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In a confidential poll for Sports Illustrated, scouts representing every professional football team rate the best crop of first-round draft candidates available in years, a group that boasts an unusual number of headline-capturing celebrities and one that will force some anguished decisions by the men who must do the picking. A consensus of the ballots shows who ranks where—and settles a rousing argument

Grantland Rice isno longer around to call him the—uh—the One Horseman, but the pro scouts willhappily oblige, for he is bigger than Tom Harmon, faster than Glenn Davis, morepunishing than Doc Blanchard, more durable than Ernie Nevers and, with all ofthis, he has moments of elusiveness that rival Red Grange. One speaks,naturally, of O. J. Simpson, that fellow from USC who keeps running through thefolklore of college football the way Henry V ran through Agincourt. If thescouts know a thing or two, O.J. is the finest collegiate runner—live, tape orfilm—who ever strolled back to a huddle. And yet Simpson is far from all theywatch, for a lot more royalty than Lord Orange Juice is on the loose thisseason. There are, to cite a few, the Earl of Sellers, the Duke of Kwalick, theMarquis de Hendricks. In fact, as far as the talent hunters are concerned,there hasn't been such a majestic gathering of first-round draft choices inyears.

Professionalfootball scouts talk about good years like gentlemen discussing wines. "Oh,yeah, '51," a scout will say. "Gifford, Matson, McElhenny, Howton."Or he will reflect on that marvelous autumn of '56. "Hmmm, yes. Jim Brown,Hornung, Brodie, McDonald. Truly splendid." And so shall it be, apparently,when they gaze back on the draftable seniors of 1968. At some once and futuremotel coffee shop in Starkville or College Station, a scout is going to besaying, "Ah, '68. That was a crop. Simpson, Keyes, Hanratty, Smith,Sellers, Kwalick. What studs!"

All of this isborne out in a SPORTS ILLUSTRATED poll conducted last week. Head scoutsrepresenting the 26 NFL and AFL teams arrived at these conclusions: one-thirdcalled this season's first-round draft choices the best group ever; most of theother two-thirds agreed that they rate among the best groups; and nearly allthe scouts expected the year to produce the most glory-bound collection ofpointmakers—runners, throwers and catchers—in years. In the process the scoutsresolved the running battle between the Midwest and Pacific Coast over which oftwo athletes deserves the Heisman Trophy, O. J. Simpson or Leroy Keyes. If itwere up to the scouts, O.J. would win by several broken tackles. The USChalfback received 25 out of 26 votes as the No. 1 draft choice, and 10 scoutssaid Simpson is the best collegiate runner they have ever seen.

A total of 50different collegians drew votes from the scouts, who were asked to name their11 best football players in order of preference, regardless of position andregardless of the urgent needs of their employers. O.J. came as close to beingunanimous as any player is ever likely to, and he would have been if a singlescout had not chosen to have some fun, perhaps. The fellow could not resistplaying an old scouting game that might be called Obscure Split Endmanship, hisfirst choice being Edward Cross, a receiver from Arkansas AM&N in PineBluff. Simpson he placed second.

As much as scoutsrelish finding a rough diamond in the sticks, they agree that 1968 is a yearfor knowns instead of unknowns. Simpson and Keyes alone would be enough to makethis a special draft. The argument over their relative virtues has almostreached the Security Council. All O.J. does is run, says the Midwest, whileLeroy runs, catches and defends. Sure, but nobody ever ran like Simpson, saysthe Pacific Coast. The scouts prefer O.J., and one of the group, all of whominsisted on anonymity, explained why.

"They're bothsuperb," he said. "The difference is that you've seen others like Keyesbefore. Donny Anderson, for instance. At Texas Tech he was a terrific runner,he could catch, he punted, and a lot of us always felt his best position wouldbe free safety. But nobody ever suggested he was the best there ever was On theother hand, you've never seen a guy like Simpson. There has never been anyonewith his combination of size, speed, toughness and elusiveness."

Simpson will be arunning back, and very possibly the best as a pro since Jim Brown. Keyes couldbe a runner, but more probably will be used as a flanker or defensive back."Keyes has a history of fumbling and getting hurt," said one scout."So you have to think he can't take the wear and tear O.J. can. He's goingto cost good money, so why risk that money on him as a runner? Put him out atflanker or on defense where he'll last."

