October 20, 1998
BY DAN HEUCHERTreprinted with permission from the Cavalier Corner
Virginia’s top nes is listed at 5-foot-10 and 205 pounds; Antwoine Womack, a mere inch tallertwo tailbacks are nearly the same size. Thomas Jones is listed at 5-foot-10 and 205 pounds; Antwoine Womack, a mere inch taller aap dn0tapn,HbdapHHnd five pounds heavier.
The similarities end there.
Jones, the starter, is focused and businesslike, a true believer in preparation and analysis. A team-first guy, a practice player. His running style reflects his personality: Look for an opening, turn upfield and go, and keep your legs churning. Cold, efficient, effective.
Womack is the anxious and excitable understudy. If Jones is the steak, Womack’s the sizzle, on and off the field. Supremely confident, and not at all shy. All vision and instinct; find one opening, look for another, and create a third. Elusive, creative, impetuous.
Understandably, the flashy Womack is a fan favorite. His runs command your full attention. The next unexpected cut may break him into the clear (or turn him into the path of a pursuing linebacker). Turn your head, and you may miss something you have never seen before.
Not surprisingly, Jones is a coach’s favorite. Despite arriving as the most heralded running back recruit since national high school player of the year Terry Kirby, Jones is a humble hard worker who spent the last offseason becoming the Cavs’ workout king. Give him a crack, and he’ll make positive yards all night long.
Together, they are the leaders of a pack of outstanding runners on the Cavalier roster, many of whom are good enough athletes to have earned playing time elsewhere. Anthony Southern found a new home at fullback. Tyree Foreman appears bound for similar duty. Terrence Wilkins, who broke Eric Metcalf’s records in high school, is the team’s top wide receiver. Yubrenal Isabelle, a two-way star in West Virginia, moved to linebacker. Kirby Mack, who starred in the 1997 spring game, had enough of the logjam and transferred out. Arlen Harris, this year’s prize recruit from Pennsylvania, is taking a redshirt season and waiting for his time to step in.
That leaves Jones and Womack to split the bulk of the carries. Fortunately, it’s not an either-or situation. There’s been enough room for both so far Jones getting roughly two carries for every one by Womack though one gets a sense that Womack wouldn’t mind a few more reps. And Jones and Womack also get along just fine, thank you, rooming together on the Friday nights before games, talking about the fine art of running the football until sleep finally brings them down.
On one such night recently, they discussed the need to put together a breakout performance. Though both had had their moments in the season’s first four games Jones having rushed for more than 100 yards against Auburn and Clemson, Womack hitting triple figures against Duke the offense had struggled to put away inferior teams, making careless mistakes and suffering sporadic breakdowns. Womack was battling a litany of injuries to his right leg (sprained arch, bruised knee, hip pointer) and Southern, their faithful blocker and a dangerous runner in his own right, had seen very limited action with a hamstring pull. Additionally, defenses were pushing seven and eight players forward to stop the run and pressure the quarterback in passing situations.
“It’s harder to run,” head coach George Welsh said before the game. “That’s a big trend in college football.”
Jones, though, isn’t willing to accept that as an excuse. “Sometimes, when they stack all of those people at the line if we get past the line of scrimmage there’s no one else there,” he said.
The next day’s contest, against San Jose State, appeared tailor-made; the Spartans’ defensive front was a bit undersized, and a ball-control rushing attack seemed like a good way to keep San Jose’s pass-happy offense off the field.
“We knew we still could get better,” Womack said. “We needed to blow these folks out.”
It was Jones’ and Womack’s game from the start. Starting at their own 20 after the opening kickoff, Jones and quarterback Aaron Brooks quickly discovered that the offensive line was blowing the Spartans off the ball. There was little need to throw. Of the first 11 rushing attempts, none went for less than four yards, while Virginia drove inside the San Jose 10. Although the drive ended with the ball skidding off tight end Billy Baber’s fingers and into the clutches of a Spartan defender for an end-zone interception, the tone was set.
By the time a happy homecoming crowd exited Scott Stadium, the Cavs had rushed for 446 yards, their highest team total in 30 years. Both tailbacks set career highs. Jones ran for 203 yards in just three quarters of play 21 off of John Papit’s 50-year-old, single-game school record while Womack added 142. Their combined total was the third-best in school history for two players in the same game, behind the 365 yards that Jeff Anderson (183) and Frank Quayle (182) laid on Duke in 1968 and the 352 amassed by Terry Kirby (188) and Nikki Fisher (164) against William and Mary in 1990.
