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Stiff-Arm Competition

USC has been known as Tailback U, but Texas has a rich history at the position too, particularly over the last decade

January 01, 2006|Robyn Norwood | Times Staff Writer

If you want to talk about Tailback U, consider who could have been a USC tailback too:

Ricky Williams.

"I really wanted to go to SC," Williams said the other day as he sat at his stall after practice with the Miami Dolphins.

Maybe there would be eight Heisman Trophies to put under glass in Heritage Hall instead of seven, if not for a few fateful days in 1994.

That was when Williams, a young recruit from San Diego, became totally smitten with Austin, Texas, and increasingly skeptical about his chance to start right away at USC.

The rest is Texas history, and in 1998, Williams brought a stiff-armed bronze back to Austin to give the Longhorns a second Heisman to match the one Earl Campbell won in 1977.

For all the storied tradition of running backs at USC -- from Mike Garrett to O.J. Simpson to Anthony Davis, Charles White and Marcus Allen and now Reggie Bush -- the truth is that for a stretch of the not-so-distant past, USC had the reputation, but Texas had the reality.

USC's running game faltered to a low ebb in the 1990s, briefly falling to last in the nation in the NCAA statistics. The Trojans had only one 1,000-yard rusher from 1991 to '98, Delon Washington in 1995.

Williams chose Texas, and since 1995 the Longhorns have had a 1,000-yard rusher every season for the last 10 years -- a streak that matches the longest in USC history, when Davis, Ricky Bell, White and Allen put together 10 in a row from 1972 to 1981.

"I don't think we have to choose sides in this one," Texas Coach Mack Brown said. "I don't think we have to say SC has great backs so that means Texas doesn't.

"We have our list of backs, but their list is pretty good too, now. You start talking about O.J. and Charles White and Marcus Allen. There's some good folks.

"If you ask people about running backs, you think they aren't going to go back to Chris Gilbert and Earl Campbell and Roosevelt Leaks and Ricky Williams and Hodges Mitchell? [Eric] Metcalf. Cedric Benson.

"No one can leave us out of the running back deal. But they've got two that have shined this year, and one of them just won the Heisman."

USC's turn as Quarterback U -- Carson Palmer and Matt Leinart claimed the Heisman in 2002 and 2004, respectively -- might be far from over.

But the revival of its running game under Pete Carroll was made emphatic this season by Bush and LenDale White, the first pair of 1,000-yard rushers in USC history.

"People say Rome fell and could not be rebuilt ... well, it seems like it's been rebuilt," said Davis, perhaps the best USC back not to win a Heisman.

With a different decision by Williams, maybe USC wouldn't have fallen so far during the second John Robinson era and Paul Hackett's time as coach.

"It came down to USC and Texas," Williams said. "The deciding factor was I wanted to go where I could play right away."

Robinson told him he could start at fullback as a freshman, but that there were already tailbacks ahead of him, Williams said.

"They had about five guys who were already going to vie to be No. 1, and it's interesting, because none of them really panned out," Williams said. "Chad Morton [a 1,000-yard rusher in 1999] eventually became the starter.

"I remember Rodney Sermons was there then, and he was my host on my recruiting trip. I really wanted to go to SC, but during the trip, he looked at me and he was like, 'We've got so many backs,' and that I probably didn't want to go there, that I wouldn't play.

"The very next day after I had my trip to SC and I unpacked my bags, I repacked my bags and went on my trip to Austin. And I loved it."

Williams ran for 990 yards his freshman season, and the streak of 1,000-yard rushers that had begun with Shon Mitchell in 1995 continued with Williams the next three seasons. Mitchell did it the next two and Benson the next four -- with quarterback Vince Young joining Benson to give Texas two 1,000-yard rushers last season.

Consider that Priest Holmes -- who went on to win an NFL rushing title with the Kansas City Chiefs -- barely made a mark on the Texas record book during an injury-marred career that he spent partly behind Williams, and it gives you an idea of the recent strength of the Texas running game.

That streak of 1,000-yard rushers might come to an end this season, however.

With the Longhorns using a tailback-by-committee system and Young taking up carries at quarterback, Young and freshman running back Jamaal Charles are each at least 150 yards from the mark going into the Rose Bowl.

Over at USC, the dark days are past.

Petros Papadakis, a former USC running back turned broadcast personality, says the problem during the '90s drought was an offensive line marred by recruiting mistakes and injuries.

"I don't want to say anything about my old teammates, but you could have put Eric Dickerson behind that line and he couldn't gain 1,000 yards," Papadakis said. "Chad Morton, Malaefou MacKenzie, Delon Washington, they had a lot of skill."

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