Stiff-Arm Competition

Times Staff Writer

If you want to talk about Tailback U, consider who could have been a USC tailback too:

Ricky Williams.

"I really wanted to go to SC," Williams said the other day as he sat at his stall after practice with the Miami Dolphins.

Maybe there would be eight Heisman Trophies to put under glass in Heritage Hall instead of seven, if not for a few fateful days in 1994.

That was when Williams, a young recruit from San Diego, became totally smitten with Austin, Texas, and increasingly skeptical about his chance to start right away at USC.

The rest is Texas history, and in 1998, Williams brought a stiff-armed bronze back to Austin to give the Longhorns a second Heisman to match the one Earl Campbell won in 1977.

For all the storied tradition of running backs at USC -- from Mike Garrett to O.J. Simpson to Anthony Davis, Charles White and Marcus Allen and now Reggie Bush -- the truth is that for a stretch of the not-so-distant past, USC had the reputation, but Texas had the reality.

USC's running game faltered to a low ebb in the 1990s, briefly falling to last in the nation in the NCAA statistics. The Trojans had only one 1,000-yard rusher from 1991 to '98, Delon Washington in 1995.

Williams chose Texas, and since 1995 the Longhorns have had a 1,000-yard rusher every season for the last 10 years -- a streak that matches the longest in USC history, when Davis, Ricky Bell, White and Allen put together 10 in a row from 1972 to 1981.

"I don't think we have to choose sides in this one," Texas Coach Mack Brown said. "I don't think we have to say SC has great backs so that means Texas doesn't.

"We have our list of backs, but their list is pretty good too, now. You start talking about O.J. and Charles White and Marcus Allen. There's some good folks.

"If you ask people about running backs, you think they aren't going to go back to Chris Gilbert and Earl Campbell and Roosevelt Leaks and Ricky Williams and Hodges Mitchell? [Eric] Metcalf. Cedric Benson.

"No one can leave us out of the running back deal. But they've got two that have shined this year, and one of them just won the Heisman."

USC's turn as Quarterback U -- Carson Palmer and Matt Leinart claimed the Heisman in 2002 and 2004, respectively -- might be far from over.

But the revival of its running game under Pete Carroll was made emphatic this season by Bush and LenDale White, the first pair of 1,000-yard rushers in USC history.

"People say Rome fell and could not be rebuilt ... well, it seems like it's been rebuilt," said Davis, perhaps the best USC back not to win a Heisman.

With a different decision by Williams, maybe USC wouldn't have fallen so far during the second John Robinson era and Paul Hackett's time as coach.

"It came down to USC and Texas," Williams said. "The deciding factor was I wanted to go where I could play right away."

Robinson told him he could start at fullback as a freshman, but that there were already tailbacks ahead of him, Williams said.

"They had about five guys who were already going to vie to be No. 1, and it's interesting, because none of them really panned out," Williams said. "Chad Morton [a 1,000-yard rusher in 1999] eventually became the starter.

"I remember Rodney Sermons was there then, and he was my host on my recruiting trip. I really wanted to go to SC, but during the trip, he looked at me and he was like, 'We've got so many backs,' and that I probably didn't want to go there, that I wouldn't play.

"The very next day after I had my trip to SC and I unpacked my bags, I repacked my bags and went on my trip to Austin. And I loved it."

Williams ran for 990 yards his freshman season, and the streak of 1,000-yard rushers that had begun with Shon Mitchell in 1995 continued with Williams the next three seasons. Mitchell did it the next two and Benson the next four -- with quarterback Vince Young joining Benson to give Texas two 1,000-yard rushers last season.

Consider that Priest Holmes -- who went on to win an NFL rushing title with the Kansas City Chiefs -- barely made a mark on the Texas record book during an injury-marred career that he spent partly behind Williams, and it gives you an idea of the recent strength of the Texas running game.

That streak of 1,000-yard rushers might come to an end this season, however.

With the Longhorns using a tailback-by-committee system and Young taking up carries at quarterback, Young and freshman running back Jamaal Charles are each at least 150 yards from the mark going into the Rose Bowl.

Over at USC, the dark days are past.

Petros Papadakis, a former USC running back turned broadcast personality, says the problem during the '90s drought was an offensive line marred by recruiting mistakes and injuries.

"I don't want to say anything about my old teammates, but you could have put Eric Dickerson behind that line and he couldn't gain 1,000 yards," Papadakis said. "Chad Morton, Malaefou MacKenzie, Delon Washington, they had a lot of skill."

Numerous offensive line recruits "never made a contribution because of one thing or another, injury, lack of skill, guys not wanting to play football or guys leaving school," Papadakis added. "Offensive line is a very tough position. It's not the kind of thing where you can come in right away. It's like five fingers, you have to know how to work together."

Carroll remembers the struggles in the running game when he arrived in 2001, and the progress that had to be made on the line.

"We struggled our first year," Carroll said. "Gosh, we couldn't keep guys off the quarterback. We averaged about 2.4 something a rush. Awful stats. A bunch of sacks. Like I told you, we stunk it up, we were lousy the first year."

It makes you wonder: If Williams had chosen USC, would he have won the Heisman after all?

"Well I don't know," Williams said. "I'm confident I would have played if I had gone to SC.

"I could have helped them turn it around."

*

Times staff writers Gary Klein and Peter Yoon contributed to this report.

*

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Texas running stars

Running backs who have starred at the University of Texas:

*--* CEDRIC BENSON

*--*

* Seasons: 2001-04.

* Carries: 1,112.

* Yards: 5,540.

* Touchdowns: 64.