Simpson'shalfback-fullback proportions (6'2", 207 pounds), together with hisauthentic speed (9.3) and proved durability, led one scout to call him, perhapstoo lavishly, a combination of Jim Brown and Gale Sayers. O.J. has comfortablycarried as much as 212 pounds; he weighed 210, in fact, when he ran a leg ofUSC's world-record 440-yard relay two springs ago. It is the endurance of sucha fast man that keeps amazing the pro scouts. Speedy backs, historically, havenever carried the ball much, but McKay has run Simpson like Hal the Computer.Since transferring to USC from City College of San Francisco in 1967, Simpsonhas never carried less than 17 times in a game, which used to be plenty, andhas gone as high as 47. This has been done against consistently sternopponents—the likes of Notre Dame, Michigan State, Texas, UCLA—who had sworn onold copies of the NCAA Guide that they would stop him.

Last Saturday wasa typical example. USC faced California, which came into Los Angeles with thenation's No. 3 defense overall and the top defense against scoring—Cal hadallowed only 5.6 points per game. It was a burly team led by a sure All-Americamiddle guard, Ed White, and it had begun to scent—faintly but distinctly—theRose Bowl. But O.J. kept on doing his thing, which is almost single-handedlykeeping the Trojans ahead in their grinding, burdensome task of trying todefend their national championship with a team that is not as strong as lastyear's.

USC started thegame as if it intended to run O.J. about 95 times and do nothing else. Hecarried the first six plays on a hot, clear day before 80,871, all of it powerstuff right into the heart of the Cal defense. There was little letup for himthrough three quarters, as usual, and he finished with 164 yards in 31 carriesand two touchdowns, his 16th and 17th of the season, one of them on a bursting39-yard run just when he had begun to look weary and battered. Simpson'shammering inside enabled the Trojan offense to destroy the Bears with some ofQuarterback Steve Sogge's finest passing of the year. Overall, USC was at itsbest of the season while running up a 35-3 lead and winning 35-17. Simpson satout the whole last quarter.

The pro scoutshave stopped thinking about O.J.'s statistics—they don't have to anymore—butsome totals and comparisons are worth noting. In only 17 varsity games he hasrun for 2,754 yards. No runner in history has gained that much ground in twofull seasons. This season he has gained 1,211 yards and will very likely breakthe one-year NCAA rushing record of 1,570. When his achievements are comparedto those of college football's most famous runners, the results are shocking.One thinks of Red Grange as having been tackled twice, maybe three times,during his whole Galloping Ghost career at Illinois. Well, Simpson, who is fourinches taller, 37 pounds heavier, and infinitely faster than Grange, gained 800more yards than Old 77 got in his best season. Next, we remember Michigan's TomHarmon as a tearaway runner of the royal order. Old 98. Well, by Simpson'sfourth game this season (the 14th of his major college career), the Trojan hadmore yards than Harmon gained in three years. And then there was Glenn Davisand Doc Blanchard at Army. Old 41 and Old 35, right? Outside and Inside. Well,Simpson's 1,543 yards last year, counting the Rose Bowl game, came within 119steps of equaling what Davis and Blanchard got together in 1945, their bestseason.

The pro scoutsare not weighing Simpson against ghosts, however, but Simpson against Keyes. Itis interesting that the two have played against six common foes in 1967-68, andonly once did Keyes outshine O.J. That was last year against Michigan Statewhen Simpson gained 190 yards in 36 carries and scored twice, but Keyes ran for194 yards in 12 less attempts, caught three passes and threw for atouchdown.

The other gameswent like this:

NotreDame—Simpson ran for 150 yards and scored three touchdowns. Keyes gained 27yards, caught nine passes and covered Jim Seymour on defense.

OregonState—Simpson ground out 188 yards on a muddy field. Keyes made 74 yards andcaught five passes. Both USC and Purdue lost.

Indiana—Simpsongained 128 yards and scored twice as USC won. Keyes gained 114 yards butfumbled once as Purdue lost.

Northwestern(1968)—Simpson ran for 189 yards, scoring three touchdowns. Keyes gained 96yards, also scoring three times.

Minnesota(1968)—Simpson went for 236 yards in 39 carries and scored four touchdowns.Keyes got 48 yards in 15 tries at Minnesota last Saturday and was visiblyslowed by a knee injury that is nagging, though not serious.

It is these kindsof performances that establish Simpson as No. 1, period. But consider poor—orpretty soon not so poor—Leroy. Had he come along at any other time Keyes wouldbe getting as many raves as a Caesar at the gates of Rome. Twenty-four of thepro scouts ranked Keyes as No. 2 on their list of choices, and again it must beremembered that these are men who judge performance, not press clippings."If Simpson is a mixture of Brown and Sayers, then Keyes is a combinationof Charley Taylor and Bobby Mitchell," says one scout in summing up Leroy."And what's so bad about that?"

