Englewood (AP) — A change in scenery and eating habits has done wonders for Willis McGahee.
By playing in a run-friendly system, along with reuniting with his former position coach, the Denver Broncos tailback has revitalized his career. McGahee, who even eliminated red meat from his diet to become leaner, is on the cusp of his first 1,000-yard season in four years.
A surprise? Maybe to some.
But not to running backs coach Eric Studesville, who lobbied hard for the Broncos to sign the free agent just before camp.
Sure, McGahee was coming off a pedestrian 380-yard season for Baltimore in 2010, but Studesville saw flashes of the vision, the power and the quick feet that made McGahee a two-time 1,000-yard back when they were paired in Buffalo.
Studesville campaigned vigorously on McGahee' behalf. The Broncos listened and were rewarded.
"I see the same intense competitor that's always been there," said Studesville, whose protege has 990 yards rushing this season.
At first, McGahee's transition to a new team was slow to take root. Without an offseason to get acclimated to his surroundings and digest an intricate play book, McGahee began the year backing up Knowshon Moreno.
That didn't last long. Moreno pulled a hamstring in a season-opening loss to the Raiders, giving McGahee the opening he needed.
Since then, the job has been all his.
And he's flourished, especially when healthy.
The 30-year-old McGahee has had his share of bumps and bruises. He needed surgery to fix a broken finger on his right hand earlier in the season — keeping him out for a game — and is currently hobbled by a nagging hamstring injury. But he fully intends on playing against his old team, the Bills, in his old stomping grounds, Ralph Wilson Stadium, on Saturday.
The Broncos (8-6) are tantalizingly close to securing their first playoff spot since the 2005 season, with the easiest scenario being simply winning this weekend and again in the finale when they host Kyle Orton and the Kansas City Chiefs.
"There's a sense of urgency. We're trying to get the organization to where it was back in the late '90s," McGahee said, referring to when the team won back-to-back Super Bowl titles.
McGahee needs just 10 yards to join Ricky Watters as the only NFL backs to turn in 1,000-yard seasons with three different teams. What's more, McGahee's six 100-yard games this year are tied for the most in the league.
That should get his name in the running for comeback player of the year, right?
"Nope," he said.
"You have to be hurt" to get that, he explained. "I never went anywhere. So, I'm not a comeback player."
The burly ninth-year running back was eager to sign with Denver and envisioned lots of carries in coach John Fox's run-oriented offense.
After the team struggled to a 1-4 start under Orton, Tim Tebow took over.
Out went the ball-control offense.
In its place has been the read-option, which better suits Tebow's particular skill set.
Turns out, it suits McGahee pretty well, too. He's thrived in this system, even rushing for 163 yards in Oakland last month, the second-highest output of his career. He also broke off a 60-yard TD scamper in that win over the Raiders, showing he still possessed a quick-strike capability.
"I love this offense," McGahee said.
He also serves as the eyes on the field for Studesville, reporting back to his coach if things are in need of tweaking. That's the kind of relationship they've developed over the years.
"He's a great resource on sideline. What he sees, getting a feel for how defenders are playing him, I've got tremendous trust in that," said Studesville, who filled in as interim head coach for the final four games last season when Josh McDaniels was fired. "He's a very sharp football guy."
He's also rubbing off on the younger backs.
Then again, that's not all that hard. Jeremiah Johnson, a second-year back out of Oregon, idolized McGahee while growing up. Johnson used to watch McGahee's games at the University of Miami each week, and then emulate the moves he just saw.
"This is kind of embarrassing, but I called myself Jeremiah McGahee. He was my guy," Johnson said, laughing. "I nearly cried when he got hurt in the championship game."
Even after suffering a serious knee injury in his final collegiate game against Ohio State, McGahee was still selected in the first round of the 2003 draft by Buffalo. He sat out his first season to rehab and recover.
Soon after, Studesville arrived in Buffalo as his position coach and launched McGahee's career.
Now, Studesville's helping re-launch McGahee's career in Denver.
"He's got a magnetic personality," Studesville said. "Not only with his personality but his work ethic. He competes at everything — checkers, cards, bowling. Whatever it is, he is going to want to beat you. That's been a positive for our room."
Fox has certainly been sold on McGahee
"We knew he was capable if just given the opportunity," Fox said. "When he got his opportunity, he shined."
Although he turned 30 in October, McGahee insists he's not feeling his age even with all the hits he takes. To keep fresh, McGahee relies on a regimen of ice baths, massages and visits to the chiropractor. He's also overhauled his diet.
"He takes tremendous care of himself," Studesville said. "He's done that ever since I had him in Buffalo. It's one of the things that adds to his longevity.
"He's just a guy you love having around, because of what he brings — competitiveness, personality and the expectation of success."
Notes: The Broncos practiced in an indoor facility after about a foot of snow fell overnight. ... DBs Brian Dawkins (neck) and David Bruton (Achilles) were limited in practice. When asked about Dawkins possibly playing Saturday, Fox said: "A lot of it is just how he feels."
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