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Original Issue


College football's new glamour player is the only man on the
field who works alone. He runs backward more often than forward,
dominates games while keeping his uniform as clean as a maitre
d's tux and is built more like Nate Archibald than Nate Newton.
No one at his position has won the Heisman Trophy, yet teams
without players like him might as well be fighting tanks with
Super Soakers, for they are helpless in the face of innovations
that have shaped today's game. When he is good, he is often
invisible; when he is bad, he might as well be naked at
midfield. His mistakes become touchdowns. He is the cover
cornerback, the new superstar.

See for yourself. Four of the first 11 players selected in the
NFL draft in April were cover corners. Two more were snatched up
later in the first round. Roll videotape of the most memorable
plays from the 1996 season and corners show up more often than
dinosaurs in Jurassic Park. Cornerbacks are sometimes brilliant,
sometimes bumbling and sometimes both on the same play. Here is
Bryant Westbrook of Texas, reading a Notre Dame option pitch and
laying the hit of the year on Irish tailback Randy Kinder. There
is North Carolina cornerback Dre' Bly, a redshirt freshman,
making a jaw-dropping, over-the-shoulder interception against
Florida State, one of his 11 picks on the season, and then
fumbling the ball away deep in Tar Heels territory in a tight
13-0 loss. Here is Ohio State corner Shawn Springs, the third
pick in the draft, losing his footing while covering Michigan's
Tai Streets and watching helplessly as Streets turns a routine
slant into a 69-yard touchdown in the Wolverines' 13-9 upset win
in Columbus. Springs's blunder came a month after he had so
thoroughly jailed Penn State wideout Joe Jurevicius that the
Nittany Lions were left with no offensive answer to the
Buckeyes' all-out, eight-man pressure, and were overwhelmed 38-7.

In its subtle, liquid evolution (the T formation becomes the
wing T, which yields to the I formation and then the wishbone,
followed by the run-and-shoot, leading back perhaps to the T
formation someday), the college game has settled into the
Cornerback Age. Coaches have concluded that the best offense is,
you know, a good defense, and that the best defense clogs eight
or nine men near the line of scrimmage to stop the run while
blitzing the quarterback remorselessly. Even safeties are
committed to the run, leaving cornerbacks in one-on-one,
bump-and-run coverage. Offenses counter with some form of the
West Coast offense, a passing game dependent on timing routes
and a short drop-back. The only way the defensive scheme
succeeds is if the corners can stymie receivers. "How good your
cornerbacks are dictates your entire defense," says Texas A&M
coach R.C. Slocum. His counterpart at Auburn, Terry Bowden, goes
further, saying, "Cornerback is the most important position on a
football team right now."

Accordingly, the position's Q-rating has jumped dramatically.
Any list of the best players in the college game starts with
Tennessee senior quarterback Peyton Manning, but next come the
corners: sophomore Bly; juniors Chris McAlister of Arizona,
Daylon McCutcheon of USC and Charles Woodson of Michigan; and
senior Deshea Townsend of Alabama. Close behind that group are
three other outstanding cornerbacks, sophomore Champ Bailey of
Georgia and seniors Terry Fair of Tennessee and Fred Weary of
Florida. So valued is the corner today that Weary's Gators,
traditionally built on offense, took the leading rusher from
their '96 national championship team, senior Eli Williams, and
shifted him from tailback to cornerback to strengthen defensive
coordinator Bob Stoops's attack defense. "Now I'm looking at
everything upside down," says Williams.

Recruiters are doing the same thing as Florida, taking high
school quarterbacks, running backs, wideouts, even small
linebackers and converting them to corners. "When you find a
great athlete now," says first-year Baylor coach Dave Roberts,
formerly offensive coordinator at Notre Dame, "the first thing
you ask is, Does he fit the cornerback criteria?" The recruits
are not resisting. While Bly, McAlister, McCutcheon, Townsend
and Woodson played some defense in high school, all were
sensational offensive players who, in another era, would have
carried the ball in college. It is a sublime marriage of need
and dreams; teams need cover corners and players dream of
playing the position in the NFL, where cornerback has acquired
new eclat. Says Notre Dame secondary coach Tom McMahon, "Because
of the publicity that guys like Deion Sanders and Rod Woodson
get, the secondary is viewed differently now."

The secondary views itself differently too. No longer
backpedaling eunuchs hoping to avoid embarrassment, corners are
instant offense in waiting. "As soon as the ball is in the air,
I'm a receiver and the ball is mine," says McAlister, who had
six interceptions last fall, returning one for a touchdown. The
corner who steps up into bump-and-run coverage is challenging
the receiver's right to grass, leather and the end zone. "It's
like a gladiator-type thing," says Syracuse senior wideout Jim

To construct the ideal cover corner, start with a player who
need not be big but must be fast and quick. "The position
requires specific skills," says USC coach John Robinson. "You
must have speed--you can't play there now if you run 4.7 or 4.8
[seconds for 40 yards]. Ronnie Lott [whom Robinson coached as a
Trojan] played cornerback in the NFL, and he was never very
fast, but now you need a speed guy who is also very athletic.
You need a catlike quality, a looseness in the hips to make a
change of direction. Also, you need the mental toughness to have
a short memory, so that you can come back if you get beat." In
addition the new cover corner must have what Stoops calls
"arrogance." Says Stoops, "It's the kind of attitude that says,
I'm going to line up on you all day, and you're not going to
catch a pass."

