By Craig Sanders
Arizona Daily Wildcat
The Pacific 10 Conference has long been known for its running backs. For years men like O.J. Simpson and Marcus Allen have taken the handoff and spun away from opponents, striding into the end zone as the Trojan fight song rang through a filled stadium.
The Pac-10 liked to let its stars shine, and when one of its high-profile teams visited opponents, they we're likely sporting a star running back Ÿ some glamourous young man trying out his Heisman pose.
There are still those players breaking down defenses, spinning by opponents and bolting to the end zone. Yet as the 1995 season approaches, more of those big name players won't be taking a handoff, they'll be plucking the ball from the sky.
Wide receivers like Keyshawn Johnson from Southern Cal, Kevin Jordan from UCLA, Brian Manning from Stanford and Richard Dice from Arizona lead a group of big-name wide outs who are likely to light up the conference this season.
That is not to say that the Pac-10 does not have its good backs Ÿ it certainly does. Departing ball carriers Napoleon Kaufman from Washington and Ontiwaun Carter from Arizona weren't bad and this year UCLA's Karim Abdul-Jabbar (formerly Sharmon Shaw) and USC's Shawn Walters are projected to have outstanding seasons. Still, the Pac-10 as a whole has undergone a subtle change. With Pac-10 defenses geared towards stopping the run, the passing game has blossomed and the spotlight has begun to shift from those who carry the ball to those who catch it.
"I don't know if it was meant like that," Dice said. "I think it just happened that way. The Pac-10 is a good league, and I think it's becoming a good passing league also."
Nothing demonstrates that more than the situation at Southern Cal. The Heisman Trophy watch is on again, but this time it's for wide receiver Keyshawn Johnson. He is carrying a big load, trying to earn that trophy while catching Ÿ not running Ÿ the ball at Tailback U.
"Keyshawn is obviously a player with outstanding physical gifts," USC head coach John Robinson said. "He has a great exuberance for playing. He also brings a great mind to the game. He is willing to continue to upgrade his game like the big names such as (Jerry) Rice in the NFL."
This 6-foot-4-inch, 205-pound receiver seems to have the complete package. He's big, fast, has great hands and is able to shake defensive backs. He lit up Texas Tech in the Cotton Bowl for 222 yards on 8 receptions. Johnson has had a tough past in Los Angeles, but he seems to have his priorities straight.
"Not one player can win by himself," Johnson said. "If we keep that team concept we have the ability to go far."
If Johnson isn't getting the preseason hype in the Pac, then it has to belong to Kevin Jordan. Jordan stole the spotlight last season after J.J. Stokes was sidelined for most of the season with an injury. In fact, he claimed two of Stokes' records with 73 receptions and 1,228 yards. He averaged 6.6 receptions a game to lead the conference. Jordan needs only 19 receptions for 480 yards to break Stokes' career marks of 154 and 2,469.
"We have a good core of receivers," UCLA's Terry Donahue said, "and Kevin Jordan is the primary talent of the group."
With the departure of Bill Walsh, junior Brian Manning of Stanford may be looking at a difficult season ahead, especially considering that quarterback Steve Stenstrom has graduated. The fact that his new head coach was a running backs coach for the last 6 years is unlikely to help either.
"Mark Harris and Manning are two receivers that can help balance out our running attack that will consist of excellent backs in (Mike) Mitchell and (Anthony) Bookman," head coach Tyrone Willingham said.
But Manning is talented and his 46 receptions for 899 yards and 19.5 yard-per-reception average proves it. He will need to get some support from Justin Armour's replacement Mark Harris if he wants to have a successful season.
Arizona's Richard Dice may be the most underrated wide out in the nation. He has a great ability to shake the double team, beat his man deep, and score touchdowns (he had eight last season). He also caught 59 balls for 969 yards in '94. His only real knock is his speed. If he is lacking in that department, he certainly makes up for it in another.
"My hands," Dice said when asked about his strongest attribute. "My hands by far. It helps trying to catch every single ball that comes my way."
Dice must battle not only the criticism of his speed, but also the fact that he is often overlooked because he plays on a team not known for a passing offense. In a league filled with stars, it is easy to overlook this one. Dice, however, worries about himself, not others.
"I try not to compare myself to anybody," Dice said. "I just go do my job game in and game out and it's been working out for me so far."
Cal's running backs will also take a back seat to their wideout tandem of Iheanyi Uwaezuoke (56 catches last year) and Na'il Benjamin (42) who are looking for a few balls from new quarterback Pat Barnes. Washington State has a deep receiving corps led by talented Jay Dumas. Arizona State is returning their big-play receiver Keith Poole, who averaged 21.6 yards a reception last season, highest in the Pac-10.
All of these receivers have some of the Pac-10's big play defensive backs taking note.
"We have a great number of quality wide receivers in this conference so it's really a chore to keep up with them," said Oregon State's All-Pac-10 safety Reggie Tongue. "Especially with guys like Keyshawn Johnson, Kevin Jordan and those good receivers at Cal. We have to keep on our toes."
With teams like Arizona and Washington State supplying dominate rushing defenses, and the rest of the league following suit, defensive backs will likely see plenty of balls coming their way. Pac-10 offenses are continuing to change, and even though every coach in the league will undoubtedly proclaim that their running game is the key, for the time being at least, those who are successful this season will be looking up.
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