Is USC still Tailback U?

You have probably heard the names Linebacker U or Tailback U associated with college football programs with perhaps more than one school proclaiming to be a position U. Which schools truly deserve that distinction?

I used the following criteria to determine which school is truly a position U:

  1. One can certainly debate how good a player was in college. However, when it comes to being named an All-American, there is no debate. If a player was named an All-American, he had to be very good. Rather than add to a school’s claim of being “position U” with players who weren’t All-Americans, and debate how good they were, such as the University of Miami’s quarterbacks Jim Kelly and Bernie Kosar or Auburn’s running backs William Andrews, Joe Cribbs, James Brooks, Lionel James, and Ronnie Brown, only 1st, 2nd and 3rd-team All-Americans factored into the selection and evaluation process.
  2. Only a player’s collegiate performance was taken into account and considered, and not what they accomplished as a professional. If a Heisman Trophy winner or an All-American was a bust in the NFL, that doesn’t diminish what they accomplished at the collegiate level. Their performance as a pro does not factor in or influence this selection process.

Also, occasionally a position change occurs for a player from his college to professional career so which position does the school get credit for? For example, should Terrelle Pryor count as a wide receiver for Ohio State?  That’s absurd. That’s why only their college career should count towards a being a position U.

In comparing each school’s All-Americans from the past 50 years, obviously some were greater than others. Past and recent greatness as well as consistency through the years are what constitute a school being chosen as a position U.

This is my look at the running backs in my series on which school should be known as Tailback U.

Next to the position of quarterback, running back is the next glamourous position in all of college football. When you hear “Running Back U” which is more commonly referred to as “Tailback U” what school comes to mind? In the ‘60s and ‘70s, it was unquestionably USC, but are they still Tailback U?

Let’s look at those schools that rate Honorable Mention and work out way up to which school is Tailback U.

Stanford rates an honorable mention with nine All-American running backs in the past 50 seasons. Granted, some were fullbacks, but fullbacks are running backs. The list of Cardinal All-American running backs begins with Darrin Nelson in 1981, then Brad Muster in 1986, Glyn Milburn ’92, Toby Gerhart ’09, Owen Marecic ’10, Stepfan Taylor ’12, Tyler Gaffney ’13, Christian McCaffrey ’15 and ’16 and Bryce Love in 2017. In seven out of the last nine years a Stanford running back has been an All-American which is quite an impressive accomplishment.

Also earning honorable mention is UCLA with eight All-American running backs in the past 50 seasons beginning with Kermit Johnson and James McAllister both in 1973. Other notable Bruin All-American backs were Freeman McNeil ’79-’80, Gaston Green ’86-87, Karim Abdul-Jabbar ’95, Skip Hicks ’97, DeShaun Foster ’01 and Johnathan Franklin in 2012.

In the last 50 seasons, Oklahoma had six All-American running backs, and what an incredibly talented six they are.  Two were Heisman Trophy winners and three were two-time All-Americans:  Steve Owens 1968 and Heisman Trophy recipient in 1969 and Billy Sims Heisman Trophy winner in 1978 and repeat All-American in 1979. The other Sooner All-American running backs were outstanding as well:  Greg Pruitt ’71-’72, Joe Washington ’73, Adrian Peterson in 2004 and Samaje Perrine in 2014-2016.

For the record, both Georgia and Oklahoma State also had six All-American running backs, but each only one Heisman Trophy winner as compared to Oklahoma’s two.

Wisconsin, known for their running offense and 1,000-yard running backs, had nine All-American running backs, Billy Marek in 1974, Brent Moss ’93, four-time All-American and Heisman Trophy winner Ron Dayne ’96-’99, Brian Calhoun in 2005, P.J. Hill in 2006, John Clay in 2010, Montee Ball in 2011 and 2012 when he won the Doak Walker Award, followed by another Doak Walker Award winner in Melvin Gordon in 2014. The most recent Badger All-American running back was Jonathan Taylor in 2017. The Badgers come in at number six on our countdown to Tailback U.

The Running Back U discussion would not be complete without mentioning Texas. The Longhorns had eight All-American running backs which have three two-time All Americans Steve Worster in 1969 and 1970, Earl Campbell in 1975 and 1977 and Ricky Williams in 1997 and 1998. Campbell won the Heisman Trophy in ’77 as did Williams in ’98. The other All-American Longhorn running backs were: Chris Gilbert ’68, Roosevelt Leaks ’73, Cedric Benson ’04, Jamaal Charles ’07, and D’Onta Foreman added to Texas’ rich running back history with an All-American season in 2016.

