LOS ANGELES -- It is sundown in Westwood, appropriately. Shawn Wills swaggers to the UCLA practice bench and confronts Ricky Davis with a this-backfield-is-not-big-enough-for-the-both-of-us glare.
"I hate Ricky Davis," Wills tells a reporter. "He's the worst tailback out of all of us. He's really overrated."
Davis smiles. "Oh man. Don't even start," he says. "I've got enough problems."
The pair cracks up, although Davis' laughter may have been a little forced. The two players are good friends but they find themselves, along with Kevin Williams, involved in a heated three-way battle for starting tailback. Wills took away the job from Davis this week, but coach Terry Donahue has made it clear that he is still looking for someone to step up and claim the job for the season. That could happen today, when UCLA takes on California for a 12:30 p.m. PDT contest at the Rose Bowl.
In the first three games, Donahue has rotated his three backs into the lineup with success. He will continue the arrangement until someone stands out, he says. Can such a rotation work? And why is UCLA in this situation to begin with?
Running backs coach Wayne Moses' answer to the first question is "yes." While Moses admits he would like to name a starter for the season, he is not going to rush an answer he believes is not yet obvious.
"It's not all that bad," Moses said. "The production has been good. The competition has been great. A guy knows that if he makes a mistake, he may never see the field again. There's a lot of pressure on them that way."
The three have posted similar numbers although Williams is clearly the most explosive of the group. He is averaging 6.7 yards a carry to Davis' 4.7 and Wills' 4.0. Wills, a senior and the oldest member of the trio, won today's starting assignment based on his 65-yard effort against San Diego State last week.
Although their statistics are similar, their playing styles are not. Moses calls Davis a "slasher," Wills a "darter" and Williams "smooth but explosive."
"I may be all out of whack," Moses said, "but it seems to me like defenses get used to one runner and so they'll be thrown off by another. In this respect, alternating three tailbacks is a plus. . . . Of course, there's an advantage to having just one guy. He gets the reps and more of a look in practice."
Despite the circumstances, little tension exists among the three, Davis said.
"We kind of need each other," he said. "Especially trying to work our way through [offensive coordinator] Homer Smith's system. We hang out together and there's no animosity. We all need each other to make it through the program.
"We all know that this is not IT. We're all trying to get somewhere. Everybody's trying to play pro football. We all want to be better as a group, to be a good group of running backs. We want to try and be the best group that UCLA has had."
Donahue did not expect to have so much competition at this position. It is a pleasant surprise.
So is Williams. The junior has a well-chronicled history of injuries and some wondered if he would ever contribute much to the program. Although he came out of Spring (Texas) High School as one of the nation's top recruited tailbacks, he never blossomed at UCLA -- until this season.
He has gained 235 yards and scored two touchdowns. He has a propensity for big plays. So why not start him? Good question, Donahue says.
"There's no doubt in my mind after three football games that Kevin Williams has displayed the most explosiveness and the most big-play capabilities of any of the tailbacks we have on our team," Donahue said. ". . . But if you're really going to crown a guy as your first-string tailback, you want him to be able to play the entire game. You want him to certainly be able to play when the game is on the line. At this stage of his career, Kevin is unable to do that.
"I'm not willing to brush the other two tailbacks aside and totally ,, commit to Kevin and then get disappointed and have to go back to the other two tailbacks and tell them I love them, that I didn't love them but I love them again."
Donahue points to UCLA's game with Tennessee, when Williams couldn't play the fourth quarter because of back spasms and hamstring problems. Against San Diego State, he asked not to play late in the game because of fatigue.
Williams showed promise as a redshirt freshman in '89 but he was troubled by, among other things, a strained arch. As a sophomore, he carried the ball in just three games, once again showing plenty of potential but also displaying an inability to avoid injuries.
Donahue had high hopes when spring practice arrived because Williams informed him that he had given up track to focus on his football career. But he ended up missing most of the spring with a sprained ankle.
At that point, Donahue admits, he decided not to count on lTC Williams for anything. If the tailback contributed, all the better. But if not, the coach wasn't going to allow himself to be disappointed again.