November 23, 2010
As a general rule, it's a good idea to take the postseason awards circuit with a grain of salt. They're fun and they're probably the best we can do to formally recognize the best players, but not worth getting worked up over. Among the multitude of culled award lists released Monday, though, I did raise an eyebrow when the Doak Walker Award in Dallas came out with Wisconsin's John Clay as one of three finalists – along with the obvious choices, Oregon's LaMichael James and Oklahoma State's Kendall Hunter – as the best running back in the nation.
Clay is a fine back with two-thirds of a fine season under his belt, but as of right now, he's only one of three finalists to start for his own team when the Badgers try to lock up a Rose Bowl bid Saturday against Northwestern. After Clay was knocked out of the lineup during the Nov. 6 win at Purdue, backup Montee Ball picked up the torch with a 100-yard romp against the Boilermakers in relief, and has continued rolling with two straight 100-yard efforts in blowouts over Indiana and Michigan. He's been joined in the century club in both of those games by James White, who's averaging seven yards per carry with as many touchdowns (13) and more yards from scrimmage than Clay for the season. If the Badgers have even noticed that Clay hasn't been on the field for two-and-a-half weeks, their opponents certainly haven't.
And neither, apparently, have the voters for the Doak Walker Award. OK, no big deal. (LaMichael James is a shoo-in, anyway.) But as a public service, here are five candidates who would have better served the honor, such as it is, of the final cut:
• Mikel Leshoure, Illinois. Start in the Big Ten, with the conference's leading rusher among actual running backs. (Michigan's Denard Robinson, statistical feats notwithstanding, doesn't play predominantly at the running back position, at least by the current, slightly outdated definition.) Leshoure was already over 1,000 yards on the ground before last weekend, but his 330-yard outburst against Northwestern Saturday was the best individual total of the year, and left him as the owner of school records for rushing yards in a single game and a single season. He's done some damage as a receiver, too, an area where Clay – like all Wisconsin backs from time immemorial – is a nonentity.
• DeMarco Murray, Oklahoma. Murray isn't even remotely close to his stated preseason goal of 2,000 yards rushing – he's a 983 through 11 games – but he has remained healthy, and has affirmed his status as the best all-purpose back in the country. With his receiving totals, he's ninth in the nation in yards from scrimmage, has scored a touchdown in every game and is tied for the national lead with 19 touchdowns on the year.
Plus, he can do this:
So there's that.
• Daniel Thomas, Kansas State. Thomas' star has begun to fade late, along with his team's, but he opened the season with one of the most impressive efforts of the year, a 234-yard, two-touchdown romp over UCLA, and has delivered six more 100-yard games and 12 touchdowns over the last ten. He's already cracked 1,200 yards on the ground for the second year in a row, and with the expected effort Saturday against North Texas, he should leave Manhattan with more than 3,000 total yards and nearly 30 touchdowns in a two-year career.
• Jordan Todman, UConn. Todman has quietly barreled his way to eight 100-yard games in nine starts, including a 33-carry , 113-yard effort against West Virginia and a 37-carry, 222-yard night against Pitt in back-to-back upsets over the Big East frontrunners, keeping the Huskies' heads above water in the murky conference race. Never spectacular, but like 2,000-yard predecessor Donald Brown before, a durable, reliable workhorse: Todman currently ranks second nationally in both yards and carries per game.
• Marcus Lattimore, South Carolina. I know we don't want to ply the freshmen with laurel wreaths before their first bowl game. But if I had a vote in the Walker process (I don't), Lattimore would get that vote, and he may get it before Kendall Hunter. That's partly for the usual reasons: He's the only SEC running back (again, excluding the league's prolific running quarterback, Auburn's Cam Newton) averaging 100 yards per game on the ground, and he's up there with DeMarco Murray in the national lead for total touchdowns.
But it's mainly because of his immediate prowess as the most fierce big-game back in the country. In his first SEC game, Lattimore ran 37 times for 182 yards, scored twice, and broke 29 tackles in a Gamecock win over Georgia. Against Alabama, he came as close as any back in three years to cracking the century mark against the Tide with 93 yards on 23 carries, and also caught a touchdown pass in arguably the biggest win in Gamecock history. With the SEC East crown on the line at Florida, where South Carolina had never won, he ran 40 times for 212 yards and three scores in a Gamecock rout that sent them on to their first SEC Championship Game.
Those were South Carolina's three biggest games at the kickoff, and Lattimore played a central, usually dominating role in all three. Not coincidentally, Carolina is about to play for its first conference championship in 50 years. He doesn't have the jaw-dropping numbers on the national leader boards, and he was MIA in the losses to Auburn and Arkansas (in the latter case, because of injury). But no back anywhere has done more this year to lift his team to a level it couldn't reach without him.
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Matt Hinton is on Twitter: Follow him @DrSaturday.