Jones ran for two scores in the 52-14 victory, including an 80-yard jaunt on the Cavs’ first possession of the second half in which he burst through a big hole in the left side and raced untouched up the sidelines, barely outrunning the last Spartan defender. Womack added a 13-yard score of his own on the next drive, taking the ball of the right tackle, cutting right, cutting back left, sorting through the defense and gliding into the end zone.
Amazingly, only one Virginia running play went for a loss in the entire game, when Foreman fumbled in the fourth quarter and fell on the ball seven yards behind the line of scrimmage.
Though no one would argue that San Jose’s defense provided much of a test, the game showcased what Virginia’s runner could do, given a little opportunity.
“I knew we could do it,” Womack said excitedly. “The offensive line was just driving it down folks’ throats. As long as they’re doing that, the sky’s the limit.”
Typically, Jones was more reserved. “It was important for my confidence, but I’m confident in myself,” he said. “I know the type of ability that I have. If the hole is there for me to run through, I can get through and make something happen. I never really doubt my confidence.”
Freeze that picture, if you will. Just how did Jones and Womack get into the felicitous position in which they now find themselves?
Both were the most highly-sought prep running backs in Virginia in their respective senior seasons, Jones in 1995 and Womack in 1996, and both put up eye-popping numbers in high school.
Jones, playing in the smallest division of Virginia high schools at Powell Valley High in Big Stone Gap, set state records for career touchdowns (104), and season records for yards (3,319 as a junior) and touchdowns (49 as a senior). His career total of 7,193 yards and his top single game effort of 462 yards both rank second all-time on the state list.
Similarly, Womack set Virginia large-school records with 5,570 career yards and 73 career TDs at Phoebus High in Hampton, and once had a game in which he ran for 350 yards and seven TDs on just 15 carries and sat out the fourth quarter. He also played defense, and racked up 20 career sacks, 11 in his senior year.
Both were recruited by all of the national powers. Jones opted to stay relatively close to home, and arrived at Virginia during Tiki Barber’s senior season, quickly becoming his heir apparent in the eyes of every Cavalier fan. He seemed to confirm those hopes in his first game as a freshman, when he rushed for 76 yards, including a 57-yard TD, on just five carries in relief of Barber against Central Michigan.
The expectations only grew when Barber, in the midst of setting school single-season and career rushing records, said his marks wouldn’t stand for long because Jones would one day break them all.
With Barber graduated, Jones took over as the full-time starter in 1997, and the inevitable comparisons began, both with the recently departed Barber and the newly arrived Womack. Though he led the team in rushing, he only accumulated 692 yards, which did not put him on a pace to surpass Barber, and his modest average of 3.4 yards per carry made some wonder if Jones weren’t a bit overrated coming out of high school.
“Last year was a learning experience for everybody in the offense,” Jones said this fall. “It was kind of hard, especially not putting up the same kind of numbers [Barber] was putting up.”
Jones didn’t mope, at least not in public.
“Last season I was young, and I had a lot of expectations on me,” he said. “I had more expectations of myself than anyone else had on me.”
Chastened, he set out to make himself better not by learning new moves, but via the old-fashioned way: hitting the weights and paying attention to fundamentals. A clearly pleased Welsh lauded Jones’ offseason workouts, and coaches and teammates alike declared that the 98 version of Jones was bigger, stronger and faster than the 97 edition. He was also smarter, having studied a lot of film.
His conclusion? Keep it simple.
“I think I’m starting to read things a little better. That comes with experience,” he said after the San Jose State game. “I’m not really trying to change anything, just go north and south and try to get as many yards as I can.”
Through five games, he’s a half-yard ahead of his stated goal of averaging five yards per carry this season. His 107.2 yards per game leads the Atlantic Coast Conference and puts him on a pace for a near-1,200-yard year. And yes, if Jones can stay healthy and maintain the same pace for the rest of this season and all of next, he will be within striking distance of Barber’s career record.
“My main goal is to be consistent,” Jones said. “I want to play well every game.”
From the beginning, Womack’s UVa days seem to have had as many cutbacks as some of his runs.
