Many thought Phillips would be running from authorties, not toward Heisman

(c) Copyright the News & Observer Publishing Co. and The Associated Press, 1994

LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) -- Four years ago, people who knew Lawrence Phillips figured he would be running from California authorities, not running for the Heisman Trophy.

Nebraska's sophomore I-back has come a long way since his troubled early teenage days of running the streets in Ingelwood, El Monte and West Covina, Calif.

On Saturday, he'll be running for No. 3 Nebraska against No. 2 Colorado and its star running back Rashaan Salaam.

Phillips has rushed for 1,233 yards and 12 touchdowns this season and has averaged 6.7 yards per carry average. He ran himself into Heisman contention with eight straight 100-yard-plus games for Nebraska (8-0).

He used to run from school, discipline and authority.

In seventh grade, courts decided that the often-truant Phillips must get to school and placed him in a boys home in El Monte, then in a similar home in West Covina just down the street from an aunt.

In West Covina, Phillips met Baldwin Park High School coach Tony Zane. Phillips said he wanted to play football and Zane soon discovered a special talent.

Phillips was barely eligible academically and had taken few core courses required by colleges, Zane said. That changed, and so did Phillips' attitude.

Zane, assistant principal Ty Pagone and his wife, Christine, directed Phillips, counseled him, picked him up in the morning to take him to school and chewed him out when he needed it.

"I guess my sophomore year was when I started getting serious about school," Phillips said.

"I think I just started playing because everyone else was," he said. "I guess as football became important I started getting more serious about school. ... I discovered I might be pretty good and it was pointed out I might have a chance for a scholarship."

Phillips was a Southern Cal fan but coaching changes at USC turned him off. Nebraska called and convinced Phillips that a move to the Midwest might help him get his life in order.

It has worked better than Phillips could have hoped.

As a true freshman last fall, he stepped in for injured Calvin Jones and rushed for 139 yards against UCLA in a 14-13 victory. He ended with 508 yards on 92 carries for the season, third-best in school history for a freshman.

Jones left school early for the NFL, leaving Phillips as Nebraska's top runner on the nation's top-ranked rushing offense. He became more important to the offense when quarterback Tommie Frazier was lost for the season with recurring blood clots and a lung injury hampered backup Brook Berringer.

Tackle Rob Zatechka said the Kansas State defense, then sixth-best in the nation, played Nebraska's option as if there was no threat from walk-on quarterback Matt Turman, who started Oct. 15 for the injured Berringer.

"When we would run an option against Kansas State, they wouldn't even have somebody on the quarterback," Zatechka said. "They put both guys on the pitch man (Phillips) and he'd still get 100 yards a game."

Earlier in the season, when defenses weren't keying on Phillips as much, he was getting 150 or 200 yards a game even when he was averaging fewer than 20 carries a game.

Since Berringer suffered a collapsed lung Oct. 1, Phillips carried 33 times for 223 yards and three touchdowns against Oklahoma State, 31 times for 126 yards and one score against Kansas State and 22 times for 110 yards and a TD against Missouri.

Phillips has played much of the past two games with a sprained left thumb, prompting coach Tom Osborne to dub Phillips the "one-armed man."

Phillips said the thumb should be fine Saturday but more importantly, Berringer will be healthy.

"I think it'll take some pressure off," Phillips said. "I think it will open up a lot more rushing lanes for me with us being able to pass and run a little option."