Rookie Ervins gives Redskins a run of hope RB search may end with 3rd-round pick

October 17, 1991|By Vito Stellino

When the Washington Redskins were evaluating this year's draft, they had Leonard Russell of Arizona State at the head of the running-back class.

After Russell, the picture was cloudy.

"We had a lot of guys grouped together," general manager Charley Casserly said.

That's why they had their videotape department put together a tape of five games of each back.

"It wasn't a highlight film," Casserly said. "It was every run, good and bad."

After watching the tapes, one back jumped out of them: Ricky Ervins of Southern California. Even though he had played only four games as a senior because of an ankle injury, the Redskins liked what they saw.

"We thought he was the second-best back in the country," Casserly said.

The view wasn't unanimous. After the New England Patriots traded up to beat the Redskins to Russell with the 14th pick, three more running backs were chosen: Louisiana State's Harvey Williams by the Kansas City Chiefs on 21st pick, Colorado's Eric Bieniemy by the San Diego Chargers on the 39th pick and Iowa's Nick Bell by the Los Angeles Raiders on the 43rd pick.

Ervins was the highest-rated player still on the Redskins' board when they prepared to make their third-round pick (the 76th pick of the draft). They had Ervins rated slightly ahead of Jackson State wide receiver Tim Barnett.

The Redskins needed a running back more than a wide receiver, so they grabbed Ervins.

If Sunday's 133-yard effort against the Cleveland Browns was any indication, that choice could give the Redskins the running back they've been looking for since John Riggins retired after the 1985 season.

Although it's still too early to know whether Ervins can stay healthy and do it for the long haul, Casserly likes what he has seen.

"There isn't anything he's done that's fluky," Casserly said. "He produced in college when he was healthy, and he's produced here."

Ervins is only 5 feet 7, but he's not a small running back. He's just short. A 200-pound player, he's got plenty of power. The comparisons to former New York Giants running back Joe Morris are inevitable. Although Morris was listed at 5-7, Casserly said he thinks Ervins is slightly taller and has a different running style.

"Morris was faster and more of a slashing, straight-line type who'd get to the outside and get upfield," Casserly said. "This guy is more of a darter-type guy, a change of direction-type runner. He sees something blocked and he'll make a quick cut one way or the other. I'm not saying one style is better than the other. They're just different."

If Ervins stays healthy and shows he can be consistent, he could be the main running back for five years and change the team's draft strategy for the foreseeable future.

With Ervins, Brian Mitchell and John Settle, who's on injured zTC reserve, the Redskins might not have to worry about running backs in next year's draft.

"They'd have to be a heck of a back for us to take one [high] now," Casserly said.

Ervins could stop the team's revolving door at running back. Since Riggins left, the Redskins have had George Rogers, Timmy Smith, Gerald Riggs and now Earnest Byner. Although Byner has been dependable the past year, he's 29 and not the team's future at the position.

Even Byner calls Ervins "the future running back of his team."

It remains to be seen how soon the future is. Although Ervins has moved ahead of Riggs on the depth chart, coach Joe Gibbs is usually reluctant to play rookie running backs much.

Ervins doesn't complain that Gibbs is breaking him in slowly.

"We've got a complex offense and it's taking me time to learn it," he said.

Ervins said he missed a blitz in practice last week and missed one block against the Browns that resulted in quarterback Mark Rypien's being hit.

"I didn't get the guy down and he hit Ryp," Ervins said. "I thought: 'Oh, man, I'm coming out. I've got to be smart in there.' "

But Ervins runs so well that Gibbs is talking about playing him "as much as we can and as fast as we can."

The Redskins have an open date this week, so it'll be interesting to see how much action Ervins gets against the New York Giants next week.

Since beating the Giants is such an obsession with Gibbs and he likes to stick with his veterans in those situations, the playing time Ervins gets will be barometer of how much Gibbs is willing to use him.

One player who isn't surprised by Ervins' success is linebacker Matt Millen, who remembers reading about him when he was in high school and saw him play at Southern Cal when he was with the Raiders.

"I've loved Ricky Ervins from the day I saw him at USC," Millen said. "I really like that kid. He just happens to be short, but he's a big man and he's quick and bright."

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