First of all, it almost wasn’t a UVa career at all. Just as a certain other Hampton native would do a year later, Womack orally committed to one school, but backed off as the signing date neared. But unlike Ronald Curry, who jilted Virginia at the altar and eloped with North Carolina, Womack’s initial choice had been Penn State, with the Cavaliers playing the role of persistent suitor. The ensuing spat between the two schools temporarily damaged the relationship between Welsh and his mentor, Joe Paterno of Penn State, when Paterno’s staff reportedly asked the NCAA to look into the circumstances of Womack’s change of heart. (Welsh and Paterno have since patched things up, Welsh said earlier this year.)
Just as they had been a year earlier with Jones, Virginia fans appeared smitten with the freshman, particularly after he ran for 108 yards against North Carolina’s vaunted defense in Chapel Hill, and in a game in which Jones and the rest of the offense was struggling.
But Womack sprained a knee in his next outing, causing him to miss the next five games and giving rise to speculation that Virginia might be able to apply for a medical redshirt for its promising freshman, thus saving a year of eligibility.
Those hopes were dashed when Womack saw limited action in the Cavaliers’ last two games picking up eight yards on nine carries against N.C. State and Virginia Tech a circumstance which elicited some complaints from Womack himself, who had hoped to have two years to star after Jones graduated. Welsh said only that, with the offense down to three healthy running backs, Womack was needed in Virginia’s drive for a bowl appearance. “I don’t think he’ll be around for a fifth year anyway,” Welsh said.
Womack finished the year as the team’s third-leading rusher, with 208 yards and a team best average of 4.5 yards per carry. The memories of the Carolina game, though, were enough to have Cavalier fans excited about seeing what he could do when he was healthy and had a spring practice under his belt.
Those hopes were dimmed when Womack was suspended from the team after being charged and found guilty in an altercation with a female student at a fraternity party.
It was an uncertain time. “It was really unpredictable,” he said. “I didn’t know what was going to happen. It was blown up so big.”
Though Womack was reinstated for the last week of spring practice, he really never had a chance to make much progress and started the fall well behind the workaholic Jones. Instead of challenging for the starting spot, Womack at least nominally was fighting for a backup role, with redshirt freshman Foreman and this year’s freshman phenom, Arlen Harris. Southern was also making a strong case for more carries at fullback.
“We don’t have a number two,” Welsh declared on the eve of fall practice.
Nonetheless, Womack made it clear that he was ready to go and wanted to play. He declared that his goal was to gain 1,000 yards a number normally only achievable by a starter, though he quickly added that he would accept Welsh’s decision on playing time, and “It doesn’t matter how many yards, as long as we win.”
Womack eventually reclaimed the No. 2 job. Despite the nagging injuries to his right leg, he has carried the ball at least 10 times in four of the Cavaliers’ first five games, is averaging over seven yards per carry, and also ranks in the league’s top five rushers.
“I’m not at the top of my game,” Womack said after the San Jose outing. “I still feel like I’m rusty. There’s always room for improvement.
“You’re never as good as you’re supposed to be. You’re never great until you make it to the NFL and the Hall of Fame until you’re Barry Sanders, one of them.”
So, where do they go from here? Can Jones break Barber’s records? Will Womack ever get healthy enough, or work hard enough, to overtake Jones? How good is Arlen Harris?
Chances are, the San Jose State outing was a bit of a fluke a fortunate fluke, in that it got the offense clicking for the first time this season. Still, Welsh’s teams are noted for their balance, so Brooks will throw more often in the second half of the season than he did against the Spartans.
Southern, coming off a nagging hamstring injury, figures to get more action after the bye week, which may cut into the tailbacks’ carries, too.
Peering deeper into the crystal ball, though, there may be a few more carries to go around next season when Virginia breaks in a new starting quarterback. Then again, Harris will be coming off a redshirt year and looking for playing time.
“Arlen’s going to be good, too,” Southern said. “His running style is different from Thomas’, and different from Womack’s. He’s little, but he’s tough. He’s kind of a squirmy type. If you hit him, you’ve got to wrap up. You can hardly see him because he’s smaller.”
It will be fun to sort out. Just ask running backs coach David Turner.
“We’ve got good competition,” Turner said, “which always brings the best out of everybody. They all have special talents.”