On The Run

Just five months ago, Willis McGahee was in the midst of a battle for playing time in a crowded University of Miami offensive backfield. Today, McGahee is hearing whispers of being a Heisman Trophy candidate as the principal of a ground attack that has ignited another fast start by the defending national champion Hurricanes.

"You have to take advantage of the opportunities when you're number is called out and I'm just taking that approach when I go out there. There's nothing to it, you know" said McGahee, a sophomore running back, as the top-ranked Hurricanes (3-0) head into Saturday night's Big East tilt against Boston College (2-0) at the Orange Bowl. "I never questioned my abilities as a football player. I knew this day would be here."

Thanks to the misfortune of one of his teammates.

McGahee, a local standout at Central High, entered spring practice in late March as one of three running backs challenging for a good share of carries and work among Miami's rushing corp. Although he excelled early in camp and kept pace with sophomore Frank Gore, head coach Larry Coker refused to make a commitment to either play as the team's starting running back, at least publicly. Only behind closer doors, there was plenty of support for Gore, who rushed for 562 yards as a freshman.

But McGahee was elevated to first-team starter after Gore suffered a serious knee injury during spring practice that required surgery. With an impressive combination of speed and strength on display, McGahee continued to impress the coaching staff through the spring and into fall camp to put a tighter grip on his status.

And little has changed since then as the 6-1, 225-pounder has been a steady clog in a Miami offense that is third nationally with 500.3 yards-average per game and 13th with 243.3 yards a contest.

McGahee has silenced any questions about the Hurricanes ability to develop a solid running game with a team-leading 398 yards on 51 carries for a whopping 7.8 yards per attempt. McGahee, who leads Miami with 441 all-purpose yards, ranks 8th nationally in rushing with 132.7 yards per game.

Even after landing the role as starter, there was concern circulating, all be it by fans and the media, that McGahee lacked the toughness to come up with yards in between the tackles. Prone to injury, some wondered out loud how long it would be before McGahee went down again.

So far, the answer is 'none of the above'. After a modest 60 yards against Florida A&M the season-opener, McGahee shredded the Gators defense with 204 yards and a touchdown on 24 carries to lead the Hurricanes to a 41-16 thumping of then- No.6 UF. McGahee's rushing total in Gainesville was the fourth highest ever in a single game in school history.

Last week, while starting quarterback Ken Dorsey and the rest of the offense struggled at the outset against Temple, it was McGahee who put some life into the Hurricanes with 134 yards and a school-tying four rushing touchdowns to spark a 44-21 win.

"Any running back needs an offensive line and I'm fortunate to have one of the best," said McGahee, who overcame a mid-season knee injury last year to finish with 314 yards and three touchdowns. "The guys took a lot of heat when Bryant, Joaquin and them left, you understand. But they've been pretty good so far and I don't think that's by accident. They can play and will definitely get better."

Despite glowing about the likes of Carlos Joseph, Vernon Carey and Brett Romberg, it is McGahee who was being mentioned earlier this week as a dark horse for the Heisman Trophy Award. The thought of being in an elite group that includes Dorsey, Florida's Rex Grossman and Michigan State's Charlie Rogers brings a wide grin to his face.

"Oh man, it's cool that some people think that," McGahee said. "But I don't read the newspapers or watch SportsCenter. I really don't. I'm just focused on what my job is on the football field." Running backs coach Don Soldinger isn't surprised at all the accolades McGahee is receiving..

"I would be surprised if Willis wasn't performing at this level," Soldinger said. "We've known for a long time what he can do. Is he special? Yes. Is there room for improvement? Yes. But he is one of those guys who battles to make something out of nothing, which is one of the reasons why he a special player."

Said McGahee: "There was a lot of doubt out there about my durability, but I think I've proven that I can get it done. I'm confident that I can help this team win another national championship."

McGahee, who was redshirted in 2000, left a good impression on the coaching staff last year playing just over a half season while trying to shake up the knee injury. He gave the Hurricanes a third option in a backfield that included Gore and Clinton Portis. McGahee made his UM debut in the opener against Penn State, gaining 77 yards on 17 carries. After missing games against Boston College and Florida State, McGahee retuned in a 65-7 win over Washington.

"Last year was tough, with the injuries and all," McGahee said. "I feel better now than ever."

McGahee came out of Central two years ago as one of the most sought-after running backs in the nation and listed the No. 1 recruit in the state of Florida by a handful of prep services. He had 677 yards and 11 touchdowns as a senior despite playing just five games due to knee problems.

"That's in the past," said McGahee.

As for any controversy in the near future Coker recently said that Gore continues to rehab and has begun to do some guarded running with the training staff. But he side-stepped the possibility of another jammed offensive backfield when and if he returns.

"Frank is coming along just fine and we'll make a decision when the time comes," Coker said. "But Willis McGahee is doing a fine job and is obviously an important ingredint of this football team. Next question."

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