Mike Doser: Do you remember the first time you met Willis?
Soldinger: Well I always knew of him since he was in ninth grade. He was doing this type of stuff since he was in ninth grade. He was always extremely bigger and stronger than everybody; faster than everybody; and therefore he made an impact when he was very young. I just knew him. But as you get to know him more and more and as he gains (trust) in you, he's a special cat. I mean, really a special guy. Very affectionate kid. He treats everybody the same, whether you're Ken Dorsey or you're a walk-on. He doesn't care. He's going to talk to you. He has time for everybody. Really a special cat.
You'll see when he's there. He's really a neat person. He's confident, but humble, whereas Portis is confident and cocky and brash. Willis is not that way. He's just a confident, humble guy. He knows he can do well; knows he's the man. By far and away, he can hang with anybody. He can do things that really are quite unusual, which he has proven with his knee. He really has tremendous confidence in his ability and his strength.
Doser: It's really quite unusual to see a running back, who's over 6'1", [though Buffalo lists him at 6'0"], and be able to cut that well. Wouldn't you say that's unusual, to be able to do that at that height?
Soldinger: Yeah. He actually got better at [making cuts]. He was more of a physical-type guy, a run-you-over-type guy. But as he touched the ball more and more … some guys are like that. Clinton Portis didn't need to touch the ball a lot. He touched the ball, and you weren't going to touch him and he was going to get into the end zone. He was just that way, naturally pretty much. Frank's that way.
Willis would get the ball, find a crease and went through it. He run (defenders) over. But then he got better and better and better [at cutting]. He's the best of both worlds because when he needs to be physical, he can be physical. When he needs to make cuts, he can make cuts. And that occurred later on in his career this year. As he started carrying the ball more and more and more, that's what happened to him. He became a guy with the ability to make you miss and if he couldn't make you miss, he'd run through (a defender) or over (him).
He's the prototype. Of all the guys I've coached as far as running in the NFL, he's probably the guy that would best fit the league's mold. At times, he's going to need to be physical and pick up his three yards or if it's one yard, he's going to have to put his head down and get (that). And then he's also able to make (a defender) miss. He gets better as he plays.
I've never really hung my hat on one back here. When Edgerrin James was playing, James Jackson backed him up and everybody thought James Jackson should be starting. When James Jackson started, everybody thought Clinton Portis should start. When Clinton Portis played, then it was Frank Gore and Willis McGahee who were pushing him and people thought they should be starting. They always thought the other guy was better than the guys starting.
Last year, when Frank got hurt in spring 2002, we moved [junior wide receiver] Jason Geathers [to tailback]. And Jason, had he stayed at running back from the get-go, he might have been as good as any of them, but he was just too inconsistent his first year at running back. And therefore Willis had to play a little more than I play guys. I kind of split time with guys, really. I always have done that. I think if guys are working hard and are fairly close together ability-wise, I think a fresh guy is better than a tired guy that might be a little better than (him). I always have done it that way. It's been very successful here.
Doser: That's interesting because McGahee might eventually be trading time with Travis Henry when he gets on the field. Buffalo might not deal either one. They might have to coexist. McGahee is already used to that.
Soldinger: If I was the coach, I don't care what level it is, it doesn't matter … As a matter of fact, I was talking to [Bills running backs coach] Les Steckel about this today … I would use two backs. Whatever they want to sign for, let them sign, let them negotiate their deals, do whatever they got to do, once that's over, say to them, "This is the way it's going to be. This is what we're going to do. We're going to keep you fresh. We're going to extend your career so you can make more money, because these days, physically, (a running back's) body takes such a beating. If everything (operates) by incentives now, this is me talking, my opinion, the running back naturally wants to be the guy carrying the ball all the time. But his body isn't going to take that kind of beating. Look at what happened to Edgerrin James. Not only did he get hurt, but he tried to come back too quick to meet those incentives. A player shouldn't do that. Let him sign, pay him well, then, "Let's go to work. Let's win some football games."
I think that's the bottom line: "Let's win and this is the way we're going to do it. You're both going to play. When you get in there, don't waste your reps. Make sure (you give it your all)." You can put some incentives in there, such as yards per carry. Give them a little edge there. As far as playing time? Tell them, "You're sharing that." The guy that's hot might play a little more than the other guy, but, "We're going to keep you fresh. We're going to let you play and we're going to lengthen your career." I think the players got to understand that.
Coming Thursday: Soldinger talks about how McGahee is a team player, and he doesn't expect that to change in the pros, despite the millions he'll make.