October 31, 2013

R-MC’s McGhee fits in as needed

More news about: Randolph-Macon
Will McGhee has two of the top four rushing seasons in Randolph-Macon history.
Photo by Frank Straus

Will McGhee is going to rewrite the Randolph-Macon and, possibly, the ODAC record books this season. The running back is among the nation’s leaders in rushing yards, all-purpose yards and touchdowns. As recently as training camp in 2012, he was playing cornerback for the Yellow Jackets.

McGhee starred on both sides of the ball in high school at St. Anne’s-Belfield. He saw limited action at running back as a freshman for Randolph-Macon, and rushed for over 100 yards in one game. He was the third-string running back behind Thaddeus Scruggs and Drake Sanders and knew that his playing time would remain limited if he stayed in the crowded backfield his sophomore year. He took the initiative to approach head coach Pedro Arruza about making a change to help the team’s depleted secondary and find more playing time.

“It didn’t make any sense to have three of our best players at running back,” said Arruza. “It was definitely what was best for the team.”

McGhee played all of the 2011 season at cornerback and also returned kicks. His contributions helped solidify the secondary and helped lead the Yellow Jackets to an 8-2 season.

“I knew we had two really good running backs in front of me. I saw the opportunity after my freshman year, because we lacked depth in the secondary,” said McGhee. “The transition wasn’t anything I hadn’t done before.”

“Wherever the team needed me, I was willing to play.”

After Scruggs graduated, Sanders was in line to take over the bulk of the rushes, after spending two seasons splitting carries with Scruggs. But, the Yellow Jackets like to have depth in the backfield to support a run-heavy offense. McGhee entered camp in August of 2012 as a cornerback.

“We knew he was a special running back, but we had a real big need in the secondary,” said Arruza. “Going into his junior year, we wanted to move him back to offense, but we still lacked depth in the secondary.”

After the team’s first preseason scrimmage, McGhee was asked to return to the offensive side of the ball. The selfless player had no problem making another transition.

“We knew that on defense, he’d be a good player,” said Arruza, “but on offense, he’ll be a special player.”

Running backs coach Mac McConnell was happy to have McGhee back in the backfield. He understood that McGhee’s abilities better served the team on the field than on the sidelines, but was happy to have another weapon return to the offense.

“We want to get our best guys on the field, and he’s a team guy,” said McConnell. “We knew we’d likely get him back [on offense].”

McGhee quickly usurped the senior Sanders as the Yellow Jackets’ primary back. In 2012, he carried the ball 214 times for 1,276 yards, compared to 124 carries for 453 yards for Sanders. There was no competition for carries, it just worked out in McGhee’s favor.

“Coach always tells us, ‘Don’t worry about the depth chart,’” said McGhee. “Do what you need to do to get better every day, and the depth chart sorts itself out.”

A crowded backfield of talented rushers could have caused problems for McConnell and Arruza. It helped that each man had a team-first attitude and pushed one another only in positive ways.

“I think he’s learned from a lot of unselfish, team guys,” said Arruza. “All our kids are pretty unselfish. He’s never concerned with his stats.”

McGhee paid close attention to the success of Scruggs and Sanders. He also took note of the work that went into the results.

“I learned a tremendous amount from Thaddeus and Drake,” said McGhee. “I looked up to their work ethic on and off the field. I really try to emulate those guys, and assimilate their attributes into my game.”

Scruggs and Sanders put up big numbers -- the duo combined to rush for 24 touchdowns in 2010 -- but no individual back has performed like McGhee has since Zak Thornton set the program’s single-season rushing record in 2007.

“We’ve been fortunate to have some really talented running backs,” said McConnell. “All of them have had a really good work ethic. It’s not just about talent, but how you go about your job.”

McGhee is aware of the rushers who came before him. It is a team-wide mantra to respect the history of the program. That selfless spirit has Randolph-Macon one win away from securing its seventh straight winning season.

“We definitely have a very strong brotherhood,” said McGhee. “We emphasize playing for the guy next to you and for the guys who came before us. Everyone has a role and has to contribute. The guys have definitely bought into the program and the way we do things across the board.”

Now, McGhee is the one setting the example for the younger running backs on the team. Sophomore fullback John Byrd is second on the team with 50 carries for 224 yards and four touchdowns. McGhee has carried the ball 207 times and has rushed for 12 touchdowns.

“Our upperclassmen taught him and now he does the same for the underclassmen,” said McConnell. “He’s a good team player and he coaches our young guys up. He’s a special guy.”

Last year, McGhee rushed for 1,276 yards, good for the third-best rushing season in program history. At 1,257 yards with three regular season games to play, McGhee is within striking distance of Thornton’s record of 1,551 yards. The ODAC single-season record is 1,730, set by Emory and Henry’s Sandy Rogers in 1986.

“When he came in as a freshman, we knew he was a talented kid,” said McConnell. “He is physical and has speed, which makes a great combination.”

He currently ranks third in the nation with 179.6 rushing yards per game and fifth in the nation with 205.14 all-purpose yards per game. He rushed for a season-high 296 yards in a Sept. 27 win over Bethany. Despite his versatility and prolific numbers, McGhee remains humble.

“It’s definitely a testament to the work ethic of my offensive line,” said McGhee. “They have great leadership and have created a strong unit. A running back is only as good as his lead blockers, and those guys do a great job.”

McGhee then proceeded to name his linemen and fullbacks -- Justin Daniels, Nate Turner, Joe Breithaupt, Nick Powell, John Byrd, Jay Hausler, and Jesse Knepp.

“He is extremely humble and has a great work ethic,” said Arruza. “The best thing you can say is what a humble guy and hard worker he is.”

The business econ major has worked hard on and off the field to follow in the footsteps of the Yellow Jackets who came before him. His selflessness, humility, and dedication to team will leave large footsteps to fill when he graduates this spring. After doing everything he could to help his team in each of his four seasons, McGhee is an example of working hard and letting the depth chart and statistics sort themselves out.

“He sets a great example,” said Arruza. “It’s no secret to us that he’s been as good as he’s been.” 

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