August 27, 2008

Walker was an immediate star at Georgia

Vince Dooley knew. He just didn't know when.

Dooley knew the freshman running back he recruited in 1980 was going to be something special for Georgia. But each freshman needs time to adjust to the speed, physicality and atmosphere of college football.

Herschel Walker needed less than a half.

A true freshman from tiny Wrightsville, Ga., Walker exploded onto the national scene Sept. 6, 1980, in the Bulldogs' 16-15 victory over Tennessee in Knoxville. Walker rushed for 84 yards and scored two touchdowns, one from 16 yards in which he trampled Tennessee safety Bill Bates.

"I knew Herschel was going to be a great player," Dooley said last week via phone. "The question in my mind was how soon was he going to be great, particularly coming out of a Class A school, the smallest classification. I wasn't sure.

"On the other hand, I was certainly going to give him the opportunity to see if he can make the adjustment."

Walker was third on the tailback depth chart behind senior Donnie McMickens and sophomore Carnie Norris. Dooley planned to play each two series before putting Walker in.

By halftime, McMickens would be relegated to special teams and Norris would be a backup the rest of his career.

"By the time we got to Herschel, there was no question in anybody's mind. Herschel was in a class by himself," Dooley said. "He made an immediate impact and he did it in front of the players, the coaches and all the Georgia people. By halftime, he had earned the starting role."

It was the run in which he bowled over Bates, who would later become his teammate on the NFL's Dallas Cowboys, for his first college touchdown that everyone truly became excited.

"My God Almighty, he ran right through two men!" legendary Georgia play-by-play Larry Munson raved on-air. "Herschel ran right over two men! They had him dead away inside the 9. Herschel Walker went 16 yards. He drove right over those orange shirts and is just driving and running with those big thighs. My God, a freshman!"

Bulldogs fans were expecting even more. After all, as Munson pointed out, he was just a freshman.

"Every time he got the ball, there was a roar of anticipation from the crowd that something big was going to happen," Dooley said. "And it did a lot of times."

Walker rushed for 1,616 yards, finished third in the Heisman Trophy voting and led the Bulldogs to the national title in 1980.

Walker won the Heisman in 1982, still owns all major school rushing records and was the fulcrum for the most successful era in Georgia history, in which the Bulldogs went 33-3 in three seasons.

All that success was reasonably predictable after that first game.

TEN MEMORABLE SEASON-OPENING DEBUTS

  • 1. Georgia RB Herschel Walker, 1980
  • Third on the depth chart going into the game, Walker didn't stay there long. He rushed for 84 yards and scored two touchdowns in leading the Bulldogs to a 16-15 season-opening victory over Tennessee. He rushed for 1,616 yards in leading the Bulldogs to the national championship that season. Many felt he should have been the first freshman to win the Heisman. Instead, he finished third in the voting, but won it two years later.

  • 2. Pittsburgh DE Hugh Green, 1977
  • Out of respect to a senior, Pitt coach Jackie Sherrill did not let Green, a true freshman, start the opener against Notre Dame. Green entered the game on the second play and immediately began constructing one of college football's greatest legacies. Green recorded 11 tackles, two sacks and blocked an extra point in a 19-9 loss to Notre Dame. The Irish went on to finish 11-1 and were crowned national champs. Pitt finished 9-2-1 and ranked eighth. Green earned All-America honors in 1978, '79 and '80, and finished second in the '80 Heisman voting. Pitt was 39-8-1 in Green's four seasons.

  • 3. Ohio State RB Maurice Clarett, 2002
  • A heralded recruit, Clarett, a true freshman, couldn't sleep on the eve of the season-opening game. No problem. Proving he was indeed worthy of the hype, Clarett rushed for 175 yards and scored three touchdowns on runs of 59, 45 and 1 yards in a resounding 45-21 triumph over Texas Tech. The Buckeyes started the season ranked No. 13; they ended it ranked No. 1 with an upset of Miami in the Fiesta Bowl. In that game, Clarett rushed for two touchdowns, including the game-winner. He finished his freshman season with 1,237 yards, but he never again played for Ohio State. He later was arrested for robbery, carrying a concealed weapon and resisting arrest and was sent to prison.

  • 4. Texas A&M RB Greg Hill, 1991
  • Darren Lewis, the leading rusher in school history, completed his eligibility the previous year, so there was some question about the Aggies' running game entering the season. Those questions were quickly answered by Hill, a redshirt freshman who rushed for 212 yards and two touchdowns in a 45-7 thrashing of LSU. That still stands as an NCAA record for most rushing yards gained by a freshman in the first game of a career. Hill finished as A&M's third-leading career rusher.

  • 5. Colorado RB Charlie Davis, 1971
  • Freshman weren't eligible until 1972, so Davis was a sophomore when he debuted for the Buffaloes against ninth-ranked LSU in the opener. Davis rushed for 174 yards on 20 carries and scored two touchdowns in leading Colorado to a 31-21 upset in Baton Rouge. Davis went on to rush for 1,386 yards in helping the Buffaloes to a 10-2 finish and No. 3 final ranking. LSU finished 9-3 and ranked No. 11.

  • 6. TCU QB Sammy Baugh, 1934
  • TCU opened its season with a new quarterback with great promise. Turns out Baugh was as good as everyone said. He passed for three touchdowns and scored another on a long run in leading the Horned Frogs to a 33-7 victory over Daniel Baker College. By the time he left for the NFL, Baugh had earned All-America recognition, was a Heisman Trophy finalist and directed TCU to a 29-7-2 record in three seasons. That stood as TCU's greatest stretch of success over a three-year period until the Frogs posted 30 victories from 2005-07.

  • 7. Michigan QB Scott Dreisbach, 1995
  • The Wolverines' appearance in the Pigskin Classic featured a couple of debuts. Lloyd Carr was debuting as coach and Dreisbach debuted as quarterback. Both proved successful. Virginia led 17-0 heading into the fourth quarter, but Dreisbach rallied the Wolverines to an 18-17 victory when he completed a touchdown pass to Mercury Hayes on the game's final play. Dreisbach set a then-Michigan record with 372 passing yards and threw for two touchdowns.

  • 8. Kansas State QB Michael Bishop, 1997
  • A junior college transfer, Bishop opened the season by passing for 172 yards and four touchdowns all in the first half of a 47-7 victory over Northern Illinois. He also rushed for 98 yards and a touchdown. A year later, Bishop earned All-America accolades and was the runner-up for the Heisman Trophy. Kansas State was 22-3 in two seasons with Bishop at its starting quarterback and ascended to No. 1 in the coaches' poll in late November. There also was a costly fumble in the 1998 Big 12 Championship Game, which still causes gnashing of teeth in Manhattan.

  • 9. USC QB Matt Leinart, 2003
  • Following Heisman Trophy recipient Carson Palmer might have seemed daunting for a sophomore, but if Leinart had jitters, he didn't show them. Opening the season against sixth-ranked Auburn, Leinart was 17-of-30 for 192 yards and a touchdown in a 23-0 victory. It was the first of 37 victories he would lead over the next three seasons. The Trojans were voted The Associated Press version of the national title in 2003, won the BCS title in 2004 and were runners-up in 2005. Leinart won the Heisman in 2004.

  • 10. UCLA QB Mark Harmon, 1972
  • A junior college transfer, Harmon passed for 65 yards and rushed for 71 while operating the wishbone offense and directing the Bruins to a 20-17 upset of two-time defending national champion Nebraska. The victory ended the top-ranked Huskers' 32-game unbeaten streak.

    Olin Buchanan is the senior college football writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at olin@rivals.com.




     

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