Whatcha Talkin’ ‘Bout, Willis?

December 10, 2002
Whatcha Talkin’ ‘Bout, Willis?
by Keith Weiland

Miami tailback Willis McGahee has captured the imagination of run-starved Texans fans this season. Now, after 39 carries for 205 yards and 6 touchdowns on Saturday against a tough Virginia Tech defense, McGahee may even capture a Heisman Trophy, too. For a team desperate for any offense, as evidenced by Sunday’s 47 net yards against the Steelers, many of you think McGahee might be the simple solution to a big problem.

Say What? I’m not so certain.

I give McGahee his due as an explosive running back. The redshirt sophomore is 6’1″ and 225 pounds, but it’s his speed that impresses me most. He has been timed at 4.28 in the forty, reportedly the fastest time ever by a Hurricane football player.

Center Brett Romberg labeled McGahee “a genetic freak”, and he doesn’t mean of the Gary Coleman variety. Romberg is also no molecular biologist, but he’s not missing the mark on his evaluation of McGahee. “He’s like Clinton Portis, only bigger,” he said.

Interesting, since Portis, now of the Denver Broncos, is the one who could have possibly ruined McGahee’s career before it even began. Portis rode McGahee every chance he had, never letting up on telling him who the better was.

Frustrated, McGahee admits that Portis got in his head. Coaches thought McGahee had developed an attitude problem and that the player, one whom they thought was possibly the most talented back on the roster, was unreceptive to coaching. As a result, McGahee started the 2002 spring drills behind Frank Gore on the depth chart.

But an ACL injury to Gore opened the door for McGahee, and he flew right through it. His 205 yards against Virginia Tech were a career high, and the 6 scores broke a school record set way back in 1933. For the season, McGahee has rushed 262 times for 1,686 yards (6.4 per carry) and 27 touchdowns. He’s also been a presence catching the football, doing so 24 times for another 350 yards.

McGahee set the Hurricanes’ season rushing yardage record in 2002, notably needing 32 fewer carries to break the mark set by Edgerrin James. He’s also set school standards for all-purpose yardage and points scored.

More important than statistics, coaches now love the way he practices and think he’s matured since last season. McGahee, who accepted a lesser role as fill-in fullback for the injured Najeh Davenport in last season’s Rose Bowl, showed some of that maturity by blocking for Portis to help his team achieve a National Championship.

Canes’ head coach Larry Coker thinks McGahee is a better player than Portis, though both backs do possess similar running styles. Not only is McGahee bigger than Portis, who checks in at 5’11” 204, but he’s noticeably faster, too.

Another guy worthy of comparison to McGahee is the man whose records he’s broken, James. James is 6’0″ 214, but he is a much tougher runner than McGahee. It’s a little odd since McGahee is both bigger and faster than James, but James, pre-injury, was a lot harder for defenses to bring down.

It might be because McGahee runs without much forward lean, limiting his power to break tackles. At the college level, McGahee is fast enough to elude tacklers altogether, but in the pros, he’s a bigger target than he should be.

His running style aside, McGahee really can burn through a defense. He has quick feet and good strides. McGahee can follow his blocks, cut, and be in the secondary within a blink of an eye. His vision allows him to find the open field, and he rarely is tackled for a loss. McGahee is at his best running to the outside, off-tackle.

There are conflicting reports on whether McGahee will declare his eligibility in January for the 2003 draft. According to ESPN, coaches say he’s gone, but McGahee himself was quoted only a week ago saying that he doubts he’ll be leaving early.

It would be a horrifically poor decision if he stayed. In a weak year for running backs, McGahee has the talent, the potential, and the Hurricane pedigree to be a very high first round pick.

Not that the Texans should draft him.

Hey, what might be right for you, might not be right for some. In particular, he might not be right for Texans’ general manager Charley Casserly, despite Casserly’s admiration for running backs of McGahee’s size.

Casserly has his own record, one that shows he has never taken a running back in the first round. He’s been reluctant to select a running back that high because he sees one as being the final piece of the championship roster puzzle.

The Texans have barely cracked open the puzzle box. While McGahee will make some team a very nice feature back in the NFL, I couldn’t agree more with Casserly on this subject.

But you know how that saying goes, different strokes for different folks, right?

Unlike NBC of twenty years ago, Keith Weiland will defend the integrity of Willis, Arnold, Kimberly, and Mr. D. and not allow any Silver Spoons references in next week’s article.