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Unheralded runner the real story at UM

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By JOHN ROMANO, Times Sports Columnist

© St. Petersburg Times
published September 22, 2002

MIAMI -- The first step in choosing a Heisman candidate is realizing the difference between reputation and reality. Or, in Miami's case, realizing the difference between quarterback and tailback.

Ken Dorsey is the quarterback. He has the magazine covers. He has name recognition and folks gushing about his winning percentage.

Willis McGahee is the tailback. He has the talent.

If the distinction is not yet obvious, it should be soon.

You first saw it two weeks ago when McGahee, not Dorsey, delivered against Florida. A week later, when the Hurricanes were snoozing against Temple, McGahee again was the difference.

It became a little more obvious Saturday when the Hurricanes were struggling against Boston College and turned to McGahee.

Miami was trailing 6-3 with less than a minute remaining in the first half and the ball near midfield. It was a time for the 2-minute offense. A time for the quarterback to take control.

Instead, Dorsey handed the ball to McGahee. Seconds later, the Hurricanes had their first lead of the night.

The sophomore broke one tackle, eluded another and then outran several defenders before being dragged down at the 1 for a 48-yard gain.

"They're going to be stopped some, but the good ones are able to make big plays," Miami coach Larry Coker said. "Willis is that type of player."

Although his name has begun showing up in some Heisman polls, McGahee is not a strong candidate. His profile is too small and Dorsey's is too large.

But if the Hurricanes are to repeat as national champions, there is a good chance McGahee will carry the largest load.

Not bad for a guy who once was the least-popular tailback on the roster.

A year ago, Clinton Portis was on his way to the NFL. Frank Gore was on his way to replacing Portis. No one was sure which way McGahee was heading.

Coaches considered him difficult. Teammates were not impressed with his attitude. Worst of all, they all knew he was capable of so much more.

A top prospect from Miami's Central High, McGahee had caught the attention of Hurricanes coaches in eighth grade. It was considered one of Miami's bigger coups when he snubbed Florida and Florida State to remain home.

McGahee has been clocked at 4.28 in the 40 and is among team leaders in virtually every weightlifting category.

"The guy pretty much has it all," running backs coach Don Soldinger said. "He's probably the strongest guy on the team and he's one of the fastest, if not the fastest. He's just a real special guy. He has it all: strength, speed, he can catch, he can block."

What he had trouble doing was conforming. Coaches said he resisted all instruction. A redshirt freshman in 2001, McGahee bounced all around the depth chart. He arrived as the No. 2 tailback, dropped to No. 3, moved to fullback for the Rose Bowl, then went back to No. 2 tailback.

When the Hurricanes finally turned his way, it was not because of a change of heart. More like a twisted knee. Gore blew out his knee in a spring practice and McGahee stepped into the void.

He has been running in the open field since.

As for Dorsey, his role is unchanged. He may have been the most recognizable player on the roster last season, but he was far from the best.

Dorsey did not carry the 'Canes to a national championship, he pushed them. There is a difference.

It was Dorsey's job to delegate, rather than take control. Portis was the key to the offense and, along with one of the greatest offensive lines in college history, made Dorsey look better than he was.

At times, it seems Dorsey's greatest achievement is recognizing his shortcomings. He is not terribly mobile, does not have a strong arm and is a couple of pecs short of solid.

His passes take too long to reach their destination and Miami's receivers have the welts to prove it. More than once Saturday night a receiver stood, waiting for the pass to arrive, while a defender timed a blindside hit.

Still, it works. It works because Dorsey is both smart and dedicated. Because he is usually selfless and rarely careless.

He does not throw interceptions and usually gets rid of the ball before a sack. Dorsey may have the glamour position, but he understands the offense is good enough to find any end zone if he can avoid mistakes.

This is what he does best.

He does not dazzle with skills. He does not win on his own. Dorsey distributes the wealth. He recognizes a defense's weakness and he exploits it by delivering the ball to the proper teammate at the proper moment.

Who knows?

By season's end, he may even hand the Heisman to McGahee.

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