Zereoue inspires puppy love Mountaineers tailback gains more than yards

October 09, 1997|By Brant James | Brant James,CONTRIBUTING WRITER

Players can gauge their popularity by the particular custom of the locals. Some get statues in their honor, others get a key to the city.

For West Virginia sophomore tailback Amos Zereoue, the spoils of his burgeoning fame have been less grandiose, but no less heartfelt.

"Every time I turn around, I hear people are naming their puppies after him," Mountaineers running backs coach Tony Pearce said. "Apparently there are a lot of 'Famous Amoses' running all over the place."

Just like the original.

A 5-foot-10, 200-pound back, Zereoue (pronounced Zair-o-way) often has his name mispronounced. He enters Saturday against Maryland at Byrd Stadium as the second-best rusher in the nation, averaging 150.2 yards per game -- 6.5 per carry -- and nine touchdowns, two of 50 yards or more. Only Iowa's Tavian Banks has been better this season, averaging 183.8 yards per game.

In just 16 college games, Zereoue, a Long Island native, has amassed 1,786 yards, including a school record 1,035 his freshman season, to becoming the most prolific rusher in the East.

Still, Zereoue said, the notoriety, including the "Famous Amos" moniker that followed him from his home in Hempstead, N.Y., is all a bit strange.

"I don't know what to say about the puppy stuff," he said. "I just try to keep a level head and concentrate on the team game despite the attention. People come up with names and things and that makes them happy, so that's fine."

Zereoue grew up a Barry Sanders fanatic, and through fortuitous genetics, developed the same type of body and into the same type of runner. He darts, he dodges, he stops in nothing flat, and, Pearce said, "when he gets that look in his eye," he can run through an unwary safety, as he did for a 54-yard touchdown two weeks ago against the Miami Hurricanes.

"I just try to stay low, keep a low base," Zereoue said. "If you make them miss, you get them thinking, and then you do what you want to."

Running behind a line that averages 295 pounds per man has not hurt either, he said.

Zereoue made his collegiate debut count last season with 135 yards on seven carries -- including a 69-yard touchdown on his first-ever rush -- in a nationally televised win over rival Pittsburgh. After that season he was unanimously named Big East Rookie of the Year, raising expectations for this autumn.

The loss of All-America candidate wide receiver David Saunders to a preseason knee injury and the introduction of sophomore Marc Bulger as the starting quarterback heaped on more pressure. Zereoue responded well, scoring five touchdowns and gaining 373 yards as the Mountaineers started the season 2-0.

"There's no question Amos is a great football player," West Virginia coach Don Nehlen said. "And we know people line up with the purpose of trying to stop him. That's made it a little easier for us to pass."

Zereoue popped into the nation's top five in rushing with a career-best 206 yards and touchdown runs of 54 and 31 yards in the Mountaineers' 28-17 win over Miami Sept. 27 in the Orange Bowl, and climbed to No. 2 with 103 yards last week in a 48-0 win over Rutgers. In the blowout against Rutgers, Zereoue was removed after a half.

Zereoue, who easily leads the Big East in rushing, said the Mountaineers (4-1, 2-1) should co-lead the conference standings with Virginia Tech (4-1, 3-0), who travels to Morgantown on Oct. 25. But a 31-24 loss Sept. 13 at then-winless Boston College -- in which West Virginia squandered a 14-point halftime lead -- has taken the edge off the matchup. The Boston College game, in which he was held to a season-low 69 yards, will not be forgotten, Zereoue said.

"We came in there thinking it was a cakewalk, and B.C. was ready," Zereoue said. "I'd like to be able to say I was different that day, but I can't. I thought it would be a normal day, and by the time I got my head into it, it was over. It won't happen again."

Zereoue fortifies himself against another letdown with dogged work in the film room, where he spends an average of 15 hours a week.

"I'm a fan of the game," he said. "I get in the room on Sundays after games if the coaches are there or not. I enjoy seeing what players do. You can never be too good."

Zereoue being too good may soon be a worry for the Mountaineers, considering the current propensity for underclassmen to enter the National Football League draft. But West Virginia coaches don't want to talk about that now, and neither does Zereoue.

"Right now, I'm focused on college, and degree," he said. "All that other talk does is create havoc."

If Zereoue wreaks any havoc on the Terrapins on Saturday -- and he's looking forward to his second of three games on natural grass, so he can "use all the moves" -- he'll have to go through some familiar faces. Maryland defensive end Eric Ogbogu and safety Henry Baker were members of the same Heisman high school all-star team as Zereoue in the New York metro area.

"I'm sure they'll have a little something to say to me," he said.

Pub Date: 10/09/97

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