It is difficultto find much wrong with most of the first-round talent available for the draft,a selection process that is going to have some high-pressure moments. The proclubs, regardless of which league they are in, draft in the reverse order oftheir won-lost records. At this point the Philadelphia Eagles (0-9-0) have thefirst shot at O.J. But because of trades the Los Angeles Rams have threefirst-round draft choices. It is known the Rams would give Memorial Coliseumand throw in Ronald Reagan, too, for O.J., and there is ample speculation thatthey might offer all three of their draft picks to the Eagles or whatever teamit is that proves the last indeed come first. After O.J. goes Leroy, but whatwill happen then? Here is how the scouts rate the next best choices, and alittle bit of what they think:

•Ted Kwalick,Penn State, tight end: best prospect at his position in years. Fast for hissize (6'4", 230 pounds) and an excellent receiver. "Tight ends,"says a scout, "are hard to come by. They are a different breed because theymust be able to block and catch. Kwalick. does both superbly."

•Ron Sellers,Florida State, flanker: fine speed, good hands, and a distinct savvy aboutrunning patterns, since he has played in a pro-type offense for three years."Can't miss. He can fly—and catch anything." Unquote.

•Jim Seymour,Notre Dame, split end: an ex-hurdler with height and searing speed. He hasgrown stronger and learned to catch against brutal double coverage. "Hetakes the ball like he's cradling a baby, yet he's got strength," a scoutsays.

•Larry Smith,Florida, running back: a slashing type who breaks tackles in the open orinside, he is a good fullback candidate at 6'4" and 221 pounds, has hiddenspeed and can catch. "This type is really hard to find. For one thing, he'swhite," notes a scout.

•Terry Hanratty,Notre Dame, quarterback: three years of starting for the Irish and throwing azillion passes make him a treasure. He is big and has a fine arm. A knee injuryagainst Pittsburgh on Saturday is a setback, but his talent is proved and thepros are used to weak-kneed passers. He is not a unanimous choice amongquarterbacks, however. Some scouts prefer Kansas' Bob Douglass and others GregCook of Cincinnati or Marty Domres of Columbia.

•Ted Hendricks,Miami, defensive end: no one has ever seen a 6'8" linebacker or a defensiveend who weighs only 210, but in spite of his unusual measurements Hendricksgets priority over all other defenders because of his agility, mobility andstrength. "He keeps people away from his body, and he's a supremecompetitor," one scout says.

•George Kunz,Notre Dame, offensive tackle: he is big (6'5", 240 pounds) and will growmore, say the scouts, and his speed (five flat in the 40) is unique forinterior linemen. "Easily the best at his position," notes oneadmirer.

•Joe Greene,North Texas State, defensive tackle: the more you look at films of Greene, thebigger and tougher he appears. At 6'4" and 274 pounds, he is extremelyagile and can play either defensive tackle or end. He is not as spectacular asHendricks, but his size makes him a must.

•Paul Gipson,Houston, running back: a fast man who hits quickly, he runs low to the groundand breaks tackles. A 1,000-yard runner last season, Gipson passed thatonce-magic mark again last Saturday. After his performance against Georgia theprevious week, when he tore away from a tough defense for 230 yards, one of thegame officials said, "If O.J. is any better, I don't know how."

Among the otherhousehold names around the country, some raise doubts among the pro scouts.SMU's Jerry Levias, for example. He is small, but he leads the nation inreceiving and he has a habit of making the big plays. "I'll go to a procamp on my own if I have to," says Levias. To which Dallas Coach Tom Landrysays, "Levias is just too small to play in the pros—but he'll play."There is serious speculation whether Tennessee's Richmond Flowers, the trackstar, can absorb the bruises of pro football. A work-all-day fullback likeOregon State's Bill (Earthquake) Enyart is considered too slow to make it as apro runner but might be a linebacker. The scouts are concerned about Kansas'Bob Douglass because he is left-handed and all pro offenses are right-handed.And perhaps in the worst position of all is Texas' Chris Gilbert, a remarkableball carrier for three years whose ground-gaining achievements have toppedthose of such Southwest Conference legends as Kyle Rote, John Crow, Jim Swinkand Doak Walker. On Saturday Gilbert became one of the few runners ever tocrack the 3,000-yard barrier, and yet the scouts believe he may lack the sizeto be a pro running back or the hands to be a flanker. "Some guys you takejust because they're athletes," one said. "Gilbert is likethat."

The poll of thescouts showed one last area of agreement. Were it not for the merger betweenthe NFL and the AFL, this year's draft choices would be the highest pricedrookies ever, led by O. J. Simpson, of course, whose bonus would have madethose paid to Joe Namath, Tommy Nobis and Donny Anderson look like loosechange. As it is, O.J. won't have to stand in any soup lines. And neither willthe rest of those royal chaps in a majestic year.

[This articlecontains a table. Please see hardcopy of magazine or PDF.]



























O. J. SIMPSON flies through the California line as he leads USC in its best game of year.