Running scared:Teams leery of diving into the pool



Running scared:Teams leery of diving into the pool

By BOB MCGINN, Journal Sentinel

Tuesday, April 22, 2003

Green Bay — The University of Miami’s Willis McGahee is the most celebrated prospect with a serious injury in the National Football League draft this year but he’s more the rule than the exception among the often-hurt, often-maligned corps of running backs.

Some scouts think this could be the worst draft for running backs since 1984, the last time fewer than two were selected in the first round. But if not for an unbelievable rash of injuries, this would have been a representative if not strong position in the draft.

“It’s an awful group,” Tennessee Titans director of player personnel Rich Snead said. “There’s injuries, injury histories and not good players.”

McGahee is to work out this afternoon for NFL clubs in Miami, a last-ditch attempt to prove that he has made a miraculous recovery from reconstructive knee surgery in early January. But even if he looks good, it’s probably a long shot that a team would use a first- round pick knowing at least some, if not all, of his rookie season would be a washout.

“I’ve heard first round and I’ve heard second,” Chicago Bears general manager Jerry Angelo said. “I don’t think he’ll go any lower than the second.”

McGahee had a fabulous first season as a starter in 2002, rushing for 1,753 yards, a 6.2-yard average and 28 touchdowns. His opportunity came only after teammate Clinton Portis declared a year early, went to Denver as the 51st pick and proceeded to gain 1,508 yards.

As events unfolded, Portis easily would have been the first back taken if he had returned for a final season with the Hurricanes.

“Usually, there’s like four or five guys who just stand out,” Carolina director of college scouting Tony Softli said. “But there isn’t any this year.”

Be that as it may, the Journal Sentinel still asked 17 general managers and scouts who is the best back in the draft. Despite having suffered multiple torn ligaments in the Fiesta Bowl, McGahee was an outright No. 1 pick by seven scouts and a reluctant No. 2 by five others who were deterred only by the injury.

“But I don’t care about the injury,” Buffalo Bills general manager Tom Donahoe said. “I still would take McGahee.”

Next in line was Penn State’s Larry Johnson, the only medically “clean” player among the top 10 backs. He had five votes, followed by Georgia’s Musa Smith with four and Colorado’s Chris Brown with one.

The 2002 pox first struck in late September when Georgia Tech junior Tony Hollings, the nation’s leading rusher after four weeks with 633 yards, blew out his anterior cruciate ligament. He had been extremely impressive.

Florida State’s Greg Jones, a 248-pound junior, was looking more and more like a top-10 pick until he blew out his ACL Nov. 2 against Wake Forest.

Derrick Nix, a senior at Southern Mississippi, had 1,194 yards and was described as “special” by one scout before he suffered further kidney problems late in the season that jeopardize his career.

Now consider the other top backs available for the draft.

Musa Smith played the entire ’02 season but has had problems with both shoulders. He has been cleared by some teams and rejected by others.

Brown was headed for a 2,000-yard season when he suffered a bruised sternum and missed the final two games.

“He’s a big guy that runs upright,” an AFC scout said. “He’s really tough but he’s going to get killed.”

Oregon’s Onterrio Smith has had a myriad of problems off the field but he also missed three games late in ’02 with a knee injury.

Virginia Tech’s Lee Suggs went the distance last year but at least one club still frets about the torn ACL that he suffered in the ’01 opener.

Southern California’s Justin Fargas broke his leg as a freshman at Michigan and when it didn’t heal properly, had to have it re-broken. He has had multiple leg and big toe operations and also runs high.

“I think he’s going to be hurt early, often and all the time,” an NFC scout said. “His style just gets him killed.”

Kentucky’s Artose Pinner suffered a high ankle sprain and fractured fibula in the Senior Bowl and hasn’t run a 40-yard dash for scouts.

“For us, he wasn’t healing real well,” another NFC scout said.

Colorado State’s Cecil Sapp had a broken leg in spring 2001 and surgery to remove a benign tumor from his heel before the ’01 season.

Finally, there’s Louisiana State’s LaBrandon Toefield. The talented big back is fine now, but he has had an ACL tear in each knee and broke his arm last season.

Everyone understands that the shelf life for running backs isn’t long, but no team wants to draft a player with a body shot before its time.

“What history usually tells me is if they get hurt in college, they get hurt in the pros,’ Angelo said. “I think the backs are going to get pushed down.”