Westbrook's lick on Kinder notwithstanding, however, the modern
corner isn't necessarily a Jack Tatum or Night Train Lane in the
hitting department. "You don't have to be the toughest kid to be
an effective cornerback," says Penn State coach Joe Paterno.
"The coach isn't as concerned with whether the cornerback's a
great tackler as he used to be. Half the time, cornerbacks in
eight-man front defenses aren't even looking at the ball."

Even with recruiters scouring high school games in search of
athletes to play corner, it remains the most difficult position
to fill. Most high school coaches play their best defensive back
at safety because if he lines up at corner, opponents can avoid
him by simply throwing to the opposite side of the field.
Moreover, few high school teams have an effective passing game,
and the result is that prospective college corners have little
experience in man-to-man coverage.

So when a recruit becomes a great college cover man, a bit of
luck has often been involved. In the current generation of
corners, good fortune struck with particular force. McCutcheon,
the son of former Los Angeles Rams All-Pro running back Lawrence
McCutcheon, was one of the most heavily recruited high school
backs in the country his senior year, when he rushed for 2,456
yards and 33 touchdowns for Bishop Amat High in La Puente,
Calif. If there is a genetic predisposition to carry the
football, he has it. "It's instinct, I could always feel it,"
says Daylon. Yet he also played safety in high school, and
before signing with Southern Cal after the '94 season, he told
the Trojans what he told all of his suitors: I want to play
defense, not offense.

"I considered my future and, because of my size, where I would
fit in better," says the 5'11", 190-pound McCutcheon. "Looking
ahead to the NFL, face it, most cornerbacks play longer than
running backs and don't take the same pounding. You don't see
many small running backs in the NFL. It didn't have to do with
my potential for success; it had to do with my durability. I've
been playing football since I was eight years old. I'm only 22,
but some mornings I get out of bed and I feel it. I say to
myself, Man, how much longer can I take this?"

McCutcheon has agreed to play wideout periodically this season,
and USC will put a reverse and several pass patterns into its
game plan for him. But what was once for McCutcheon a
utilitarian plan, cornerback as the swiftest, safest route to
the NFL, has become a passion. "When you think about it," he
says, "running the ball on offense is just going fast and
getting away from guys. At corner it's who can react and how
fast. You have to do everything the receiver
does--everything--except you have to do it backward, like in a
mirror. Every receiver has a different style. It's a much
greater challenge than offense."

McAlister had similar thoughts by the time he arrived at
Arizona. His father, James, was a star running back for UCLA in
1972 and '73, as well as a world-class long jumper. Chris
watched his dad, who played for the Philadelphia Eagles and the
New England Patriots in the late '70s, and silently cataloged
the injuries that left his father limping before he was 40.
While Chris was playing option quarterback and safety as a
senior at Pasadena High, passing and running for more than 1,000
yards each, he was coming to a conclusion about his football
future. "I knew I didn't want to be my father's age and hurt
like he does," he says. His plan took shape two years later.

McAlister initially signed with UCLA, but because the Bruins
questioned his SAT score, he was unable to play for UCLA or any
other NCAA school. He wound up at Mount San Antonio College in
Walnut, Calif., where he played quarterback, running back and
safety in 1995. After the NCAA exonerated him, he enrolled at
Arizona, which had recruited him out of high school. The
Wildcats planned to use the 6'2", 190-pound McAlister as a
quarterback-running back, as they had Chuck Levy in 1993, but
Chris and his father had other ideas. "We decided to go to
defense," Chris says. "On defense, you administer the punishment
instead of take it."

Michigan's 6'1", 192-pound Woodson has been punishing receivers
for two years. Pro scouts have been eyeballing him since
November '95, when as a true freshman he held Ohio State
All-America wideout Terry Glenn to just four catches for 72
harmless yards in the Wolverines' 31-23 upset victory. Last
season Michigan worked Woodson into the offense, and he
responded with six carries for 152 yards and 13 catches for 164
yards. Coach Lloyd Carr plans to get him the ball more often
this year.

There was a time when Alabama's Townsend always had the ball.
Like McAlister, he was an option quarterback and a safety in
high school. Townsend rushed for 10 touchdowns and passed for
eight in his senior year at South Panola High in Batesville,
Miss., leading his team to the state Class 5A championship. The
Crimson Tide recruited him for his athletic ability, and
Townsend didn't know until the first day of practice where he
would play. "Secondary coach Bill Oliver stopped me in the
hallway the first day of camp and told me to come to his
meeting," says Townsend. "I've been playing cornerback ever
since." With the same precocity that stamps so many in this era
of corners, he became a starter in the third game of his true
freshman season.

