Monday, December 12, 2005

Great Valley Backs, Why do They Go Elsewhere?

The Valley has seen it's share of great running backs in the last twenty years, and Clovis East's Tracy Slocum just might be the best of the bunch.

I am writing this just on memory and little or no research. I am sure I might be missing some info, but I just do not feel like doing any research. So please, if I miss a name, point, year, or anything else, drop me a line or comment. All help is welcome.

I will start my list with former Hanford Bullpup star Shawn Wills. I was in elementary school when this Cat was breaking Valley rushing records, and dreamed he would suit up for the Bulldogs. If I am correct he was a class of 87 recruit and during that time Fresno State lacked a featured back. Kelly Skipper was good but in four years he never had a 1,000 yard season and his career game high was 109 yards. I remember a game in 1988 at CS Fullerton where Skipper tore off a 80 yard TD run but still did not get over a 100 yards rushing. WTF?

So you can see as a wide-eyed 6th grader I saw Wills as a savior and a replacement for two time 1,000 yard rusher James Williams. I do not think Wills even considered Fresno State, but he should have. He signed with UCLA, but never materialized into a great college back. I believe his career season high was just over 500 yards and not once in his four years was he the featured back. Meanwhile, Fresno State inked a bona fide stud in JUCO Aaron Craver in the spring of 89. Craver posted back to back 1,000 yard seasons in 89 and 90. Craver still holds the single season rushing TD record of 18. Fresno State also inked a highly touted back out of So Cal by the name of Ron Rivers in 89, or I believe could have been 90. If Rivers had the grades he would have been a Trojan or Bruin, but the Prop 48 fell into Jim Sweeney's lap. Rivers went on to become the best back in school history, while Wills became just another name at UCLA.

Next on my list is former Edison Tiger Ricky Whittle. Unlike the others on this list, Whittle did not have a illustrious career, but he did have a spectacular senior season. In the fall of 1990 I was a freshman starter on the offensive line/LB unit for the Edison JV football team and Whittle was the star tailback on the varsity. I saw first hand every game and game breaking moves Whittle put on opposing teams his senior year. Everyone from Nebraska to Texas A&M were beckoning for his services. Again, Fresno State was not high on his list. Craver was a senior in 1990 and Rivers was an unknown commodity sitting out the 1990 season. Whittle would have battled Rivers, Anthony Daigle and James Allison for playing time as a true.

When Whittle signed with Oregon in 1991 it sent shockwaves throughout the Edison campus and up and down the Valley. Oregon was not the Oregon of today. Yeah the Ducks were coming off back to back bowl games, their first ones in over 20+ years but were still a joke in the Pac 10. The facilities at Oregon were no better than Fresno State's back in the early 90's. The unis were the hideous green and yellow and Autzen was not nearly as daunting as it is today. Why go to a similar program, when the program with the most wins in the West the last five years, was in your own backyard? Whittle must have been psychic to blow of the likes of USC and Nebraska to sign with the Ducks.

At first his choice looked just plain dumb. His redshirt year the Ducks had a losing season and in his freshman year they barely made a bowl at 6-5. Whittle was regulated to the pine. He was playing behind a four year starter in Sean Burwell. Meanwhile, Fresno State was churning out yards by the chunks on the ground in 1991-92 behind Lorenzo Neal, Daigle and Rivers. Fresno State averaged over 300 yards a game rushing in 1991, which ranked third in the country behind only the option offenses of Nebraska and Air Force.

His Oregon decision looked even worse his sophomore season. In 1993, Fresno State had its most national media attention to date and played in its most prestigious bowl, the Aloha. Trent Dilfer and company were awesome. The Ducks had another losing season in 93 and Whittle still was nowhere near becoming a featured back in the Oregon offense. Whittle, if he had signed with the Dogs, would have certainly been targeted as the featured back for 94-95, his junior and senior seasons. But Whittle was still behind in the depth chart at Oregon in the preseason of 1994.

Had Whittle just become another Shawn Wills, but in a far less talented program? Hardly, Whittle's luck changed in 1994. As the Bulldogs went down, the Ducks went up. Oregon won the Pac 10 that year and played in the Rose Bowl. Along the way Whittle became a starter. In 1995 Whittle was the featured back in first year coach Mike Belloti's offense, and helped lead his team to the Cotton Bowl. Whittle had a 1,000 yards rushing, was named 1st team all-Pac 10 and 2nd AP all-American. Whittle ultimately had made the right choice or did he? Whittle could have helped the Dogs in 94 and 95, but it would have not made a difference in the outcome of the Bulldogs misfortune those years, unless Whittle had played defense.

In all, Whittle became a part of Oregon's football program's rebirth, an All-American, played in two historic bowl games, and was a 4th round draft pick of the New Orleans Saints. Like I said before Whittle did not have a historic high school career, unlike the next guy on my list, Steve Wofford.