Bad-boy Derek Watson looked like a possible first-round pick when he rushed for 1,066 yards and 11 touchdowns as a sophomore at South Carolina in 2000. But Watson was thrown out of school by the Gamecocks and suspended this year for a month after transferring to South Carolina State.

“You’re going to be getting some baggage but someone may grab him in the middle rounds if they don’t mind taking a chance,” an NFC scout said.

This entire running-back draft is one gigantic game of chance.



Larry Johnson, RB, Penn State: Almost 2,100 yards in the Big Ten Conference has to mean something . . . doesn’t it?


Onterrio Smith, RB, Oregon: Too talented to dismiss but maybe too much trouble to take.


Alex Hawkins, South Carolina: Second-round pick in 1959 . . . Never made it in Green Bay but played 10 seasons for Baltimore and Atlanta, mostly as a wide receiver, and had 129 career receptions.


“I’m not judging the soul. I’m just saying he’s not good for business. Know what I mean?” — NFC scout on RB Onterrio Smith


Journal Sentinel pro football writer Bob McGinn assesses the top running backs in next weekend’s draft. Included are each player’s school, height, weight, 40-yard dash time and round in which he is projected to be selected.


1. LARRY JOHNSON, Penn State 6-1 222 4.43 1

Third in Heisman Trophy voting after leading the nation in rushing with 2,087 yards and a 7.7-yard average. Part-time player up until then. “People want to compare him to Dorsey (Levens) but he doesn’t have the quickness that Dorsey had,” Seattle director of college scouting Scot McCloughan said. “He can’t stop-start and Dorsey could. He can do a little bit of everything but I’m not sure if there’s any upside.” His father, Larry Sr., is the Nittany Lions’ defensive line coach. Has been compared to Franco Harris and Eddie George. Shocked a lot of scouts by running so fast at his pro day. Detractors say he didn’t produce against good Iowa, Ohio State and Michigan defenses, and recall that Penn State’s draft history at the position is deplorable (Blair Thomas, Ki-Jana Carter and Curtis Enis). “He’s an upright runner who doesn’t catch the ball like you’d want,” one scout said.

2. WILLIS McGAHEE, Miami 6-1/2 223 4.42 1-2

Great talent. “He’s one of the best I’ve seen in a long, long time,” Washington director of college scouting Ron Nay said. ‘He’s bigger and faster than Edgerrin James. It’s hard to believe he’s 225. Good hands. Knocks them right on the ground (in blitz pickup). He’s everything.” Third-year junior who redshirted in 2000, gained 314 yards behind Clinton Portis and Frank Gore in ’01 and exploded to finish fourth in Heisman voting in ’02. Blew out his knee in the Fiesta Bowl and might not be ready this season. “He was good, not great,” one scout said. “With the talent he had around him, defenses couldn’t just try to shut him down. I just don’t see the whole package, the real cutback ability and all that.”

3. MUSA SMITH, Georgia 6-1 231 4.45 1-2

Third-year junior and one-year starter. Became Bulldogs’ first 1,000-yard rusher since Garrison Hearst in 1992 with 1,324 yards and 5.1 average. “He’s a load,” Indianapolis president Bill Polian said. “He can pack the mail.” Shoulder problems concern some teams but not others. “Boy, he’s a good player if you’re looking for a straight- ahead guy,” one scout said. “Big, strong, fast, tough. He doesn’t have much elusiveness. Not bad hands.” Grew up on a farm in Elliottsburg, Pa., where his father, Abdul Muhaimin, trained Islamic terrorists nearly 10 years ago. He was convicted of lying to federal investigators and sentenced in March 1999 to a year in federal prison. Smith, a devout Muslim, has said he struggles balancing football and his religion.

4. CHRIS BROWN, Colorado 6-2 1/2 220 4.54 1-2

“He’s a slasher and has power,” Polian said. “He’s a run-you-over guy. He would remind you of the old-fashioned Nebraska I-backs.” Fourth-year junior who was lightly recruited out of Naperville (Ill.) North and spent 1999 at Northwestern. Played at a junior college in ’00, had two dominant games late in ’01 and gained 1,841 yards and scored 19 touchdowns in ’02. “He runs high like James Stewart of the (Detroit) Lions but he’s got way better speed,” one scout said. “His running style lends to get hit in the chest. I just wish he could catch the ball better.” Scouts worry about his raw receiving skills (11 catches in two years) and mild fumbling problem.

