It's showtime for Michigan's Woodson Heisman winner finds niche as centerpiece of Rose Bowl hoopla

December 30, 1997|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,SUN STAFF

BURBANK, Calif. -- Heisman Trophy winner Charles Woodson seemed right at home in the land of stardom. He toured Universal Studios yesterday with the rest of the participants in the 84th Rose Bowl, posed for publicity shots with the dinosaurs of Jurassic Park, and enjoyed the kind of attention that has long been reserved for the guys who spend their quality time on the other side of the ball.

Woodson, of course, is the first defensive player to win the Heisman, a distinction that has pushed him to the center of the college football universe. It doesn't hurt that he plays starting cornerback -- and sometime wide receiver -- for the undefeated Michigan Wolverines, who will go for the national championship against Pacific-10 champion Washington State on Thursday in the last non-Alliance edition of football's oldest and most venerated bowl game.

So, if he wants to go Hollywood for a few days, who can blame him?

"Charles Woodson is a remarkable young man who came into a very high-profile program at Michigan and started the first game of his freshman year," said Michigan coach Lloyd Carr. "From the beginning, he has had to deal with an extreme amount of publicity, and he has dealt with it well from the beginning. He was our MVP as a sophomore, which is rare, but he understands that a lot of his success has come because of the good team around him. He has recognized that from the start."

Life is all about adjustments, and Woodson is nothing if he isn't flexible. He has emerged in his junior year as the best defensive back in the nation, but also splits time as Michigan's fifth-best receiver and the team's top punt returner. That leaves room to wonder how good he might be if he concentrated solely on his defensive game, but he doesn't have to worry about that, since )) he already has established himself as a top NFL prospect at cornerback.

"I just try to go out there and work hard," Woodson said this week. "If I didn't play both sides, that would leave me on the sideline for part of the game, so I concentrate on working hard on both sides of the ball."

Who's to argue? If he didn't play both sides, the top-ranked Wolverines might not be positioned to win their first national title since 1948. In Michigan's season-ending 20-14 victory over Big Ten rival Ohio State, Woodson caught a long pass to set up his team's first touchdown, returned a punt 78 yards for a TD and made a crucial interception in the end zone to end a Buckeyes' drive.

It was that all-around performance that may have locked up his surprisingly decisive victory over Tennessee quarterback Peyton Manning in the Heisman balloting.

That's just the most recent in a series of honors that Woodson has won at Michigan. He was the Big Ten Freshman of the Year and a second-team All-Big Ten selection after intercepting five passes during the 1995 season. In '96, he was named an Associated Press first-team All-American and was a finalist for the Thorpe Award -- given to the nation's top defensive back. This year, he piled up more hardware than a True Value warehouse employee, winning the Thorpe Award, the Chuck Bednarik Award, the Walter Camp Award and a variety of other major honors.

"I think he's a great player," said Washington State coach Mike Price. "It [the Heisman Trophy] is a well-deserved honor. I'm pleased it went to a defensive player. I think that's great for the game of college football."

Woodson leads the Wolverines with seven interceptions this season. He also has five pass breakups, 43 tackles, a sack and four tackles for losses. On offense, he caught 11 passes for 231 yards and two touchdowns. On special teams, he returned 32 punts for 283 yards and the spectacular touchdown against Ohio State.

The Cougars, however, are determined not to enable Woodson to become the center of attention on Thursday the way he did against the fourth-ranked Buckeyes. Washington State quarterback Ryan Leaf said yesterday that he will not allow Woodson's impressive defensive credentials to alter the Cougars' offensive schematic.

"We're not going to worry about that," Leaf said. "If somebody's open, they're open and we're going to try to throw to them. You go at a defense, not a specific person. I'm not going to go at him, but I'm not going to intentionally go away from him either."

Leaf and Woodson had some fun yesterday, bantering across the dining table at a media luncheon at Universal's Hard Rock Cafe.

"He can't guard five receivers," Leaf joked. "Maybe he's good enough to guard four, but if that's the case, I'll just have to find the other one."

Chances are, there will be a point or two in Thursday's game when they will find each other, and the outcome may depend on which of the game's two most dynamic personalities prevails.

"I don't know what Ryan is going to do," Woodson said, "but I'll be ready and the team will be ready."

The only question remaining after Thursday's game is whether he'll be back for his senior year. He doesn't have much left to prove at the college level, and there are a lot of NFL teams -- one in the Ravens, in particular -- who might jump at the chance to draft a player with the potential to be the next Deion Sanders.

Pub Date: 12/30/97

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