SAN DIEGO - -Long before he was the starting running back for the Ravens, the diminutive Ray Rice showed his explosiveness in a different way.
He dunked a basketball in eighth grade.
Only an inch shorter than his current height of 5 feet 8, Rice soon felt grounded when he reached high school, watching everyone around him grow taller. He went from being an average-size adolescent to being a self-described "little man."
"I knew it would hurt me playing basketball," Rice said. "But I never questioned playing football. I've been running the ball since I was 7 years old. It's just something that comes natural. Size doesn't matter."
Rice's 108 rushing yards in the season opener not only solidified him in his new role as the Ravens' No. 1 ball carrier, but he also joined a growing trend of short backs making big strides in the NFL.
Along with Rice, there are four other players under 5 feet 10 who are their team's top running back: San Francisco's Frank Gore (5 feet 9), Jacksonville's Maurice Jones-Drew (5 feet 7), Houston's Steve Slaton (5 feet 9) and Carolina's DeAngelo Williams (5 feet 9).
Another small back is San Diego backup Darren Sproles, a 5-foot-6 speedster who is likely to start today because LaDainian Tomlinson is out nursing a right ankle injury. That means Sunday's game between the Ravens and Chargers - two teams that have generated Super Bowl buzz - could be determined by a couple of the smallest backs in the league.
"You say they're small backs, but they are big-hearted backs," Ravens running backs coach Wilbert Montgomery said. "When you have a heart as big as anything on the field, you can get the job done."
The stereotype for smaller backs is they're slashers. They're supposed to be finesse runners who prefer to use their speed to beat defenders to the edges.
Rice might be short (although he said he's 5 feet 9 with his shoes on), but he is far from the other "S" word - soft. Most of his carries are between the tackles, where he knocks helmets with 300-pound defensive linemen.
Thickly built at 205 pounds, Rice is too strong to bring down with arm tackles, yet too quick for defenders to hit solidly on a consistent basis. And running behind this Ravens offensive line - one that averages nearly 6 feet 5 in height - has its hidden advantages, too.
"I figure that by the time a guy would see me," Rice said with a grin, "I would already be 5 yards downfield."
Some defenders consider it a bigger challenge to bring down a shorter back.
"You have to leave your feet to dive at him," said Ravens defensive end Trevor Pryce, who is 6 feet 5. "You can't squat that low. The bigger you are, the harder it is to tackle a small back. The lower he gets, the lower you have to get. By that time, you're sitting on your behind."
There was a time when the Ravens shied away from starting a smaller back. In 2000, the team drafted Jamal Lewis, a bruising 245-pound back, to replace Priest Holmes, a 213-pound player.
Ravens officials didn't think Holmes could withstand the hits of a 16-game season. Holmes went on to become a three-time Pro Bowl player for the Kansas City Chiefs, but his career was cut short in 2006 by a neck injury.
The Ravens likely will take a different approach with Rice, 22, who is headlining the team's running back-by-committee. He has yet to carry the ball more than 22 times in 14 NFL games, and he recorded his second career 100-yard rushing performance last Sunday on just 19 carries.
But durability isn't a concern for Rice.
"I came from an offense where I got the ball 30 times," said Rice, who is Rutgers' all-time leading rusher with 4,296 yards and 49 touchdowns. "I'm a feel-the-defense-out type of a guy."
Rice, a second-round pick in 2008, was the Ravens' third-leading rusher last season. He committed to the team's offseason workout program, adding five pounds of muscle and gaining the starting job over Willis McGahee and Le'Ron McClain.
Although Rice will continue to receive the most touches, he realizes he won't get many carries in the red zone. He broke a 22-yard run last Sunday only to get pushed out at the 1-yard line. Rice regretted not diving into the end zone because the Ravens gave the ball to McClain, who scored a touchdown, on the next play.
"I know I've got to get in from at least the 20[-yard line]," Rice said, "because when I get to the goal line, I'm coming out."
Other shorter backs - Jones-Drew and Williams - have excelled in that area, powering their way to a combined 31 rushing touchdowns last season. Rice has yet to score a regular-season touchdown on 126 carries, but offensive coordinator Cam Cameron said that could change quickly.
"He might do it this game. He's not thinking right," Cameron said. "He'd better be ready at any stage to score."
The real test for Rice might not be at the goal line but whether he can go the distance.