Levens packs a wallop NFL: Once tagged as a runner not tough enough, Green Bay's fifth-round draft choice in 1994 has shed critics the same way he sheds tacklers.

January 09, 1998|By Ken Murray | Ken Murray,SUN STAFF

When Dorsey Levens was selected in the fifth round of the 1994 NFL draft, the comparisons were to three fullbacks taken ahead of him -- William Floyd, Donnell Bennett and Raymont Harris.

This week, after another stellar big-game performance for the Green Bay Packers, Levens is traveling in faster company.

Now, the comparisons are to Packers Hall of Famer Jim Taylor.

Never mind that Green Bay quarterback Brett Favre, in the wake of Sunday's 21-7 playoff victory over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, compared him to the most prolific running back in NFL history.

"He looked like Walter Payton running over people," Favre said after Levens shredded enough tackles to amass a team playoff record of 112 rushing yards.

At 6 feet 1 and a burly 230 pounds, Levens is no Payton. But he does a pretty nifty impersonation of Taylor, who helped the Packers win four of their five league championships in the 1960s.

When the Packers visit San Francisco for Sunday's NFC championship game, Levens will give the 49ers' defense something else to ponder besides Favre's laser show.

He is at his best bouncing off tacklers, grinding for first-down yardage. Against Tampa Bay, Levens' biggest play came not off tackle, but on a pass in the flat in the third quarter. On third down at midfield, after the Bucs had gotten within six points of the lead, Levens appeared to be stopped short of a first down on the short toss from Favre.

But he broke a tackle by Bucs Pro Bowl linebacker Derrick Brooks. And another by safety John Lynch. And another by Pro Bowl linebacker Hardy Nickerson. And before you knew it, Levens had slipped four tackles, gained 13 yards and gotten the first down.

As if to punctuate the moment, he covered the final 22 yards on three runs to score the clinching touchdown.

By one count, Levens broke an arm-wearying 17 tackles in the game.

The 49ers noticed.

"He's a strong, powerful runner," said San Francisco linebacker Ken Norton. "The first guy getting to him is not bringing him down. One key to our defense is tackling."

The 49ers aren't the first team that has thought it could do better against Levens, who made his first big splash in the NFL last postseason. He had five catches for 117 yards, and 205 total yards, against the Carolina Panthers in the championship game a year ago.

In the Super Bowl victory over New England two weeks later, he was the Packers' top rusher with 61 yards.

Levens prides himself on rising to the occasion.

"You have to play great in big games to put yourself among the elite," he said. "You have to have a big game in the big games. It means so much more."

It meant so much more weighed against the rest of Levens' career.

In college, he played two undistinguished seasons at Notre Dame, then transferred to Georgia Tech, where he gained 1,036 yards in two years.

"The knock against him was that he wasn't tough," said Packers general manager Ron Wolf. "That's the farthest thing from the truth."

In Green Bay, Levens did not impress as a blocking fullback, and was Edgar Bennett's backup at halfback into the postseason a year ago. After his playoff performance, coach Mike Holmgren indicated Levens would get a bigger load this season.

He had no idea how big.

When Bennett went down in the first quarter of the first preseason game with a season-ending Achilles' tendon tear, the full-time job was Levens'.

"I didn't really know what to expect," he said. "A lot of people

didn't think I could carry the load. To be honest, I didn't know if I could, either."

He rushed for 1,435 yards, just 39 shy of Taylor's single-season club record. He had six 100-yard rushing games, scored 12 touchdowns, caught 53 passes and had 1,805 total yards from scrimmage, a club record.

His breakthrough season was good enough to earn a spot in the NFC's starting Pro Bowl backfield with the Detroit Lions' Barry Sanders.

"He's been so consistent, you come to expect games like this," Holmgren said after the Tampa Bay game. "You can point to three runs where you say, 'He's stopped. No he isn't.'

"He's a fine player. I hope he stays with us."

Whether the Packers defend their Super Bowl title or not, Levens can be assured of a huge pay hike in 1998.

Levens will become a free agent in February and wants to test the water. The Packers would like to sign him before then and avoid slapping on the "transition" or "franchise" designations.

"I really want to be back," he said.

Those 1994 draft comparisons?

Floyd, a first-round pick, has had an injury-marred career with the 49ers. Bennett is a role player with the Kansas City Chiefs. Harris was a 1,000-yard rusher with the Chicago Bears this season.

Levens is shooting for a second straight Super Bowl ring and, beyond that, a payday worth as much as $3 million a year. Not bad for a fifth-round draft pick.

NFL playoffs

Sunday's games

AFC championship

Denver Broncos (-1 1/2 )

at Pittsburgh Steelers,

nTC 12: 30 p.m., chs. 11, 4

NFC championship

Green Bay Packers (-1)

at San Francisco 49ers,

4 p.m., chs. 45, 5

Super Bowl

At San Diego, Jan. 25,

6 p.m., chs, 11, 4

Pub Date: 1/09/98

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