It is not as though college football has been struggling along without the hip-feint and the stiff-arm, or the dipsy-doodle and the pad-thump, or all of the things that have helped to make the game so colorful for readers, writers, broadcasters, publicity men, pro scouts and manufacturers of the hyphen. The running star, that classic hero of football, has always been around, leaping through the air and gritting his teeth in 8-by-10 glossies, even when a proficient passer was busy winning the Heisman Trophy and the Homecoming Queen. It is simply that today, right now, the runners are sidestepping and line-wrecking as never before in all kinds of multiplying sizes and speeds. A runner goes 100 yards now—even 200 or more—like he goes to the pencil sharpener. These bounding, barging demons range from the strong, durable Ed Marinaro of Cornell (see cover) to the swift, rubbery Greg Pruitt of Oklahoma, from Oregon's fluid Bobby Moore to Alabama's Johnny Musso, from the mountains to the prairies to the oceans white with foam. God bless the running backs, not to mention their stats.
The trend toward more running began in 1968, while no one was paying much attention. That year saw the birth of the Wishbone at Texas, which along with the two-year-old Veer T at Houston offered coaches a couple of ground-eating attacks, both utilizing a deceptive fast-striking weapon called the triple option. That was also the season when everybody decided that artificial turf was a necessity. And finally it was the season when O.J. Simpson and Steve Owens and Mercury Morris proved that a runner, a good one, could be overworked and still excel.
The three new factors have created the following: ground attacks on occasional faster footing, with top runners getting their hands on the ball more frequently. Result: see how they run.
Last week the National Collegiate Sports Services reported that 1971 would produce the biggest one-season swing to rushing since 1953, which was the year that the rules makers took the game back to the "ironman" days—the year they threw out platoons, or free substitution, for a decade. Moreover, the NCAA statistical bureau has noted, rushers are churning out 57.9% of all total-offense yardage, compared to 53.5% last year. That is a big jump, one that results from more and more teams going to some form of the triple option, whether Wishbone, Veer or Power I.
When coaches took the time to dwell on the results of 1968, there was a subway rush to the triple option and a mass decision to give their best guy the ball more often. Not only had the option teams heaped up some staggering yardage, the endurance runners had over-whelmed the throwers. This was the season when four players, led by the record-smothering Simpson, gained more than 1,500 yards, and 16 men in all gained more than a thousand—a record by several stiff-arms.
There was a slight dropoff in 1969 when only 12 men joined the Thousand-Yard Club, largely because some singular talents like O.J. were gone. But then came last year and another record torrent of 19 rushers over a thousand yards; option-style football and the speedy turf became even more entrenched.
All of which brings the game up to the current season and a condition which strongly indicates that either there are more nifty runners around than the pro scouts and college coaches can comprehend, or that the option attack ought to be outlawed.
The season slipped past the halfway point last Saturday, and it appears that, barring injuries, as many as 25 runners have a very real chance to gain over a thousand yards, and one man, the flying Greg Pruitt, has a chance to become the first player to get a phenomenal 2,000 yards in one season. On 19 occasions a runner has gained more than 200 yards in a single game, and Marinaro, the big senior, and Pruitt, the sleek junior, have done it three times each. Other seniors and juniors have done it: even sophomores. And also some strangers, such as Kerry Marbury of West Virginia who sped for 291 last Saturday. By comparison, Doak Walker never gained 200 yards in a college game, nor did Jim Brown. As Pruitt told Steve Owens, who won the Heisman at Oklahoma in 1969, "Hey, man, with that old four-yard average you had, you'd have to play defense now."
Marinaro and Pruitt, both of whom are already over a thousand yards now, are about as different as two runners can be. But in their battle for the rushing title they are showing there are all kinds of ways to move the first-down chain. Marinaro is carrying the ball about 35 times a game; Pruitt about 15. Last Saturday against Yale, Marinaro slammed off tackle 43 times and got 230 yards, sliding and diving for most of it himself. Meanwhile, Pruitt, with more help, blazed for 294 yards on only 19 carries as Oklahoma's Wishbone put some more basketball totals (75-28) on the boards. So while Pruitt is proving that he can get there quicker, Marinaro is proving that he can take the licks.
Marinaro, in fact, has been proving it for three seasons. On his first or second carry this week against Columbia, he should break Steve Owens' NCAA career record of 3,867 yards and then go on to become the first major-college player to gain 4,000 yards in a career.
"You can knock the Ivies," says a pro scout, "but that is a lot of yards even in dummy scrimmage."
If Greg Pruitt were a senior—and draftable—he would probably have the scouts jumping through as many hoops as Marinaro does, just on the basis of what he has done in six games against some rugged opposition. What has he done? Oh, well, just 1,113 yards at a feeble 12.1 yards per carry. His present average per game is 185.5 yards, and the computer allows that if he maintains it he will finish the year with—ye gods—2,040 yards!
