ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — Denver Broncos running backs coach Eric Studesville wasn't sure what to expect when he first laid eyes on Willis McGahee seven years ago.
Selected in the first round of the 2003 draft by the Buffalo Bills, McGahee sat out his first pro season while recovering from a serious knee injury that occurred in his final game at the University of Miami.
Studesville arrived at Orchard Park, N.Y., as his position coach in 2004 and helped jump-start McGahee's career.
"To see a guy walk in and want to work and not look for an excuse and not look for an easy way out and not want any kind of handout, but just work, I was impressed with that from the first moment I was around him," Studesville said. "And that hasn't changed. He does the same things today that I saw back in 2004 when I first walked into the Bills building."
Some things he even does better.
McGahee's longest run that first season was 41 yards.
On Sunday, just two weeks after blowing out 30 candles on his birthday cake and 10 days removed from surgery on his broken right hand, McGahee reeled off a 60-yard touchdown run in a win at Oakland, where his 163 yards rushing were four shy of his career high.
"He's pretty good when he's not 100 percent, too," quarterback Tim Tebow said. "It's great. He's someone that comes in every day and works extremely hard. He's such a competitor in the games, and it's huge having him on our team. He's a great asset."
After watching his workload diminish each of the last three seasons as Ray Rice's backup in Baltimore, McGahee is on pace to gain 1,246 yards, which would be one yard shy of his career high set in 2005.
He's doing all this heavy lifting with a chip on his shoulder, too.
"I'm pretty sure there were teams out there saying I can't run the ball and I'm getting older," McGahee said of his foray into free agency last summer.
The Broncos weren't one of them.
Studesville, who had been retained by new coach John Fox to tutor the tailbacks, went to management and suggested they sign McGahee, with whom he had spent three seasons in Buffalo.
"I feel like he's still got a lot left in him and he would be a good person to bring here based on who he is and what he brings, his work ethic, his toughness, his physical run play," Studesville recalled telling his bosses.
The big, ninth-year running back was eager to work with Studesville again, too, and envisioned lots of carries in Fox's run-oriented offense.
"There were (other) suitors," McGahee said. "But I was going to come to Denver regardless just because of Coach Eric and Coach Fox."
The Broncos felt that even though his number of carries had steadily declined in Baltimore, McGahee certainly hadn't.
"He did have a lot of hits taken off of him from two years ago, but he was a guy that we thought still had value," Fox said. "It took us a while to get him into the offense where he was feeling comfortable."
Without an offseason to get accustomed to his new offensive line, McGahee got off to a slow start in Denver, rushing just four times for 3 yards in his Denver debut, a 23-20 loss to Oakland in the opener.
Knowshon Moreno pulled a hamstring that night, and it was just the opening McGahee needed.
He took over as the starter and has posted four 100-yard games in six starts.
On his 60-yard scamper into the end zone, McGahee turned on the afterburners that surely shocked many around the league, and he wasn't even touched on a 24-yard touchdown sprint up the middle that sealed Denver's 38-24 win over the Raiders and made the Broncos (3-5) relevant again in the middling AFC West.
"He's still obviously got top-end speed still," Studesville said, pointing to McGahee's 77-yard touchdown runs in 2008 and '09.
His longest run last year was a 30-yard TD.
"Always had it," McGahee said. "It never went anywhere. Just needed the opportunity."
At this season's halfway point, McGahee's 123 rushes for 623 yards are higher totals than he posted in each of his last two full seasons.
Against the Raiders, the Broncos broke out the read-option offense that made Tebow so successful at the University of Florida and both men benefited, combining for 281 yards on the ground.
That's the kind of toughness in the run game that's been largely absent at Dove Valley since Mike Shanahan and Peyton Hillis were still together in Denver.
By putting the ball in McGahee's belly and then deciding whether to hand it off or keep it and run it himself, Tebow looked like he was running the Gators' offense once again. And the results were similar, too.
"I've never coached it before, so we're kind of learning this thing together, all of us," Studesville said.
"It's cool," McGahee said. "I'm having fun with it. It's all good."
McGahee was part of a pro-style offense at Miami but now is part of an NFL offense that's borrowing heavily from the college ranks.
"It's not an option offense. It's still a pro-style offense," McGahee insisted, but then added: "Whatever it takes to win. If that's what we got to do, then we're going to do it."
Studesville enjoys having the gregarious, witty McGahee in the meeting room again.Comment on this story
"Oh yeah, he's got great personality. The interesting thing about him, this is a guy who early on in his career certainly could have had reasons to have his head down like he got the short end of the stick because of a bad break," Studesville said. "It's never been like that. I've never, ever seen him like that.
"He's fun to be around, the guys like him. He is challenging now. He challenges everybody, me included. And everyone's fair game for comments and jokes and those things but then when it's time to work, he works and you can really respect that he brings that to the table."