Carter finds second unsettling

January 02, 1995|By Paul McMullen | Paul McMullen,Sun Staff Writer

PASADENA, Calif. -- No. 2 in the Heisman Trophy balloting? No problem.

No. 2 in Happy Valley? Problem.

When Colorado's Rashaan Salaam reached 2,000 yards, the magic number for a running back in the race for the Heisman, he was a lock to win the award. Most NFL scouts and college coaches, however, say that he's not even the best junior tailback in the nation.

That would be Penn State's Ki-Jana Carter, he of the gaudy 7.8 yards per carry, the distinctive first name -- which means "young man" in Swahili -- and the power, speed and moves that draw comparisons to Barry Sanders and Emmitt Smith.

Back in August, though, he represented a question mark. Coach Joe Paterno put out a depth chart that listed Carter as just another candidate for the tailback spot, along with fellow juniors Mike Archie and Steve Pitts.

"I just want to contribute to the team," Carter said on media day.

He took the party line, but Carter had more confidence in his ability than did his coaches.

Carter's status was iffy because he was held out of spring practice with aftereffects of a knee injury that caused him to miss most of the last three games of 1993. Despite the shortened sophomore season, he was the No. 2 rusher in the Big Ten Conference in 1993.

Carter already had dealt with the delicate issue of playing time. When he was a true freshman in 1991, his mother, Kathy, called Paterno from Westerville, Ohio, to question his decision to redshirt her son. Some of the same doubts lingered for the coaching staff this year, about Carter's health, his blocking and receiving skills, and his maturity.

If Paterno simply was motivating Carter with the preseason depth chart, it's a ploy that got the desired result for both.

"He hasn't rushed for 2,000 yards like the kid from Colorado, but he didn't have to," Paterno said. "He's never complained about his number of carries. All he's done is do everything we asked of him."

In a 56-3 rout of Minnesota that set the tone for a record-setting season for the Penn State offense, Carter gained 210 yards on 20 carries. He dislocated a thumb four weeks later against Temple, but it never affected his play. He has caught the ball when it has been thrown his way, and blocked well when quarterback Kerry Collins dropped back to search for Bobby Engram, Freddie Scott or Kyle Brady.

Maybe most important to his teammates, Carter rarely mentioned his relatively modest number of carries. When he did, it was merely as an aside about the dominance of the Nittany Lions.

"I was a little disappointed about the Heisman," said Carter, the 11th Penn State back to be named first-team All-America. "There were a lot of games I didn't play in the fourth quarter. If I had, I think I would have had a lot more yardage. [Salaam] had a lot more carries than me, but he still had only 500 more yards and one more touchdown."

Carter got 1,539 yards rushing -- 28 shy of the Penn State record set in 1971 by Lydell Mitchell -- on 198 carries.

Salaam had 2,005 yards in the regular season, but he also had 100 more carries than Carter.

"Considering what he's done with as few chances as he's had," Collins said, "I don't think there's any doubt he's the best football player in the nation."

Carter and Collins were second and fourth in the Heisman balloting, the first teammates to finish that high since 1983, when Nebraska's Mike Rozier won and Turner Gill was fourth.

Maybe Carter finally will get all of the work he desires in today's Rose Bowl against Oregon, whose excellent set of cornerbacks, All-American Herman O'Berry and Alex Molden, plan to restrict the availability of Engram and Scott.

Carter also is prepared for the possibility of doing nothing wrong and finishing second again, this time in the fight for the national championship.

Afterward, Carter will have one more pertinent discussion with Paterno about playing time -- whether he'll be staying at Penn State for another season or leaving early for the NFL draft.

ROSE BOWL

NO. 2 PENN STATE (11-0)

vs

NO. 12 OREGON (9-3)

WHERE : Pasadena Calif.

WHEN: Today, 4:50 p.m.

TV: Chs. 2, 7

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