Last season quarterbacks overshadowed running backs so much that
for just the fourth time in the award's 67 year history, not a
single tailback was named as one of the four Heisman Trophy
finalists. With many prolific passers returning, pundits from
coast to coast declared 2002 the Year of the Quarterback before a
down was played. But with defenses putting more emphasis on
stopping the passing game, running back has once again emerged as
the most important position on the field.
It's no coincidence that the top three teams in the nation have
Heisman candidates lining up behind their quarterbacks--senior
Quentin Griffin of Oklahoma (950 yards, 6.7 per carry), sophomore
Willis McGahee of Miami (1,034 yards, 16 touchdowns) and freshman
Maurice Clarett of Ohio State (1,019 yards, 13 touchdowns despite
missing nearly three games with shoulder and knee injuries).
Eighth-ranked Virginia Tech is a national championship contender
because it has two terrific running backs in senior Lee Suggs and
sophomore Kevin Jones, who have combined to rush for 1,664 yards
and 23 touchdowns. "If Virginia Tech's offensive line doesn't get
the block," says Temple running backs coach Blair Thomas, "[Suggs
and Jones] still have the stuff to go get it done themselves."
Thomas, who is one of only four tailbacks in Penn State history
to gain 1,400 yards in a season, is about to be joined by a
fifth. Nittany Lions senior Larry Johnson has outshone stellar
sophomore quarterback Zack Mills, rushing for 1,221 yards and 11
touchdowns, including a school-record 279 yards in Penn State's
18--7 defeat of Illinois.
The resurgence of the running game is the result of teams'
spreading out defenses by often going with three and four
receivers. Unlike in recent years, many schools are using the run
to set up the pass instead of the other way around. "There's a
push to mix up your play calls," says N.C. State offensive
coordinator Marty Galbraith, whose freshman tailback T.A.
McLendon has opened passing lanes for quarterback Philip Rivers.
"Defenses want you to be one-dimensional. A running back who can
do lots of different things helps a great deal in throwing
opponents off balance."
For those who live for the moment when a tailback bursts through
the line into the open field, this season has been full of
highlights. When the Heisman ceremony is held on Dec. 14, there's
a good chance that running backs will outnumber quarterbacks.
COLOR PHOTO: DAVID BERGMAN Johnson has gained 1,221 yards and become the Nittany Lions' biggest offensive star.
Head to Head
N.C. State tailback T.A. McLendon
Maryland linebacker E.J. Henderson
At 5'11" and 214 pounds, McLendon is a freshman in name only
after rushing for 862 yards and 15 touchdowns. He will be tested
against the 6'2", 250-pound Henderson, the 2001 ACC defensive
player of the year, who started the year slowly after having
off-season back surgery but has lately spurred the Terrapins'
defense. Since losing to Florida State 37--10 on Sept. 14,
Maryland has allowed only 57 points in six games. Henderson, a
senior, has made more solo tackles (74) than the number of total
tackles (solo and assisted) by any teammate.