March 29, 2010
By MOISEKAPENDA BOWER
Want an image of Rice sophomore tailback Sam McGuffie more reflective of his personality than the famed YouTube video of his hurdling a hapless defender from his prep days at Cy-Fair High School?
By the middle of last week the monotony of spring practice was distracting everyone at Historic Rice Stadium. Players were shuttling in and out of the action at such a rapid rate that it was dangerously easy to lose track of personnel groupings, especially with position coaches locked in constant dialogue sharing teaching points with their players.
From the very onset of spring practice Rice coach David Bailiff set out to limit the repetitions for McGuffie, who after transferring to Rice from Michigan sat out the 2009 season to meet NCAA transfer requirements. McGuffie will play a central role in the Owls' offense this fall, and given his unbridled enthusiasm for football, Bailiff felt it best if McGuffie simply kept his engine warm. He was a proven commodity, so a few snaps would suffice. On one particular play, McGuffie felt otherwise.
With a number of third-string offensive linemen set to block and Bailiff calling for a tailback to fill a void in the backfield, McGuffie dashed into action as a most willing participant. The ball was snapped, McGuffie charged ahead, and Bailiff took a gasp as No. 3 did what came natural.
"Oh jeez," Bailiff said with an exasperated laugh. "He's in there with the 3s. So here is this rookie offensive line ... it was our (the coaches') fault.
"He wants more carries (and) he wants to be in there pass blocking. He doesn't care if he doesn't get the ball every snap, he just wants to play competitive football every snap. He is amazing because he's not worried about his carries. He just loves to practice, and if you watch him (on the field during scrimmages) and two or three plays later and he's back out, that's the only time you don't see Sam running fast. It's because we've asked him to come to the sideline and he does not want to go."
Bailiff realizes that his is a good problem to have. Few coaches will complain when their most talented player just happens to be their most passionate, and McGuffie fits both descriptions. He was a local legend because of his exploits at Cy-Fair, and cast as an enigma due to his last minute second-guessing of his commitment to the Wolverines. But in the 15 months McGuffie has been on campus, he has proven to be nothing more than a humble and selfless teammate longing to keep his head down and work diligently at the game he loves, a game from which he was separated after opting to leave Michigan following one semester.
McGuffie was content in the knowledge that his eligibility would be restored after one season on the sideline, but he underestimated the withdrawal that nearly overwhelmed him as he bided his time. McGuffie ran track, he practically lived in the weight room, and he dove into his studies. Those endeavors were vital, but didn't scratch his football itch.
"When you've never had to sit out your whole life - ever - and you always played every season, go to practice and get the first-team reps and do everything to play on Saturdays, to not do that for a whole year was a bigger deal than I thought it would be at first," McGuffie said. "But here we are back at spring, and it seems like it flew by faster than I thought it would."
Reaching this point, where McGuffie could make a tangible impact on the program, was a challenge. When McGuffie enrolled in January 2009, Bailiff called upon his experiences from welcoming transfers while coaching at Texas State and solicited advice from cohorts in the business in developing a plan to keep McGuffie connected. His adage - `get them good as you can and get them to September' - belied the task at hand for Bailiff didn't want McGuffie taking so many snaps last spring that it cut into the reps reserved for players who were actually eligible, but he didn't want McGuffie just standing around bored out of his mind.
When spring practice opened last year, Bailiff put his plan in action. He is the first to admit that when McGuffie decided to participate with the track team, it made his job of keeping McGuffie preoccupied far easier.
"Last year we just tried to make sure he stayed into it, that he was learning football, that he was getting a couple of carries, but at the same time we were being very protective because he is extremely talented," Bailiff said. "You don't want to do anything to injure him, so we didn't give him too many carries. We gave him just enough reps to keep him involved and keep him sharp because his love for the game.
"Sam is such a competitive young man that when he made the decision last year to run track I thought that bought us time because it let Sam go over and compete and score some points for the track team (in sprints, long jump and high jump). That helped get him into the summer or I don't know that, as competitive as he is, he really could have handled it."