Ohio State’s great running backs over the years include three-time All-American Archie Griffin ’73-’75, who won the Heisman trophy his junior and senior years, and Eddie George, Heisman Trophy winner in 1995.  The Buckeyes had six other All-American running backs since the late ‘60s, Jim Otis ‘69, John Brockington ‘70, Keith Byars ’84, Beanie Wells in 2007, Carlos Hyde in 2013 and Ezekiel Elliott in 2015.

Both Texas and Ohio State had eight All-American running backs and two Heisman Trophy winners, but give the Buckeyes a slight edge over Texas for having two All-Americans to one for Texas in the past five seasons.

At number three as Tailback U is Penn State. That may come as a surprise to some but the Nittany Lions had 10 All-Americans at running back, at least one in each decade beginning with Charlie Pittman ’69, and then Lydell Mitchell ’71, John Cappelletti ’73, Curt Warner ’81 & ’82, D.J. Dozier ’86, Blair Thomas ’87, Ki-Jana Carter ’94, Curtis Enis ’97, Larry Johnson in 2002 and Saquon Barkley in 2016 and 2017.

The Trojans had nine All-American running backs, four of which were Heisman trophy winners.  Since the late ‘60s, no other position at any university has had as many Heisman trophy winners than running back at USC. That is very impressive.

The list of Trojan running All-American backs consists of:  O.J. Simpson ’68, Clarence Davis ’69, Sam Cunningham ’72, Anthony Davis ’74, Ricky Bell ’75-’76, Charles White ’78-’79, Marcus Allen ’81, Reggie Bush ’04-’05 with Simpson, White, Allen and Bush winning college football’s greatest individual honor. Yes, I know Bush’s Heisman was vacated but what he did on the field was undeniable.

In fact, if there was a Heisman U since 1968 it would be USC with six as quarterbacks Carson Palmer and Matt Leinart also added Heisman hardware to USC’s trophy cases. Why is USC no longer Tailback U? Since 1982, USC had only two All-American running backs. That’s two in the last 36 seasons, Bush and Ronald Jones II in 2017. That undeniable fact keeps USC from the top spot as Tailback U. In that same time frame since 1982, Alabama has produced eight All-American running backs.

With the slightest of margins for Tailback U, because of their great success of late, the University of Alabama is now Tailback U. Only Penn State and Stanford match Alabama in the number of All-American running backs with 10, but in the last 10 years Alabama has produced three All-American running backs, two of them Heisman Trophy winners and the other won the Doak Walker Award.

Alabama’s 10 All-American running backs consist of: two-time All-American Johnny Musso ’70 & ’72, Johnny Davis ’77, Ricky Moore ’83, another two-time All-American in Bobby Humphrey ’86 & ’87, Siran Stacy ’89, Sherman Williams in ’94, Shaun Alexander in 1999, Heisman Trophy winner Mark Ingram in 2009, Doak Walker Award recipient Trent Richardson in 2011, and their second Heisman Trophy winner Derrick Henry in 2015. Move over Traveler, Big Al has passed you by.

Interesting fact:  Surprisingly Nebraska, which for decades had a power running game, had only four All-American running backs in the past 50 seasons: Jeff Kinney in 1971, Jarvis Redwine in 1980, Mike Rozier in 1982 & 1983 and Ameer Abdullah in 2013 & 2015. That’s as many as the University of Miami: Chuck Foreman in 1972, Cleveland Gary in 1988, Willis McGahee in 2002 and Duke Johnson in 2014.

Alabama Photo credit: Greece Trip Admin on VisualHunt / CC BY-NC-SA

Ohio State Photo credit: buckeyekes on Visual Hunt / CC BY-SA

Penn State Photo credit: Photo on Visual Hunt

USC Photo credit: Neon Tommy on Visual Hunt / CC BY-SA

Texas ballcarrier courtesy of Keith JJ found at:

Wisconsin Badger Photo credit: Instagram: @Maitri on Visual hunt / CC BY-NC-ND

John Baranowski is a sports historian and contributor to newspapers, sports publications and sports websites. This and other articles written by him can be found on his blog:




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