It took an injury for Willis McGahee to find the spotlight. He's comfortable in it.
By BOB HARIG, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times, published September 8, 2002
GAINESVILLE -- He is the fastest player in Miami football history, and some say the strongest. To think: Willis McGahee had a difficult time getting onto the field for the Hurricanes.
It's hard to believe when you see the speedy moves, the bulging biceps and the eye-popping numbers he put up Saturday against Florida in 41-16 victory at Florida Field.
McGahee powered his way through the Gators for 204 yards, the fourth back in UM history to surpass the 200-yard mark. It was the fourth-best rushing total against Florida, and McGahee was the second player since 1982 to rush for 200 yards against the Gators.
And if it weren't for an injury to Frank Gore in spring practice, McGahee would have made the trip to Gainesville as a backup.
"I was injured and wasn't really into it last year," McGahee said. "I wasn't into it like I am this year. I knew I had to do better."
McGahee, a 6-foot-1, 224-pound redshirt sophomore, picked up the entire UM team and lifted it onto his shoulders. With quarterback Ken Dorsey looking far from the best player on his team, McGahee carried the load.
He averaged 8.5 yards a carry and had a long gain of 39 yards. He kept churning for yardage when there was none.
McGahee's backup, Jason Geathers, added 72 yards on 13 carries.
"He just stepped up," guard Sherko Haji-Rasouli said of McGahee. "He did what it took to win. He just played and played and played. He gave us momentum when we didn't have it. He kept pounding away and giving so much effort. He made runs that were supposed to be 2-yard losses and made them into 4-yard gains."
Center Brett Romberg, who called McGahee a "genetic freak," remembered when he came to UM two years ago out of Miami Central High. He couldn't believe the physical skills, the size and strength, the speed. He remembered thinking McGahee could be better than Edgerrin James, who is in the NFL and is prominent in the Miami record book.
But looks don't always translate to greatness. "There was a time when people were doubting him," Romberg said. "He wouldn't finish. He was an immature football player. His attitude changed. He became a man. He matured."
In the spring of 2000, McGahee was so impressive that UM's new head coach Larry Coker marveled. After all, there was Clinton Portis, who led the team in rushing last season and left after his junior season to enter the NFL draft. Wasn't he supposed to be the man?
"We talked about the best back we had, and it wasn't Clinton Portis," Coker said.
But Portis' experience and moves won out. McGahee took the backup job and was impressive in last season's opener against Penn State, rushing for 77 yards. He added 74 in a game a few weeks later. Then he injured his knee, Gore took over, and McGahee sulked. When he returned, he couldn't get back on the field.
Then Gore sustained a serious knee injury in spring practice that will keep him out until at least next month. McGahee was the man again. And Saturday, he did not disappoint.
"That's a game I was waiting to have," McGahee said. "I was just making the reads, hitting the holes, picking up 8 or 9 yards. I felt really good about myself tonight."