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April 13, 2008
When McCants missed five weeks of his senior season in high school in Corona, Calif., with a broken leg, he basically fell into the waiting arms of Beavers coach Mike Riley.
That's just fine for the Beavers, who have unearthed ? and lucked into ? some of the Pac-10's most productive running backs over the past decade.
In the Pac-10, Oregon has produced seven 1,000-yard backs since 1998; Cal has had six (in a row, at that) and USC five.
McCants, a redshirt freshman, is the favorite to join Ken Simonton, Steven Jackson and Yvenson Bernard in the Beavers' recent 1,000-yard club. McCants comes from the same unheralded roots as Simonton and Bernard and already is drawing comparisons to Jackson because of his size (he's 6 feet 1 and 236 pounds).
"We're really excited about him," said Riley, whose team began spring practice March 31. "We can't build up too much excitement because the guy hasn't played a down yet, but everything we've seen is nothing but positive."
If not for an injury in high school, Riley believes McCants would be elsewhere. A three-star recruit, McCants starred at Corona's Santiago High but wasn't a priority recruit for the Pac-10's powerhouses. Then, when he suffered a broken left leg in November of his senior season, his recruiting stalled.
"He was very much under the radar," Riley said. "We got a fairly early commitment."
"I wasn't really looking at Oregon State in my top five," said McCants, who returned for his final game of his senior year. "I was supposed to take a trip to either UCLA or Oregon State, and I chose Oregon State. I liked the coaching staff and the area, so I ended up committing a couple days after."
The unorthodox arrival of a star running back has become somewhat routine for the Beavers.
Simonton came to Oregon State from Pittsburg, Calif., where he was recruited by Riley while he was offensive coordinator at USC. When Riley was hired at Oregon State, Simonton fell off USC's radar and into Riley's lap.
After Riley left for the NFL, new coach Dennis Erickson plucked Jackson out of Las Vegas.
Then, when Riley returned from the pros in 2003, assistant athletic director Bob Clifford recommended Riley recruit Bernard, who was from Boca Raton, Fla. Clifford, a holdover from the Erickson era and a former administrator at Florida Atlantic in Boca Raton, cooked hot dogs at games for Bernard's high school team and noticed the running back.
"We don't have a lot of prospects in our state, so our job is to answer every phone call," Riley said. "They come to us in different fashions, not always along the lines of drawing up the ideal recruiting process."
It has created ideal results on the field, though. Simonton, Jackson and Bernard are three of the Pac-10's top eight career rushers. Those numbers and comparisons to Jackson mean there are big shoes to fill for McCants.
Simonton and Bernard were both shorter than 5 feet 9. At 6-1 and 236 pounds, McCants compares more to Jackson.
"My size is a strength, (but) I'm quicker than you might think," McCants said. "It's always nice to be compared to somebody like that. I guess you're doing something right if you're compared to someone that good."
Last season, with Bernard and senior backup Matt Sieverson, Oregon State had the luxury of redshirting McCants. This spring, Riley is finding out just how effective McCants can be when he runs with the first-team offense instead of the scout team.
"Even with size, he runs the outside plays that we use better than the inside plays right now," Riley said. "He has the speed to hit the corner. He's pretty scary when he turns it up."
Given the possibility that his top three tailbacks will be taking their first college snaps in 2008, Riley says he feels as good about the tailback position as he can.
In addition to McCants, Oregon State adds junior college transfer Jeremy Francis (6-1/220), who could become a third-down back. Diminutive true freshman Jacquizz Rodgers (5-6/180), the brother of wide receiver James Rodgers, is set to arrive in the fall with as much fanfare as any Oregon State back since Jackson. The lone returnee at tailback is senior Patrick Fuller, who had 10 carries for 40 yards last season.
All three will run behind a line that is a concern at this point. Three starters return, as does injured guard Jeremy Perry, but longtime starters Roy Schuening and Kyle DeVan are gone off a unit that struggled last season.
Thus, given the history at the position, running back may be the least of Oregon State's worries in the fall.
"I feel about as good as I could considering we're losing a guy like (Bernard) who has been the heart and soul of our football team," Riley said. "There comes a time when there's a changing of the guard and this is it at running back for us."
David Fox is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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