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April 27, 2006

Crowded backfield at Miami the norm

Try telling Clinton Portis, Willis McGahee, Frank Gore, Najeh Davenport and Jarrett Payton they have to split carries. Or worse, that only one of them can be the featured back on a top five team.

Miami running backs coach Don Soldinger answered that enviable "problem" in 2001 with some assistance from a Rudyard Kipling poem.

"He always said 'The strength of the wolf is the pack, and the strength of the pack is the wolf,' " said Davenport, summing up a line in Kipling's 1895 poem, "The Law of the Jungle."

"He drilled that into our heads."

In 2001, Soldinger needed Kipling's help to juggle his pack of running backs.

Portis was two years removed from averaging 5.9 yards per carry as a freshman before a foot injury shortened his sophomore season.

McGahee was a top running back recruit who had already used a redshirt year. Gore was a true freshman with a similarly impressive high school résumé.

Davenport, a fullback, got a taste of tailback duties while Portis was out with the foot injury. Payton, the son of NFL legend Walter Payton, was waiting for his turn as a redshirt sophomore.

"The hardest part was keeping them all happy," said Soldinger, who coached Hurricanes running backs from 1995 until he was dismissed in January. "They all wanted to touch the ball all the time."

Soldinger found the mix, and each running back found his moment in the Miami sun.

Four years later, all were on NFL rosters.

In 2005, four former Miami running backs led their teams in rushing – Portis (Redskins), McGahee (Bills), Gore (49ers) and Edgerrin James (Colts). In six of the last seven seasons either Portis or James has been in the top five in rushing yards. Last season, both were in the top five.

Position: Running back
School that rules: Miami (Donnell Bennett, Najeh Davenport, Frank Gore, Derrick Harris, Edgerrin James, James Jackson, Nick Luchey, Willis McGahee, Jarrett Payton, Clinton Portis).
Coming attractions: Tyrone Moss, Quadtrine Hill, Charlie Jones.
Runners-up: Auburn (Fred Beasley, Ronnie Brown, Stephen Davis, Heath Evans, Rudi Johnson, Kevin McLeod, Tony Richardson, Carnell Williams); Florida State (Warrick Dunn, Greg Jones, Zack Crockett, Travis Minor, Leon Washington, Nick Maddox); Georgia (Terrell Davis, Olandis Gary, Verron Haynes, Garrison Hearst, Patrick Pass, Musa Smith, Mack Strong); Tennessee (Shawn Bryson, Troy Fleming, Charlie Garner, Jay Graham, Travis Henry, Cedric Houston, Jamal Lewis, Travis Stephens, James Stewart); Texas (Cedric Benson, Priest Holmes, Eric Metcalf, Ricky Williams).
Sleeper schools: Fresno State. Start with fullback Lorenzo Neal, who has blocked for nine consecutive 1,000-yard rushers. In 13 NFL seasons with the Saints, Jets, Buccaneers, Titans, Bengals and Chargers, he has been to two Pro Bowls. Michael Pittman has started for five seasons for the Cardinals and Bucs before assuming a backup role to Carnell Williams last year. In 2004, Pittman had career highs in rushing yards (926) and touchdowns (seven).
Why Miami is Running Back U: In a close call with Auburn, Miami takes the top spot. Simply put, the Hurricanes have a longer track record than the Tigers with Cadillac Williams and Ronnie Brown being in the league for only one season. Edgerrin James, Clinton Portis, Willis McGahee and Frank Gore combined to rush for 4,877 yards and 32 touchdowns last season. Williams, Brown, Rudi Johnson and Stephen Davis combined for 4,092 yards and 24 touchdowns in 2005. Either Portis or James has been among the top five in the league in rushing for the last four seasons, with both in the top five last season.
"The difference between those guys was like sticking a piece of paper between them," Soldinger said.

Once they arrived in the NFL, though, several of Miami's alums stood out from the pack.

Part of what sets Miami running backs apart from other college running backs in the pros is the polish they receive in Coral Gables.

The competition within the team helped prepare them for life in the NFL, while the offense emphasized the complete back.

Both factors translated into early returns in the professional ranks.

James (1999) and Portis (2002) were named rookie of the year after posting 1,500-yard seasons. After sitting out his first NFL season while recovering from an ACL tear, McGahee started 11 games and rushed for 1,128 yards and 13 touchdowns. Coming off the bench in 2005, Gore led San Francisco in rushing and averaged 4.8 yards per carry.

"The more things you can do in the NFL, the better off you're going to be," Davenport said. "(Soldinger) said 'If you can't block, you aren't going to run the ball. If you can't catch, you have no chance.' "

Even while his students played at Miami, Soldinger said he didn't mind players looking toward the NFL. The Hurricanes still embrace their tradition of sending difference-makers to the next level.

James and Portis both have condominiums near the Miami campus. Davenport rehabbed with current Miami back Tyrone Moss during the offseason. McGahee visits practice from time to time.

"You wanted them to have those aspirations," Soldinger said. "They're focused and setting high expectations. I want them to focus on the next level."

However, not at the expense of the present.

Despite the departure of Soldinger and the 2001 group of running backs, the culture of competition remains, current Miami running back Charlie Jones said.

"When we're in the weight room, if I see another running back benching or squatting a certain amount of weight, I won't want him to squat as much as me, so I might put on five pounds more than him just to outdo him every day," said Jones, a Rivals100 member in 2004. "All the running backs are just hungry."

It creates a culture among Miami running backs to be ready to produce when the time comes. It's a good philosophy to create since injuries and early departures have assisted in sorting out the crowded backfield.

In 1999, Portis led the Hurricanes in rushing as a freshman with 838 yards while splitting carries with James Jackson. Jackson took the job full-time the following season when Portis was sidelined with a foot injury. Jackson became a third-round pick of the Cleveland Browns in 2001.

After Portis led the Hurricanes to the national championship as a junior, he left for the NFL Draft. Gore was in line to take over, but a knee injury to start the 2002 season gave McGahee the spotlight. McGahee took advantage of his time as a starter when he led the Hurricanes to the national title game against Ohio State and became a finalist for the Heisman Trophy in 2002.

McGahee, too, left early the following season and Gore's knee again kept him sidelined when Payton took over the job. Gore finally became the starter as a redshirt junior in 2004.

When Gore left, he put the position in the hands of Moss and Jones, two South Florida products who decided to stay close to home because of the success of the other Miami backs.

"I see how many people they have playing in the NFL," Jones said. "I knew if I came here, I'd have a chance to go. It doesn't matter if you play two years or one year. When you get your chance, you've got to make the best of it and just try to shine."

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