Townsend has intercepted 7 passes and broken up 27 others at
Alabama. He has been beaten for just three touchdowns in three
seasons, and all three were scored by eventual first-round NFL
picks: Joey Galloway of Ohio State in the 1995 Citrus Bowl, and
Ike Hilliard and Reidel Anthony of Florida in last year's SEC
Championship Game. Naturally, it was those torchings that
brought him lasting attention. "Every year, leading up to the
NFL draft, TV stations show highlights of the top receivers,"
says Townsend. "Guys start yelling to me, 'Yo, Shea, you made
the highlights again.'" He laughs with resignation. "Believe me,
I know why they say good corners are hard to find."

North Carolina found the 5'10", 185-pound Bly playing wideout
and safety at Western Branch High in Chesapeake, Va.; he was
such a good receiver that he caught six passes for 135 yards in
the state all-star game. The Tar Heels made him a corner, and
Bly was so flummoxed by his new position that he requested to be
redshirted. By midseason of his true freshman year, he was
frustrated and considered switching back to offense. North
Carolina coaches told him change was coming, and by the spring
the Tar Heels had transformed their corners' roles from zone to
bump-and-run. Bly was a perfect fit. "From the start," he says,
"I just told myself, I'm not going to get beat."

Not only didn't he get beat, but the superb hands that made him
such a dangerous receiver also turned him into a terror on
defense. His 11 regular-season interceptions last year were a
school record. His opponents were impressed. "Watch him on film,
and you see he's the total package," says Clemson coach Tommy
West. "He has tremendous flexibility in that he can quickly turn
his hips and change direction. You can get behind him at times,
but you don't stay behind him long because he recovers as well
as anyone I've ever seen."

Bly's remarkable freshman season, capped by his selection to
virtually every All-America team, brought him a touch of
celebrity. "I didn't think anybody on campus knew who I was," he
says. "Then people started yelling to me during the week, people
I didn't even know. 'Hey, Dre',' they said, 'how many picks are
you going to get Saturday?'"

The story makes him howl with laughter, full of curiosity at the
feast-or-famine nature of his position. The corner is such a
lonely place, with so much on the line. "I'll tell you what it's
like," says Bly. "You're out there by yourself, and it's like
you're on a cloud."




COLOR PHOTO: ROBERT BECK [Shawn Springs and opposing player in game]


For all of today's complex defensive schemes, a defense is only
as good as its cornerbacks in college football's new world
order. Here are the 10 best at the position in Division I-A.

Player, Class '96 Career
School Int.* Int.* Honors

DRE' BLY, Soph. 11 11 Team led nation with a
North Carolina +2.0 turnover margin last

FRED WEARY, Sr. 4 9 Nine deflections, two
Florida defensive TDs were '96
team highs

CHARLES WOODSON, Jr. 4 9 Big Ten's top coverage
Michigan man was All-America last

TERRY FAIR, Sr. 4 7 Longest return of an
Tennessee interception was 56 yards

PATRICK SURTAIN, Sr. 6 7 The big hitter was
Southern Miss. Eagles' fourth leading
tackler (84)

DESHEA TOWNSEND, Sr. 2 7 Three-year starter has
Alabama twice been All-SEC

CHRIS MCALISTER, Jr. 6 6 Intercepted a pass on his
Arizona first collegiate play

DAYLON MCCUTCHEON, Jr. 3 5 High school All-America
USC in '95--as a running back

RALPH BROWN, Soph. 4 4 Named Big 12's top
Nebraska defensive newcomer last

CHAMP BAILEY, Soph. 2 2 Best Dawg DB since
Georgia All-America Terry Hoage
in '83
*Regular season


Last season was a banner year for college cornerbacks: Six,
including Ohio State's Shawn Springs (above), were picked in the
first round of April's NFL draft. No more than four cornerbacks
had been selected in the opening round of any of the 10 previous

No. of CBs First
Draft Picked in Cornerback Selection
Year First Round Selected No. Drafted by

1997 6 SHAWN SPRINGS, 3 Seattle
Ohio State Seahawks

1996 2 ALEX MOLDEN, 11 New Orleans
Oregon Saints

1995 3 TYRONE POOLE, 22 Carolina
Fort Valley (Ga.) St. Panthers

1994 4 ANTONIO LANGHAM, 9 Cleveland
Alabama Browns

1993 4 TOM CARTER, 17 Washington
Notre Dame Redskins

1992 4 TERRELL BUCKLEY, 5 Green Bay
Florida State Packers

1991 3 BRUCE PICKENS, 3 Atlanta
Nebraska Falcons

1990 0 VINCE BUCK, 44 New Orleans
Central State (Ohio) Saints

1989 1 DEION SANDERS, 5 Atlanta
Florida State Falcons

1988 2 RICKEY DIXON, 5 Cincinnati
Oklahoma Bengals