Buckeyes lost, Canes gain

One trip to Columbus, Ohio was all University of Miami running back Willis McGahee needed. Rated as one of the top players in the nation and the No. 1 running back in the state of Florida, McGahee was a hot commodity coming out of Miami Central despite having his final high school season cut short because of injury.

Nonetheless, McGahee, who suffered a knee injury as a senior that limited him to five games, was fielding calls and opening plenty of letters from prospective universities in the spring of 1999, even before rushing for 677 yards and scoring 11 touchdowns to close out his career at Central. McGahee was being sold on the beauty of college life on campus.

Among the schools doing the selling: Ohio State University. So McGahee, 17-years-old at the time, took an allotted recruiting visit to Columbus in mid-summer and came away impressed with everything.

Well, almost everything.

"It was in the summer time and it was a little cold," says McGahee, who has rushed for a school-record 1,686 yards this season for the Hurricanes and is a finalist for the Heisman Trophy award. Miami (12-0) meets Ohio State (13-0) in the Fiesta Bowl, Jan. 3, for the national championship. "It was chilly so that right there changed my mind."

The Buckeyes came hard after McGahee. But for a lifelong Miamian who is used to wearing shorts in December and the warmth off the South Florida beaches, spending four years in such a climate wasn't to his liking.

"Everything is positive here. It's a positive program," says McGahee. "Its also very close to South Beach."

And the Hurricanes should be thankful for the beaches, girls and sizzling heat.

In just his second season, McGahee has gone from the bottom of the Hurricanes depth chart to along side Larry Johnson of Penn State and the Buckeyes' Maurice Clarett as one of the premier college football running backs in all the land. So much so that the 6-1 and 224-pounder's name is being floated around as perhaps the greatest running back in school history- right next to Clinton Portis, Edgerrin James and Ottis Anderson- and a potential top-10 selection in the 2003 NFL draft.

It was only last spring as the Hurricanes prepared to begin defense of their national championship that McGahee was caught in a numbers game behind project starting running back Frank Gore and back-up Jason Geathers. Although, he would not come out and say it publicly McGahee wasn't thrilled with the thought of being the forgotten man in such a talented backfield.

But Gore would suffer a season-ending knee injury several weeks in spring practice, leaving the door up for McGahee. And he took full advantage of the opportunity by rushing for over 100 yards in the Hurricanes spring game and opening some eyes on the coaching staff.

Said Miami coach: "We knew what we had in Willis. It wasn't like we had forgotten about him. From the day Willis walked in here I knew he could be a great running back. We just had to get him on the field in some way or another."

McGahee hasn't disappointed with 10 games of over 100 yards rushing this season in route to breaking the school's single-season records in rushing yards (1,686), all-purpose yards (2,036), 100-yard rushing games (10) and total touchdowns (27). And even though the Hurricanes offensive arsenal is loaded with such stars as Ken Dorsey, Andre Johnson and Kellen Winslow, McGahee has answered the call during the most critical of moments this season.

McGahee made his inaugural appearance on the Heisman watch two weeks into the season after torching Florida for 204 rushing yards on 24 carries in a 41-16 victory over Gators in Gainesville. McGahee continued his exploits with a 74-yard touchdown reception that gave the Hurricanes a one-point lead over the Florida State Seminoles with under five minutes remaining in the game. Just last Saturday, McGahee ran for 205 yards and six touchdowns to help the Hurricanes hold off Virginia Tech and secure a spot in the Fiesta Bowl.

"I knew it all along," said McGahee, who sat out the 2000 season as a redshirt. "I had it in me. It was just a matter of getting on the field. When Frank went down the coaches told me I had to pick up my game. I just think it was time."

McGahee, who admits that he is a casual football fan and can't sit through an entire game on television, hasn't always had the inner strength to succeed. He would wonder at loud whenever former Miami running back Clinton Portis would taunt him during practice.

"He would say little things like ‘You'll never be better than me. He was always needling me that way'," said McGahee.

But it wasn't until Portis' departure to the NFL that McGahee started evaluating the opportunity that stood right in front of him.

"I got it when Clinton left," said McGahee. "That's when it started jumping at me. That's when it hit me that I had to pick it up."

McGahee did provide the Hurricanes with a glimpse into the future last year with 314 rushing yards in eight games. He even overcame a mid-season knee injury to challenge Portis for playing time.

"It wasn't my time though. I could sense it."

Not yet anyway.

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