For those who follow Valley high school football, there was not a more dynamic running back in the 1990's than Bakersfield's Steve Wofford. Wofford was even considered by some as the best running back in the nation heading into his senior in 1994. This guy was never, ever, ever, ever going to sign with Fresno State, but he probably should have. Wofford broke just about every major Valley and State rushing record in his four years as a Bakersfield Driller and ultimately signed with Cal in the spring of 1995. After that, it seemed like he just vanished off the face of the earth. He was never a star, but I do not know if injuries played a key or not. The fact remains the same, he never became a college football household name.

Had Wofford signed with Fresno State, he probably would have redshirted in 1995 and shared time with Michael Pittman in 1996 and 1997. Hindsight is 20/20, but just imagine if Hill had Wofford in 97-99. Hill turned an undersized, slow walk on, Jaime Kimbrough, into an an all-WAC running back in 1998.

Last on my list is Kenny James. The crown jewel among Valley running backs, James is the only great Valley running back, besides Slocum this year, to have even considered signing with Fresno State. James broke every record imaginable at Dos Palos and arguably was the best running back ever in the Central Section. James, like other great Valley backs, chose the Pac 10 and signed with Washington in the spring of 2002. Hill was banking on signing him, you could just feel it, but even without him, Hill still signed a very good class. James could have and, probably, would have been the starter in 2002 and just might have been the best running back in Bulldog history.

James has struggled at Washington, as have the Huskies, the last two years. He did not play much his redshirt freshman season in 2003 but was the starter opening day in 2004 opposite Fresno State. September 4, 2004 was one of James' best games, something he has few of. James lost his starting job this past year and may not even be the starter next year, his senior season. James is still an amazing talent but just made the wrong choice on signing day.

Slocum look at James' career at Washington and see it as a sign to become a Bulldog. Like I said in 2002 James would have been the starter. Derrick Ward was not on the team in spring of 2002 and Josh Levi was on top of the depth chart. Ward came back in the fall but could not qualify academically and Levi left the team. Walk on rFR Matt Rivera was the starter in the opener and former Dos Palos Bronco Rodney Davis was the back up. The 2002 Bulldogs would have been Kenny James' team, but we will never know what would have really happened had he been a Bulldog. James still has one more year to turn around his college career and has one more chance at the 'Dogs next year. Maybe James will transfer to a I-AA school or another I-A school perhaps Fresno State? In his three years at UW, the Huskies have not had a 1,000 yard rusher. While, FS has put out three different 1,000 yard rushers the last three years.

Lemoore's Lorenzo Neal and Merced's Wendell Mathis both tested the water in the Pac 10, Neal at Arizona and Mathis at UCLA. Both came back home to Fresno State and had great careers. Fresno State is the right fit for Slocum. There is no guarantee Dwayne Wright will be at full strength for 06. The same goes for Clifton Smith, and to boot Smith is not the bruiser Hill favors. Shannon Dorsey has great potential but durability is his problem. Slocum has a great chance to come in and be huge contributor as a true freshman.

But I will not blame him if he signs with a Pac 10 school. I never got the chance to play DI-A ball. I was a little undersized but I also got injured my sophomore year in high school and didn't play again. Players say one of the reasons they choose a certain school is because of the coach. I used to think that was bullshit. Come on, I used to think how come UCLA and Arizona State are not raking in every major recruit on the West Coast. USC is great but the campus is in Downtown LA. UCLA sits over in West LA. Besides the pussy baby blue jerseys, why wouldn't a high school kid want to play his college ball in Westwood among the stars.

As for Arizona State, I visited this campus when I was a senior in high school for a national MEChA conference. First the campus is beautiful. Second Sun Devil Stadium is an unparalleled college stadium west of the Mississippi. Third the girls were freakin hot. After partying for three straight days and dragging myself to workshops all day with a hangover, I thought what idiot would choose Pullman or Eugene over Tempe?

This brings me back to the point of choosing a school because of a coach. If I was a high school senior and I was offered a scholarship to play for Peter Carroll at USC, no way in hell am I turning it down. USC is the best program in the country right now and is there a better college coach in America than Carroll? To top it off, Carroll expects freshman to contribute. This year's Trojans are peppered with true freshman and are gunning for a third straight national title.

As for UCLA and Arizona State, just look at their coaches. UCLA's Karl Dorrell is fitting of the Bruin pussy baby blue jersey, and ASU's Dirk Koetter is, for the lack of a better word, a dick.

So, to sum it up if Tracy Slocum does not sign with the Bulldogs, best of luck to him. As history has shown standout Valley backs do not fare well when they leave home.


bdogpridevalleywide said...

this is a good site, but anyways, i couldnt have put it better myself, we loose waaaay too many of our best players. i think we as a community need to realize that something as simple as keeping these young guys here (as far as a recruit's parents, friends, and coaches are concerned its simple) would not only obviously help our football program but the university and our local economy and community as well. my buddy who went to edison told me the parents and players didnt like the fact that coach hill makes em earn their spots whereas other coaches from outside the valley practically promise it until they sign. w/e, great site and i'll be here again. p.s. i think it's gonna take something drastic like wearing shirts or decals or anything, directly targeting our great valley talent to keep em here. i dunno.

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