* The lowdown: Benson is second to Williams in almost every major category except carries, in which he is the Longhorn leader. He rushed for more than 1,000 yards in all four of his seasons and was the Doak Walker Award winner in 2004 as the nation's top running back.

*--* RICKY WILLIAMS

*--*

* Seasons: 1995-98.

* Carries: 1,011.

* Yards: 6,279.

* Touchdowns: 72.

* The lowdown: Williams, who won the Heisman Trophy in 1998 after rushing for 2,124 yards and 27 touchdowns, is the most prolific rusher in Longhorn history and second all-time in yards on the NCAA Division I-A list. He is the only Texas player with a 2,000-yard rushing season and had 28 games of 100 yards or more in his career.

*--* ERIC METCALF

*--*

* Seasons: 1985-88.

* Carries: 586.

* Yards: 2,661.

* Touchdowns: 23.

* The lowdown: The shifty Metcalf was one of the top all-purpose threats in school history. Metcalf was the leader in all-purpose yards all four of his seasons, totaling 5,705 yards to rank fourth on the school's all-time list.

*--* EARL CAMPBELL

*--*

* Seasons: 1974-77.

* Carries: 765.

* Yards: 4,443.

* Touchdowns: 40.

* The lowdown: The man known for having thighs as big as tree trunks while with the Houston Oilers was a Heisman Trophy winner at Texas in 1977, when he averaged 6.5 yards a carry, 158.5 yards a game and had a school-record 11 100-yard games.

*--* ROOSEVELT LEAKS

*--*

* Seasons: 1972-74.

* Carries: 555.

* Yards: 2,923.

* Touchdowns: 26.

* The lowdown: Leaks was the first black athlete at Texas to earn All-American and all-conference honors. In 1973, he finished third in Heisman balloting and was the Southwest Conference most valuable player.

*--* CHRIS GILBERT

*--*

* Seasons: 1966-68.

* Carries: 595.

* Yards: 3,231.

* Touchdowns: 28.

* The lowdown: Averaged more than 100 yards a game during all three seasons he played and was the first player in NCAA history to gain 1,000 yards in each of the seasons for which he was eligible.

Researched by Jim Barrero

*

USC running stars

Running backs who have starred for the Trojans:

*--* LENDALE WHITE

*--*

* Seasons: 2003-05.

* Carries: 521.

* Yards: 3,035.

* Touchdowns: 49.

* The lowdown: White is one of the most powerful straight-ahead runners in Trojan history and has been a perfect complement to Reggie Bush while securing his place as a prominent member at Tailback U.

*--* REGGIE BUSH

*--*

* Seasons: 2003-05.

* Carries: 420.

* Yards: 3,087.

* Touchdowns: 24.

* The lowdown: The human highlight film became the fifth USC running back to win the Heisman, thanks to his electric moves and ability to change a game at a moment's notice. Perhaps the school's greatest all-purpose threat, averaging 217.6 yards a game this season.

*--* MARCUS ALLEN

*--*

* Seasons: 1978-81.

* Carries: 932.

* Yards: 4,810.

* Touchdowns: 45.

* The lowdown: Allen was college football's first 2,000-yard rusher when he went for 2,342 during the regular season in 1981 and also became USC's fourth Heisman Trophy winner. Allen averaged 212.9 yards a game that season and had five 200-yard games in a row.

*--* CHARLES WHITE

*--*

* Seasons: 1976-79.

* Carries: 1,147.

* Yards: 6,245.

* Touchdowns: 49.

* The lowdown: When White left USC after the 1979 season, he was the NCAA's all-time leading rusher with 5,598 yards in the regular season. A two-time unanimous All-American, White was the Trojans' third Heisman Trophy winner and rushed for more than 100 yards 31 times in his career.

*--* RICKY BELL

*--*

* Seasons: 1973-76.

* Carries: 710.

* Yards: 3,689.

* Touchdowns: 28.

* The lowdown: Although he never won a Heisman, Bell was a two-time unanimous All-American selection, in 1975 and '76, and was a member of the 1974 national championship team. Bell had a school-record 347 yards in 51 carries against Washington State in 1976.

*--* ANTHONY DAVIS

*--*

* Seasons: 1972-74.

* Carries: 784.

* Yards: 3,724.

* Touchdowns: 44.

* The lowdown: Famous for igniting USC's 55-24 comeback win over Notre Dame in 1974 by returning the second-half kickoff for a touchdown, and for his six-touchdown performance against the Irish in 1972, Davis was runner-up for the Heisman in '74, and USC went 31-2-2 during his three seasons.

*--* O.J. SIMPSON

*--*

* Seasons: 1967-68.

* Carries: 674.

* Yards: 3,423.

* Touchdowns: 36.

* The lowdown: Simpson won the school's second Heisman Trophy -- by the largest margin in the award's history -- after the 1968 season when he set a then-record for yards rushing in a season with 1,709. Simpson, a two-time All-American, equaled or bettered 19 NCAA, conference and school records.

*--* MIKE GARRETT

*--*

* Seasons: 1963-65.

* Carries: 612.

* Yards: 3,221.

* Touchdowns: 25.

* The lowdown: Garrett, now the athletic director at USC, was the Trojans' first Heisman Trophy winner and began the school's tradition of I-formation tailbacks. The two-time All-American set 14 NCAA, conference and school records.

*--* JON ARNETT

*--*

* Seasons: 1954-56.

* Carries: 336.

* Yards: 1,898.

* Touchdowns: 30*.

* The lowdown: "Jaguar Jon" was USC's rushing leader in 1954 and '55, finished 10th in the Heisman Trophy balloting in 1956 and also was a standout on defense.

*Note: Arnett's listing in touchdowns category indicates all touchdowns scored, not only rushing.

Researched by Jim Barrero

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