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The Year of the Quarterback -- Says Who?

Scott Haynes, College Editor

On Campus Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - The 2002 college football season was dubbed the "Year of the Quarterback." Pundits around the nation claimed that this year's crop of talented signal-callers was better than that of 1999 (Tim Couch, Donovan McNabb, Akili Smith, Daunte Culpepper, Cade McNown) and even rivaled the 1983 collection (John Elway, Jim Kelly, Dan Marino, Todd Blackledge, Tony Eason, Ken O'Brien). With guys like Rex Grossman, Ken Dorsey, Byron Leftwich, Chris Simms, Seneca Wallace, Kliff Kingsbury and Dave Ragone all leading their respective teams in 2002, who could argue?

Four weeks into the season and there is plenty who could argue that the 2002 season should be renamed the "Year of the Tailback."

I know, Marshall's Leftwich continues to put up mind-boggling numbers. Miami's Dorsey just never loses. Simms and Wallace are running their offenses to perfection right now and Grossman bounced back from a horrid performance against the Hurricanes with a superb effort in Knoxville.

Willis McGahee
Willis McGahee has already rushed for 533 yards in the first four games, averaging almost eight yards per carry and over 130 yards per game.
However, it has been the play of talent-rich backfields across the nation that has taken center stage in my eyes. The following are just a few of the numerous rushers across the country that have opened eyes to what could very well replenish the crop of top-notch running backs at both the collegiate and professional level for the next few years.

A TECH COMBO: Virginia Tech has the market cornered on backfield talent with their All-American duo of Lee Suggs and Kevin Jones. The Hokies like to run the football to the tune of almost 250 yards per game. With Suggs returning this year from a knee injury, and the emergence of Jones as a freshman, the question was whether or not there would be enough carries for both players to be happy. Well, early indications are that there are. Both players are averaging well over five yards a carry this season, combining for over 700 yards rushing in the first four games, with 11 TDs. There is every reason to believe that both Suggs and Jones will eclipse the 1,000-yard mark, as spelling one another should keep a fresh pair of legs in the backfield all season long.

ASSEMBLY LINE: First, it was Edgerrin James' turn. Then came James Jackson and Clinton Portis. Now it is Willis McGahee's chance to shine in Miami. Frank Gore was supposed to be the starting tailback this season after putting up some amazing numbers last year in limited action (9.1 ypc). However, an injury shelved him this season, affording McGahee the opportunity to carry the workload. The sophomore sensation has done just that, already rushing for 533 yards in the first four games, averaging almost eight yards per carry (7.8) and over 130 yards per game (133.2). If his progress continues, it certainly won't be long before McGahee joins his Miami alum James, Jackson and Portis in the NFL.

DEJA VU: Ohio State has had some great backs, including a guy by the name of Eddie George. The 1995 Heisman Trophy winner abused the competition in his time in Columbus, with a combination of great speed and power. Well, if you believe in reincarnation, than George has returned to the OSU campus in the form of freshman Maurice Clarett. A big, athletic back like George, Clarett has the ability to run over, or around would-be tacklers, en route to the end zone. Despite not playing last week against Cincinnati, Clarett has still managed to amass 471 yards rushing in three games (157.0 ypg). He is ripping off runs at 7.5 yards per clip and has six TDs in his first three collegiate games. Before his college career is over, OSU may just have yet another Heisman winner to boast of.

BEHIND THE SCENES: While Virginia Tech's Suggs and Jones, Miami's McGahee and Ohio State's Clarett are getting all the press, Iowa's Fred Russell continues to rack up huge numbers. Russell is tied with Clarett for second in the nation in rushing (157.0 ypg) and is averaging 7.5 yards per carry, having amassed 471 yards in just three games. A shoulder injury kept him out of the fun last week against Utah State (48-7), but Russell should be able to return against Penn State this week, a thought the Nittany Lions probably aren't comfortable with.

TEXAS TWO-STEP: Or should I say, three or four. That is how many yards Longhorn tailback Cedric Benson is getting before anyone even lays a hand on him. The veteran tailback has been masterful this season and could be the advantage the Longhorns need to finally successfully navigate the Big 12 and earn a shot at a national title. Benson is averaging almost 140 yards per game and has already accumulated 417 yards and four TDs in just three games. Not bad for a player that must share the offensive spotlight with Chris Simms and Roy Williams.

SIMONTON WHO?: Finding a suitable replacement for a school's all-time leading rusher is never easy. There is supposed to be a huge void, right? I guess not, as sophomore tailback Steven Jackson has burst on the college football scene with his performance thus far. Ken Simonton, Oregon State's all-time leading rusher, was a staple in Corvallis for four seasons, helping revive a dead program and transforming it into a national contender. Well, Jackson is trying to do the very same thing. In just four games, Jackson has rushed for 536 yards (134.0 ypg) and is a big reason for the team's jump into the top-25. What he did against Fresno State last week (227 yards at 9.1 yards per carry) was phenomenal.

CATCH A TIGER BY THE TAIL: That is something that very few have been able to do in the early part of 2002. Sophomore tailback Carnell Williams has been the key to Auburn's surprising fast start this season. The youngster has already rushed for 437 yards in the first four games, averaging 6.0 yards per carry and has found the end zone seven times. He proved to be a real workhorse for the Tigers last week against Mississippi State, carrying the ball 28 times, for 106 yards and two TDs. The week prior, Williams rumbled for 170 yards and two TDs, on just 20 carries. He seems to be just scratching the surface of his enormous talent -- a scary thought for the opposition.

WHAT MIGHT HAVE BEEN: The nation's leading rusher certainly took the road less traveled to become a star. Tony Hollings was converted from a defensive back this season for the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets and new coach Chan Gailey proved himself a genius, as Hollings rushed for 633 yards and 11 TDs in the first four games (158.3 ypg). Unfortunately, Hollings suffered a knee injury late in last week's game and will be lost for the season. Hopefully, this talented back has no trouble rehabbing and we will all get to see him abuse defenses again next year.

GIVE THEM THEIR PROPS: Finally, there are a number of names omitted from the above list but should still get recognition for the things they have accomplished thus far. Those players include Kent State's Joshua Cribbs (154.5 ypg), Northern Illinois' Michael Turner (134.8 ypg), Southern Mississippi's Derrick Nix (132.8 ypg), Central Michigan's Robbie Mixon (132.0 ypg), Colorado's Chris Brown (127.8 ypg) and Kentucky's Artose Pinner (126.8 ypg).

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

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