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Marshall running back Rasheen Ali (22) breaks upfield on a carry as the Herd takes on Charlotte during an NCAA football game on Saturday, Nov. 20, 2021, at Jerry Richardson Stadium in Charlotte, N.C.

It’s in his DNA.

How else can anybody explain a 20-year-old running back playing his first season of collegiate football leading the entire nation in rushing touchdowns with 20?

It’s in Rasheen Ali’s blood. It’s in the redshirt freshman’s heritage. It’s in the Marshall University phenom’s … well, ZIP code.

That’s right, ZIP code.

Ali is from Cleveland, Ohio … otherwise known as, “The City of Running Backs.” It is aptly named.

It all began with Marion Motley, who became one of the first two black players in the NFL as a running back with the Cleveland Browns. Then, of course, there was the unequaled Jim Brown, recognized as the greatest running back — and overall player — in NFL history.

Following those two were Leroy Kelly, Ernie Davis, Jamal Lewis, Earnest Byner, Kevin Mack, Greg Pruitt, Mike Pruitt, Peyton Hillis and, now, Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt.

Simply put, if a kid growing up in Cleveland is interested in playing football, he wants to be a running back.

“Definitely, definitely,” said Ali. “I think it means a lot to me because every time — when I was younger — I went to a Browns game, it was always their running backs that I always watched. It was always an inspiration to me to watch the running backs of the Browns.”

So, did it make the 6-0, 201-pound Ali want to be a running back, too?

“Yeah, definitely,” he said. “I grew up playing running back. At first, I played defense. Then, my coach just tried me at running back. He just kept me there. Biddy League when I was eight years old was the first time I ever played running back. From 6 to 7 (years old), I played defensive line and center.”

That means, for all intents and purposes, Ali has been a running back since he was 8 years old.

“Yeah, I always played running back,” he said.

And since Ali is only 20 years old now, it means he has been playing running back for 12 years.

“Yeah, it was just spaced out,” said Ali.

Well, now, he definitely is making up for any lost time. Besides leading the nation in rushing TDs with 20, it also means Ali has scored more rushing touchdowns than such running backs as BYU’s Tyler Allgeier (18 TDs), Louisville’s Malik Cunningham (18), Iowa State’s Breece Hall (17) Utahs Tavion Thomas (17) and Michigan State’s Kenneth Walker III (17).

That’s notable company. But Ali is accustomed to that. Hey, he’s from Cleveland.

“I went to Shaker Heights High School,” explained Ali. “My 11th grade year, I only played nickel on defense. But my senior year, I played running back. My senior year was the best record we had in the last five years ... we went 5-5. There is definitely good competition in the Cleveland area.”

That primed Ali to have his breakout season in 2021. Heading into a marquee matchup vs. Western Kentucky at 3:30 p.m. Saturday in Joan C. Edwards Stadium, Ali has rushed for 1,141 yards on 206 carries (5.5 yards per attempt). He also has 38 receptions for 447 yards and three more TDs.

So, does the Cleveland native still watch the Browns?

“Oh, yeah,” answered Ali quickly, “I still watch the Browns.”

What it all amounts to is this. Any male born in Cleveland is supposed to be a running back, right, Rasheen?

“Yes, sir,” answered Ali.

The DNA has spoken.

Chuck Landon is a sports columnist for The Herald-Dispatch. Contact him at clandon@herald-dispatch.com.

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