5. ONTERRIO SMITH, Oregon 5-10 220 4.55 1-2

Fourth-year junior. “Explosive, great burst, not a bad receiver,” San Francisco scout John Brunner said. Backup at Tennessee in ’99 and then was kicked out by a school which, scouts say, almost always looks the other way. Redshirted in ’00 and rushed for 2,199 yards the last two years. “He can spin, he has balance, catches the ball in his hands, not much of a blocker,” one scout said. “Probably as talented a back as there is out there but his life is a mess.” Reportedly tested positive for drugs at Tennessee and was arrested for drunk driving at Oregon. “He’s a colorful kid but he’s not evil,” another scout said. “No one’s incorrigible. He’s going to be high maintenance. Should have a good career if he understands what it takes to be a good player.”

6. LEE SUGGS, Virginia Tech 5-11 1/2 204 4.49 2-3

Shared Big East Conference Player of the Year honors with Michael Vick in 2000 after 1,207-yard season, blew out anterior cruciate knee ligament in ’01 opener and came back to gain 1,325 in ’02. “He’s got the great character and the great toughness,” one scout said. “He will be a good player if he can stay healthy.” No better than an adequate receiver and ran a disappointing time this spring. “He’s really talented but he’s kind of like the guy we took last year (Maurice Morris),” McCloughan said. “He’s not an every-down back.”

7. JUSTIN FARGAS, Southern Cal. 6-1 219 4.40 2-3

Transferred from Michigan in ’01 after multiple leg and toe operations stymied his career. Replaced Sultan McCullough late in the year and rushed for 715 yards, then surprised some personnel people by blazing a 40 at the combine. “People are going to miss on him,” one scout said. “Everybody is worried about the injury he had at Michigan. (Expletive), that’s behind him. He’s one of the old- fashioned runners that says, ‘Just give me the ball and I’ll get it to the goal-line.’ But he does have to learn to protect himself better.” Upright runner. “With his frame and putting his head in there, that’s why he’s always been hurt,” another scout said. “He can fly, but he’s got to change his mentality and he’s not a real elusive guy.” Has so-so hands. His father, Antonio Fargas, played Huggy Bear on popular television series “Starsky & Hutch.”

8. ARTOSE PINNER, Kentucky 5-9 1/2 229 4.60 3

Backed up first three years and looked like a free agent. Came out of nowhere as a senior to gain 1,414 yards. “What a productive back he was for an average football team,” one scout said. Rugged north- south runner with huge legs. Suffered a broken fibula in the Senior Bowl and won’t be able to run a 40 before the draft. “He doesn’t have real good speed,” another scout said. “There’s one-year production, although it was a damn good year. He’s a good, honest back.”

9. CECIL SAPP, Colorado State 5-11 226 4.52 3-4

Saved his best season for ’02, rushing for 1,601 yards and 17 touchdowns. “He’s a pure inside runner,” one scout said. “Tough, pinball, strong thighs and hips. He hurts tacklers. He can catch but they don’t use him that way much. You’re going to have to keep it simple for him (10 on the Wonderlic intelligence test).” Sat out ’01 with leg and heel injuries. Has a fumbling problem. “To me, he’s a better back than Tony Fisher because he’s stronger and has more balance,” another scout said. “Blue-collar, chain-moving type.”

10. LaBRANDON TOEFIELD, Louisiana St. 5-11 229 4.56 4

“Toefield could be a first-round pick,” Angelo said. “He’s got that kind of talent. But he’s been hurt a lot.” Has suffered major ligament damage in each knee. Third-year junior with 2,149 yards and 26 touchdowns in three seasons. “He’s got some of the same running traits that some of the great backs have,” another scout said. “Low center of gravity. Balance. Versatility to catch the ball. Quick first step. Vision.”

OTHERS: Domanick Davis, Louisiana State; Derek Watson, South Carolina State; Earnest Graham, Florida; Dwone Hicks, Middle Tennessee State; Sultan McCullough, Southern California; Nick Maddox, Florida State; Quentin Griffin, Oklahoma; Kerry Carter, Stanford; Avon Cobourne, West Virginia; Santonio Beard, Alabama; Dahrran Diedrick, Nebraska.


