensation in the backfield. McLendon kept the pressure off of Rivers with his ability to move the chains on the ground. A battering ram at 5-11, 220-pounds, McLendon found a way to chew up 1,101 yards on the ground last year for the Wolfpack, while reaching the end zone 18 times. The ACC Rookie of the Year in 2002 was also deft at catching the ball out of the backfield, hauling in 42 passes (tied for second on the team), for an additional 354 yards. Expect more of the same in 2003, as the Wolfpack try to wrestle the ACC title away from Florida State.

*WILDCARD - FRANK GORE:It is hard to imagine anyone keeping Willis McGahee off the field, but Gore would have been the starter last year, before injury claimed his season before it began. Two years ago, Gore fought for carries behind now Denver Bronco Clinton Portis and took full advantage of any opportunities, carrying the ball 62 times for a whopping 562 yards (9.1 yards per carry) and five TDs. At 100-percent this year, he could be the third straight Hurricane back (Portis and McGahee) to waltz the 'Canes into the national title picture.

PLAYERS TO WATCH: Bruce Perry (Maryland), Ryan Grant (Notre Dame), Chris Perry (Michigan), Fred Russell (Iowa), Kejuan Jones (Oklahoma), Art Brown (East Carolina), Mewelde Moore (Tulsa), Derrick Knight (Boston College), Greg Jones (Florida State) and Terry Caulley (Connecticut).

Comments? Criticism? Applause? Contact Scott Haynes at shaynes@sportsnetwork.com.


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