The Port Arthur News
PORT ARTHUR —
Editor’s note: The following column from the Best of West collection was originally published in the Port Arthur News on Sept. 21, 2006.
It was on one of the Houston sports talks shows, and I’m not sure which station, that the stinking reality of Jamaal Charles’ situation at the University of Texas hit home to me.
One of the hosts, in response to his partner talking about Charles being mentioned as a possible Heisman Trophy candidate, cut in and said: “Forget the Heisman. He’s a great running back, but he’s a part-time player. Nobody playing part time gets serious Heisman consideration.”
Indeed they don’t and it doesn’t appear things are going to change any time soon. Although anybody who understands football knows Charles is an exceptional talent who will ultimately be a high first round draft pick in the NFL, he’s going to have to share the ball with fifth-year senior Selvin Young.
UT head coach Mack Brown apparently made that call early on. It seems to be sort of a combination gold watch for a high-character player who’s been around five years, and a reward for the work he put in during the off-season. Young has responded by playing the best football of his career.
Through three games, Young and Charles have each carried the ball 38 times, with Jamaal averaging 6.7 per carry and Young 6.3. Because of how well Young has played, it’s pretty difficult to second guess the strategy.
That doesn’t mean those of us who are partial to Charles have to like it. Jamaal is arguably the fastest back in college football, as established in the NCAA 100-meters, and is the most explosive this side of Oklahoma’s Adrian Peterson. Playing full-time, he’d be up among the national rushing leaders.
While Jamaal has outwardly embraced the way he’s being used, probably because Young played a big brother role for him last year as a freshman, you have to think he’s not pleased about the limited opportunities. It was nothing for him to carry the ball over 30 times at Memorial and, on one memorable afternoon in searing heat against Midland Lee, he lugged it 47 times.
It’s pretty much a given that great backs get better as the game goes as they get into a rhythm and defenses wear down. Charles can’t get into any sort of rhythm the way he’s being used. He gets two or three carries, then he’s back on the sidelines. It has to be frustrating.
I couldn’t help but laugh early in the year when Brown explained that Texas would just go with whatever back had the hot hand. It made me think of the Oklahoma game last year when Jamaal ran 80 yards for a touchdown — the longest TD run ever by a UT back against the Sooners — then didn’t touch the ball again for nearly a quarter.
Again, I perfectly understand the rationale to play Selvin Young. There will be no attempt here to say that Young doesn’t deserve the consideration. He’s had some tough luck with injuries and Brown may be trying to showcase him enough to open the eyes of NFL scouts. If that was my son, I’d be eternally grateful.
It does, however, go against the grain of putting the best, most talented player on the field and brings to mind how Oklahoma dealt with a similar decision when Joe Washington was a freshman.
Little Joe arrived at OU in the early ‘70s when the powerful Sooners were about to win back-to-back national championships. They had two terrific halfbacks in their wishbone offense, sensational Greg Pruitt and solid, dependable senior Joe Wylie.
By mid-season, Washington was starting in Wylie’s place. Oklahoma coaches knew a special talent when they saw one and couldn’t justify holding him back. The payback to Wylie came when the Sooners rewarded his loyalty by starting him over Washington in the Sugar Bowl.
“Wylie started and played most of the game,” Washington said. “Chuck Fairbanks, the head coach, told me, ‘Don’t worry, Joe, you will get to play in bowl games the next three years.’ I didn’t like that explanation at the time, and liked it less when we wound up on probation and couldn’t go to a bowl game the next two years.”
With Charles, you can’t help but wonder about the kind of numbers he’d put up if Texas would make him the feature back. Perhaps the probability they know exactly what he would do is why it hasn’t happened. Once a guy breaks loose for 250 or 300 yards, it’s difficult to sell dividing time.
Provided he stays healthy, Charles figures to get the big numbers and that Heisman shot next year. But, as Washington would tell him, there are no sure things. Like with Louisville’s talented running back Michael Bush, who stuck around one more year to make a Heisman run and help the Cardinals challenge for the national championship, it can end on one play.
Even if he stays healthy, Charles is being deprived of a chance to climb high up on the Texas all-time rushing charts with the likes of Ricky Williams, Cedric Benson and Earl Campbell. And, yes, I understand it’s all about team, and all that and records are secondary. I also noticed Vince Young rarely came out of blowouts early, all the better to help his Heisman numbers.
About the best Charles and his Port Arthur fans can hope for this year is that Texas puts more and more emphasis on running the ball, because that’s what it does best. Perhaps that lesson was driven home when the Longhorns paid the price for getting away from a running game that was working against Ohio State.
Maybe Texas can run the ball enough to get Young and Charles 20 carries each, instead of 12 or 13. Maybe each one of them can be on the field long enough to find the rhythm that enables running backs to make the most of their abilities.
Charles, meanwhile, needs to never lose sight of the fact that college football at the level he’s playing is mostly about business and making money. Jamaal needs to make the best of the situation he’s in this year, have that breakout season next year and file for early entry to the NFL.
Sports editor Bob West can be e-mailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.