Miami has had one of the, if not the best, tradition of runningbacks in the nation. Even though programs like USC and Alabama had relevance earlier than The U, the Canes have churned out an absurd amount of talented rushers since the rise to prominence. The golden age, from the late 90’s to mid-2000’s, cemented Miami as the school NFL teams wanted to draft runningbacks from.
As a result, some very, very good runners are left off this list. Frank Gore, Melvin Bratton, James Jackson and Ottis Anderson didn’t make it on the list. In order to make this list, backs had to have played and produced at a high level while Miami was in the national conversation and/or produced at insane levels of production when the Canes weren’t quite championship contenders.
5. Clinton Portis (1999-2001)
Portis burst onto the scene as a freshman and never left the spotlight while at Miami and all the way until his NFL retirement in 2010. The fifth leading rusher in Miami history was almost never a Cane, leaning towards going to South Carolina before a fight in high school led the Gamecocks to revoke his scholarship offer.
Portis became just the second true freshman since 1975 to start at runningback for the Canes, rushing for over 800 yards and eight TDs in 1999. He lost the starting job to James Jackson the following year but bounced back as the leading ballcarrier in the 2001 GOAT squad. Portis churned out 1,200 yards and 10 TDs in that season, his unique combination of speed and power making him difficult for defensive coordinators to stop.
4. Alonzo Highsmith (1983-86)
The OG. Highsmith was the epitome of smashmouth, run-you-over, F-U Miami football in the beginning of the dynasty. It makes sense then, that he was originally recruited as a defender. Although he didn’t see much playing time in the 1983 championship season, Highsmith was the leading rushing in the national championship with 50 yards.. Officially a fullback, Highsmith was so much more than that during his tenure with the Canes. Jimmy Johnson made him the starting rusher in ’84 and he delivered to the tune of 906 yards (6.2 per carry) and nine TDs. He also added 37 receptions for 257 yards and two TDs.
A complete player who could run, catch and block, Highsmith would end his tenure with Miami with over 2,800 scrimmage yards, 25 TDs and the most memorable moment of the 1986 Oklahoma coin toss. He would go on to be drafted third overall in the NFL draft and today is a front office executive, serving as the Vice President of Football Operations for the Cleveland Browns.
3. Edgerrin James (1996-98)
Edge may have came in right before Miami became a true powerhouse (his teams’ record was a combined 23-12) but the Canes could also count on James to keep them in almost any game. Coming from Immokalee High School, James didn’t have a big impact as a true freshman, only to explode in his last two years at Coral Gables. In two years, Edge had over 3,000 total yards and 33 TDs.
James was a do-it-all threat in the backfield. He was as good a receiver as he was a runner, able to power through defenses and showing the acceleration to big away from the defense for big gains. Edge is third all-time in rushing yards, third in rushing yards in a single season, second in both rushing TDs all-time and in a single season. He also owns the two best single game rushing performances; 299 in ’98 against UCLA and 271 in ’97 against BC.
2. Willis McGahee (2001-02)
McGahee gets this high through the sheer statistical monster of his 2002 season. Although 2002 is often looked at with scorn and disgust, and for good reason, Miami looked every bit as dominant through the first 12 games of ’02 as they did in ’01. McGahee was arguably the biggest part of this on offense, capping the triplets of Ken Dorsey and Andre Johnson.
McGahee gained the starting job after true freshman and expected starter Frank Gore was lost in spring, a guy who only had 67 carries the year before expected to lead the running game for the best team in the nation. McGahee made Canes’ fans say Clinton Who? after he took the reins. 2002 is undoubtedly the best season by a Canes’ ballcarrier ever, gaining over 1,700 yards and 28(!) TDs in 13 games. The next closest TD total in a season is 17, by Edgerrin James in ’98. McGahee left for the NFL after his remarkable year and it’s fair to imagine how many records he could’ve broken if he stayed a little while longer.
1. Randy “Duke” Johnson (2012-14)
The Duke of Coral Gables. Johnson came to Miami with great fanfare, a hometown kid who was in love with The U as much as the fans were enamored with him. Watching Canefreak2001’s high school highlight tape of Johnson set to Jeezy’s “Put On For My City” is pretty much required viewing.
Johnson made an impact immediately, rushing for over 900 yards and 10 TDs as a true freshman to go with two kick-off return TDs. He was rewarded with both ACC Rookie of the Year and Offensive Rookie of the Year. The Duke didn’t stop there, dealing with injury issues in his time with Miami but never faltering. He gained over 900 yards and scored 6 TDs in just eight games during 2013. Johnson returned to form the next season, more powerful for previous seasons and a complete package ballcarrier en route to 2,073 scrimmage yards and 13 total TDs.
Johnson’s combination of speed and agility made him impossible to tackle and he remains the leader in yards per attempt for any Canes RBs with over 100 career carries at 6.7. The next closest is Edgerrin James with 6.0. Duke ended his career as the all-time rusher for his beloved Canes with 3,519 yards. Not bad for someone who only played 33 games.