His track hobby notwithstanding, McGuffie viewed his most critical move as building a relationship with his teammates. His arrival on South Main was ballyhooed, but McGuffie did everything within his power to avoid heralding his own presence. He remained quiet and deferential, preferring to let the current team dynamic play itself out without interjecting or putting his personality front and center on a young team.
For McGuffie, there was no need to speak. He would not participate in 2009, so he felt it best to let veterans handle the team the way they saw fit. His day to chime in was to come, and until that day arrived, McGuffie did whatever was necessary to stay within his self-imposed boundaries.
"I was just a transfer, and last year that was their team," McGuffie said. "When you're a transfer you can't put your nose in there and start screaming at everybody. But now since that year is gone, I feel like I am part of the team. I'm going to do everything how I normally would do."
What McGuffie does is dazzle onlookers. His rare combination of speed, elusiveness and leaping ability was reputed before he showed up, but even after McGuffie began to showcase his athleticism in practice, jaws dropped. His tenacity prevents him from giving up on plays, and his quickness often allows McGuffie to gain an advantageous angle on a closing defender. His passion for the game, stoked by the hiatus, continues to push him through training and practice reps, both of which he approaches with a fervor beyond ordinary athletes who play football.
"He's like James Casey," Bailiff said of the former Rice tight end now with the Texans. "He loves to practice as much as he loves to play, and that's what makes those kinds of guys great. Every time he touches the ball he's trying to go to the end zone. He does that in ball security drills.
"You don't have to worry about Sam messing around and being late. Sam loves coming over here and wearing the uniform."
Said McGuffie: "I know that every rep I'm doing, every drill is trying to get me back in the swing of football. Lifting weights is good to maintain being strong and fast, but if you can't come out here and work hard that's not really going to help you. I take it as trying to do every drill as hard as I can and as fast as I can with the reps that I do get just because I know I do get to play next year and I'm not a transfer anymore."
That McGuffie is available excites the offensive staff, particularly the newcomers who weren't around when McGuffie flashed those occasional displays of brilliance in practice last year. Owls run game coordinator John Reagan was familiar with McGuffie from his prep days for while he was a Kansas assistant, the Jayhawks were among the first programs to offer McGuffie a scholarship. When Reagan got a firsthand glance at McGuffie, he admitted to experiencing a slight `wow' factor.
While McGuffie is unique, the attributes of greatness seem so familiar to Reagan. The athleticism, speed and attention to detail are eye opening, and while the easy correlation for Reagan is to compare McGuffie to another exceptional tailback, former Virginia Tech standout Kevin Jones, Reagan draws a closer parallel between McGuffie and former Syracuse receiver Marvin Harrison, with whom Reagan shared a college roster.
"The best thing about Sam is that he works at it," Reagan said. "He loves to play, he loves to practice - he works at it. He's one of those guys you kind of dream about as a coach because he's first on the field last off the field, one of the hardest working guys through the entire practice, and he's talented. Guys like that give you a lot of options and opportunities."
Beneficially for the Owls, McGuffie isn't the same tailback Kansas hoped to sign, and he is a bigger, stronger and smarter version of the tailback who took the field at the Big House as a wide-eyed freshman against Utah in 2008. What McGuffie experienced with the Wolverines was invaluable, and after amassing 809 all-purpose yards as an undersized rookie challenging physical Big Ten defenses, McGuffie added 10 pounds of muscle to his 6-foot frame. He understands how to handle grand expectations better than he did while with the Wolverines, and is better equipped for the rigors of playing a dozen contests for an FBS program.
But McGuffie is still learning. Rice remains a relatively new school, Owls first-year offensive coordinator David Beaty has revamped the playbook, and the roster has turned over dramatically since his first visit during Texas Bowl preparations. So much of what is swirling about feels new, and McGuffie is taking it all in with a perspective shaped by wisdom. What was lost has been found, and now that McGuffie and football are joyously reunited, he won't take the union for granted.
"It's like that saying you never know what you have until it's gone," McGuffie said. "Even though it wasn't necessarily gone, it was out of my life for a year. I already knew I loved football before that, but now it's magnified to where I have a great respect for the game. I have a passion for the game. I love football, I love practice, and I love everything about the game.
"I know what I'm capable of. Now it's just time to put it on the field."