This week, Sports on Earth presents a four-part series on the Running Back. On Tuesday, Matt Brown covered Baylor, which has the deepest group of running backs in college football. On Wednesday, Mike Tanier ranked the best running back rivalries in NFL history. Today, Michael Weinreb writes on Boston College's Andre Williams and the dwindling number of workhorses in the college game.
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One day in late November, 1991, a 5-foot-6 running back named Tony Sands took a handoff in the backfield for the Kansas Jayhawks. There were 20 seconds remaining in the game, Kansas leading 53-29, and Sands was dragged down at the five-yard line by a wretched and exhausted Missouri defense. It was senior day, and Kansas coach Glen Mason kept feeding Sands the ball; that carry was his 58th of the game, a Division I-A record.
Sands wound up with 396 yards, which was also a record, one that would eventually be broken by LaDainian Tomlinson at TCU. The carries record, however, still stands. When it was over, Tony Sands' teammates hoisted him onto their shoulders. And I imagine, if college football keeps along in its current direction, that may have indeed been an accomplishment worth celebrating, because it is possible Tony Sands holds a record that will never be broken.
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Sometimes, when I am watching Baylor stretch the geometry of a grass rectangle, I cannot help but wonder what Woody would think. Even in his time, Woody Hayes was a schematic Luddite who drove his fullbacks into the ground. He essentially invented the phrase, "three yards and a cloud of dust." When he met with his one-time rival Sid Gillman to glean some insight into the passing game, he sat there and listened for eight hours, then told friends, "I still don't know what the hell he was talking about."
This myopic insistence on filtering the offense through a lone human body, as Hayes did with Archie Griffin for a couple of seasons in the mid-1970's, used to be the norm. When someone asked USC coach John McKay whether he worried about giving O.J. Simpson the ball too much, McKay offered the lyrical response that (a) It wasn't heavy, and (b) O.J. didn't belong to a union. From 1972-1983, every Heisman Trophy winner was a running back. As recently as 2007, 27 running backs averaged more than 20 carries per game.
And now, this season, there are 11 players averaging more than 20 carries a game, and one of those (Navy's Keenan Reynolds) is a quarterback. Only one running back (Alabama's Mark Ingram) has won a Heisman in the new millennium, and it seems probable that, for the second consecutive year, no tailback will even make it to New York City as a Heisman finalist.
This may not be huge news to you by now, especially if you play fantasy football. It's not exactly a secret that the running back has become a marginalized commodity in the NFL. This year's draft marked the first time in 50 years that a running back was not selected in the first round; next year's draft may become the second. Running backs (with a few exceptions) are now largely interchangeable widgets who shuttle in and out of the game as the situation warrants. The theory goes that the pounding is too severe for one man to take, and given that the future of football is now inextricably intertwined with the physiology of the brain, maybe this isn't a bad thing (just as it may be best that we don't refer to human beings with debasing nicknames like workhorse and bell cow).
College football has adapted, too. Running backs are a change of pace within the spread offense, and even in rush-heavy offenses, backs are part of a high-level committee. Alabama has run the ball 359 times this season, but its marquee back, T.J. Yeldon, has fewer than half (164) of those carries. Wisconsin's Melvin Gordon is the nation's top pro running back prospect, according to CBSSports.com, and he has fewer carries than his own teammate, James White.
"That term -- workhorse -- has taken a negative connotation in recent years, as a ballcarrier who has been beaten up with so many carries over the years," says Dane Brugler, an NFL draft analyst for CBS and NFLDraftScout.com. "Have we seen the last of the first-round workhorses? I think so, unless a prospect is truly, truly special."
Most of the time, I am fine with this evolution; it seems more humane than tragic, and in general, it has made the game more interesting. But every so often, I think back to game of my childhood (and probably your childhood, too), and I think of the sturdy men who toted the ball 30 or 40 or 50 times in 60 minutes -- the Ron Daynes and the Mike Roziers and the Billy Sims -- and I find myself missing those moments when a football game centered around a lone individual carrying a football.
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There are still workhorses, if you know where to look for them. At the Division III level, two different players -- Octavias McKoy and Cartel Brooks -- have broken the overall NCAA record for rushing yards in a game over the past few weeks. In September, back when this college football season was still a nebulous font of possibility, I flew north, largely to watch Florida State's Jameis Winston perform magic tricks against Boston College. Winston did not disappoint, but the second-most fascinating player on the field was a stout and forceful BC running back named Andre Williams, who shook off tackles and burst through holes and seemingly carried the ball on every other play, at least until BC fell behind.
Williams, a senior, put up 149 yards on 28 rushes that day, a 48-34 loss that actually looks more impressive in retrospect. A couple of weeks earlier, in a game against Wake Forest, he'd run 35 times for 204 yards. "My legs were cramping up during that (Wake) game," he told me this week. "My back was cramping up."
His freshman year, Williams ran 42 times against Syracuse and didn't get out of bed the Sunday afterward. But he insists its gotten easier since then, and as this season has worn on, and he's found ways to counteract the inevitable pounding his body absorbs. He does cross-training and yoga and takes ice baths and vitamins and watches his diet, and last Saturday against North Carolina State, he put up one of those old-school workhorse lines that would have made Woody proud: 42 carries, 339 yards, two touchdowns.
Williams has 288 carries this season; only one other running back in college football has more than 250. Williams has run for 1,810 yards; no other running back in college football has more than 1,450. (Poetically, he has yet to catch a pass this year.) And perhaps what's most remarkable is that Williams and his coach, Steve Addazio, are proving that a program can still rebuild itself behind a power running game: The Eagles are 6-4, on the verge of their first winning season since 2010. The game has changed so radically, so quickly, that the Luddite methods are now considered a change of pace.
"A lot of teams don't face a power-run game like this," Williams said. "There are only, in my opinion, a couple of other programs that do what we do. Football is a game where you have to play through pain. Part of our identity as an offense is going to be dishing out more pain than we're taking."
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There is some low-level Heisman buzz building around Williams, but its probably too late, and there are probably too many fantastic quarterbacks this season for him to gain any real traction. CBS projects him as a third- or fourth-round pick in the NFL draft, and Brugler tells me there are concerns about durability, as he approaches 300 carries with at least two games left. It almost seems suspicious, a back like Williams carrying this many times in this day and age. Given the way we view the game today, it almost feels like he's setting himself up for a physical breakdown.
"I'm not sure what the basis of skepticism like that would be," he said. "I pride myself in being a workhorse."
That word, of course, is the very basis of the skepticism itself. That word is the thing that sets Andre Williams apart, and the thing that may hold him back. And so, after he said it, we talked for a couple of minutes about the evolution of modern football, and about the preeminence of the passing game, and in the midst of it, Williams said, "I've never seen a team play without a running back," which, while not universally true, is I suppose all we have left of the way things used to be.