"And he isn't just running wide stuff," says a scout, who with all the other talent hunters these days prefers to remain anonymous. "He hits inside. You'd want him bigger, but he's put together solid, has fantastic acceleration and he blocks like a bowling ball."
For all of the excitement created by Pruitt and Marinaro, there are scads of other runners displaying fine pro potential. A panel of NFC and AFC scouts was asked last week to rate the top five rushers. First, in terms of draftables and then in terms of potentials, regardless of their graduating class.
The senior list came out as follows:
First, Ed Marinaro, and closely behind Bobby Moore, Texas' Jim Bertelsen, Penn State's Lydell Mitchell and Johnny Musso. The overall list differed slightly: Marinaro, Moore, Purdue's Otis Armstrong, a junior, Pruitt and Arizona State's Woodrow Green—who is, alas, a sophomore. "Obviously, we lean toward size," said a scout, "but how can you leave out Pruitt?"
Among the more prominent seniors mentioned by the scouts were Nebraska's Jeff Kinney, Michigan's Billy Taylor, Penn State's Franco Harris, Boston College's Bill Thomas, Dayton's Gary Kosins and the usual super unknown, Calvin Harrell of Arkansas State.
"It's always a guess," said a scout. "Dallas found Duane Thomas and Baltimore took a chance on Norm Bulaich, who had always been hurt. Maybe Calvin Harrell is this crop's real surprise. He is big and fast, he runs and blocks. They say Kinney is slow, but he is a competitor and a winner. Taylor is squat and not all that fast but he finds daylight. Thomas has been hurt but he is a good one. Everybody used to like Franco Harris better than Lydell Mitchell. But now they like Mitchell better, probably on his stats."
Worry. Worry. As the scouts question the talent as well as themselves, here are some of their compressed comments on those rushers deemed the most likely to become the future Duane Thomases and Norm Bulaiches:
Ed Marinaro (6'2", 210):
"A natural runner who breaks tackles and doesn't tire out. Steve Owens type. Runs straight up, follows blockers well. Good balance. Disappointing speed but you know he'll lineup 14 games for you."
Bobby Moore (6'2", 212):
"Real breakaway threat with good size. Can be an exciting type like Lenny Moore. Excellent speed, good moves, soft hands. An individualist but worth the risk."
Jim Bertelsen (5'11", 198):
"Outstanding balance and deceptive burst of speed. Durable. Great character, fine blocker and unexploited skills as a receiver. Goes 4.5 in the 40."
Johnny Musso (5'11", 196):
"A complete football player. Fine second-effort runner. Lacks size and does not make up for it with speed but a winner and a goal-line runner. Can't overlook."
Otis Armstrong (5'11", 190):
"Highly coachable and a potential Gale Sayers. Dedicated. Exceptional speed and moves. Can run for the distance as well as catch. Next year's sensation with help from his team."
Greg Pruitt (5'9", 180):
"Fastest starter and best gearshift in the country. Too small for running back in the old-fashioned sense but a game-breaker deluxe if you can get the ball to him. Might be tremendous receiver."
Jeff Kinney (6'2", 210):
"If he had real speed, it would be unfair. Runs and catches. Fine athlete who could play quarterback if he had to. Won't burn it up in the open field but is the Hornung-Gifford type who'll beat you one way or another."
Billy Taylor (5'11", 200):
"Flashy and hard to knock down because of his build. Not all that fast but he runs under people. Good moves and terrific balance. A question about durability and ability to catch."
Calvin Harrell (6'1", 222):
"Might be the best blocker in college today. A Dave Osborn type, durable, just a big old strong kid. Could use more speed, but powerful inside. A leader and hard worker. He'll knock you down."
Lydell Mitchell (6', 200) and Franco Harris (6'2", 225):
"Maybe the best tandem in the East since Davis and Blanchard. Mitchell has quick feet and strong legs. He's a hundred-percenter and a game-breaker. Harris is the fastest of the big men. Has the physique and combined power and speed to be unbelievable. Both can block and catch as well as run."
Woodrow Green (6'1", 190):
"Super soph. Second in the WAC 100-yard dash last spring. Has everything, speed, size and moves. Epitome of the all-around back in terms of speed for the outside and hitting ability for the inside. By his senior year, he could be the most wanted of all time."
Or perhaps since Marinaro and Pruitt. That pair seems to be competing this year for more than the rushing title, for they are turning the Heisman Trophy derby into a two-man sprint with their continuously bewildering stats.
It is no secret that Marinaro, far more than the newly prominent Pruitt, is thinking Heisman. "Sure, I'd like to win it," he says. "But I feel like I have to keep gaining 200 yards a game while everybody else drops down to 100."
Until at least a few runners do that—drop off and give the statisticians a rest—or until these stars move into the NFL, the biggest question of 1971 will apparently have to go unanswered. Are the runners really this good, or is it a combination of the system and the circumstance?
It could, of course, be both.