1. OVIE MUGHELLI, Wake Forest 6-1 250 4.87 3-4

Four-year starter. “He’s probably the best blocking fullback,” Carolina director of college scouting Tony Softli said. Had 81 of his 137 career carries as a senior and 322 of his 530 rushing yards. “He’ll knock your head off as a blocker,” Nay said. “Big, tough, strong guy that really blocks. As long as you don’t move. He doesn’t adjust in space.” Regarded as a high-character player. “Hands are like (William) Henderson’s,’ one scout said. “The ball has to be within his reach. Stiff runner. Looks like a Henderson type guy.”

2. B.J. ASKEW, Michigan 6-2 241 4.62 3-4

Lead-blocking fullback for Anthony Thomas in 2000, led team in rushing with 902 yards as starting running back in ’01 and moved back to fullback in ’02, rushing for 568 yards and catching 36 passes. “I thought he was kind of a one-back kind of guy but now I like him as a fullback,” Brunner said. “He can stay on the field and be your third- down guy because he can block.” Tested as the best athlete among the fullbacks. “He can run and catch and he’s an athlete,” one scout said. “He’s a willing blocker, just not very strong. You just can’t find fullbacks anymore but at least he has some qualities that could help a team.”

3. CASEY MOORE, Stanford 6-2 247 4.65 3-4

“He’s not very powerful,” one scout said. Started every game from Week 3 of his freshman season (1999) on. “Physically, he looks like he’d be a great player,” Tennessee director of player personnel Rich Snead said. “He’s just not there yet.” Four-year totals show 158 carries for 961 yards, a 6.1 average and 11 touchdowns, plus 50 catches for 513 yards. “Catches OK. Blocks OK. Runs OK,” another scout said. “Doesn’t do anything great.”

4. ANDREW PINNOCK, South Carolina 5-10 255 4.78 3-4

Started 20 of 44 games, mostly at running back. “For his size, he’s quick,” Softli said. “Some people might put him in the Jerome Bettis type things as a single back.” Had 1,852 yards in career (4.4 average) but only 28 catches. “He fumbles the ball a lot and he can’t catch,” one scout said. “He runs over people. If you want to pound the ball away at the end of the game, that’s him.” Anything but a quick study.

5. JEREMI JOHNSON, W. Kentucky 5-11 1/2 268 4.91 4

Three-year player at Indiana, starting in ’01. Then, after becoming embroiled in a dispute with the coaching staff, transferred down to WKU. “On and off the field, he’s not very disciplined, which is why they ran his (expletive) off at Indiana,” one scout said. “He’s got a lot of natural talent. High-maintenance guy.” Averaged 5.5 for complete college career and caught 60 passes. Not very smart and has a weight problem.

6. J.T. WALL, Georgia 5-11 1/2 262 4.82 4-5

Began career at NAIA Southwest Baptist in Bolivar, Mo., but wanted a greater challenge and walked on in his home state at Georgia. “Big and strong,” one scout said. “Inconsistent hands. Inconsistent blocker. Tough. Smart. Run over you.” Started in ’02, carrying 30 times for 149 yards.

7. BRANDON DRUMM, Colorado 6-1 1/2 227 4.69 5

Two-year starter with merely 23 rushes and 39 receptions in four seasons. “Good blocker and good catcher,” one scout said. “Pretty limited run skills. He comes in high and tries to kick your (expletive) off. Tough guy. He won’t have any trouble carrying 240 pounds.”

8. JUSTIN GRIFFITH, Miss. State 5-11 232 4.62 5

Four-year fullback who started in 1999 and ’02. “Not a bad blocker,” one scout said. “He can be a fullback and a tailback, and he can catch.” Had neck surgery in ’01 and missed half the season.

9. JAMES LYNCH, Maryland 5-10 271 4.78 5-6

Started for two years and rushed just 31 times in a three-year career. Declared a year early. “Runs pretty decent and a decent blocker,” one scout said. “Four, five, six years ago, I’d say he would get picked. Now nobody uses a fullback.”

10. MALAEFOU MacKENZIE, Southern Cal. 5-10 233 4.53 6

Spent six years with Trojans, redshirting in ’98 with torn knee ligament and sitting out ’01 after returning to Samoa for a death in the family. Backup tailback until mid-’02, when he started at fullback. “He can be an excellent third-down back and special teamer,” one scout said. “He’ll be a good blocker. Thing is, he will never be more than that.”

OTHERS: Tom Lopienski, Notre Dame; J.P. Comella, Boston College; Chris Davis, Syracuse; Josh Rue, Duquesne; Claude Diggs, Richmond; Casey Urlacher, Lake Forest.

Copyright 2003 Journal Sentinel Inc. Note: This notice does not

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