Miami coach says McGahee is the best

Is Willis McGahee better than former Miami Hurricanes running backs Edgerrin James and Clinton Portis? Miami running backs coach Don Soldinger says he is, and he should know because he coached all three players. Mike Doser talked with the 58-year-old Soldinger about what makes McGahee different from all the players he's ever seen during his veteran coaching career. This is the first of four parts that we'll run the next four days.

Mike Doser: How hard is it to find players like Willis McGahee?

Don Soldinger: Please (laughs) … If Willis didn't get hurt, he might have been the first pick in the draft. He was in the top three for sure. It's hard to find guys like that. You don't find guys like that, I don't think. He's a real special guy.

Doser: You've said that Willis is the most driven player you've ever seen, and you've been around great players throughout your coaching career. What does he have that others lack?

Soldinger: Just recently I've coached great players: Edgerrin James, Clinton Portis, James Jackson, Najeh Davenport, they're all in the league, they're all playing. Just watching Willis from his ninth-grade year – he's a local kid [from Miami], so I've watched him for years, and I actually coached high school ball against his uncles, one was a running back one was a defensive end, and they've had a great history – but I think it's his family. That's one of the things that drives him. His mom is a real special gal. He's just a very focused guy. He loves to work out. He's a cut above everybody as far as strength and speed. I've never coached [someone like him]. It's very freakish. He's almost 6'2", 227-230. He runs under 4.4 consistently – 4.37, 4.36. He's got super strength. He's a cut above and he just has tremendous desire to succeed. Where he gets it? I'm not quite sure, but he is really a different kind of cat. He wants to be the first at everything he does.

That's why I had a little bit of trouble when Clinton was here, because he didn't like Clinton … Clinton walks into the running back meeting in Denver and he looks at [Terrell] Davis and Olandis Gary and [Mike Anderson] and said, "Which one of you guys is going to play fullback for me?" And he means it. Willis didn't want to have any part of that. Initially, that was a major problem here. Willis wanted to be the guy. And he didn't want Clinton to be the guy, but I just felt, and I think at (the University of Miami), everybody's time is going to come. I'm coaching a bunch of first-rounders. (A player's) time is going to come, but (Willis) didn't want to hear too much of that.

Doser: Of course, Clinton went to the NFL in 2002 and was among the league's top rookies. That certainly opened up an opportunity for Willis, but wasn't he still behind running back Frank Gore on the depth chart during spring 2002, before Frank tore his ACL in practice?

Soldinger: I think Willis would have beat him out. Frank's good, but my loyalty is to the older kids [McGahee, 21, is about a year and a half older]. They're going to get the first shot, if they're good enough, if they've earned it. It's not going to be given to them. That's my [philosophy]. I'm just very loyal in that way.

Frank's good, don't get me wrong. Since he's been here, he's averaged over nine yards a carry. But Willis McGahee is real special. To me, [he proved that when] he lines up in the national championship game [two years ago] at fullback. And he never took a snap at fullback, ever. And he winds up playing in the national championship game and we win the game – handily. There ain't too many guys in the country who can do that. And he was a redshirt freshman at the time.

Strength-wise he just has all the tools to [play fullback]. And I wanted to do that with him all year long [in 2001, with Portis as the featured back], but our offensive coordinator didn't and neither did Larry [Coker], so we just let him stay at tailback. And then he got hurt [with a knee sprain] and Frankie came in. And then when [Najeh] Davenport got hurt, they knew that McGahee had to be the person to move to fullback. He only had 20 practices to [learn fullback].

A lot of people don't understand [how tough that is to switch from tailback to fullback]. That is something. It's very unusual. You can't do that with very many guys. Almost none.

Doser: That shows some flexibility, but also very good awareness to know where he has to line up and go during a play. He certainly didn't have much time to pick it up.

Soldinger: He made some mistakes, but more experience-type mistakes than anything. Hell, he didn't have any experience. That was the first game he ever played fullback in.

Davenport was the starting fullback, and he wanted to play tailback. Actually I wanted to use [Davenport and McGahee] at tailback and fullback just for depth purposes because they both can do it. I think that's what Green Bay is going to wind up putting [Davenport] at tailback.

Those are the things that people look at, but don't really understand, unless they're really involved with the game.

Coming Wednesday: Soldinger talks about what McGahee is like as a person and the qualities that make him a potentially explosive NFL running back.

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