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Phillips returns to a team prospering without him

(c) 1995 Copyright Nando.net
(c) 1995 Associated Press

LINCOLN, Neb. (Nov 2, 1995 - 20:48 EST) -- Nebraska tailback Lawrence Phillips will be on the sidelines this week for the first time in two months. Who's missed him?

Certainly not the No. 1 Cornhuskers, who lead the nation in rushing, are second in scoring, are third in total offense and are marching toward a second national championship game.

So why is Phillips, who was suspended after attacking ex-girlfriend Katherine McEwen on Sept. 10, coming back at all? What can he salvage from a regular season that began with talk of the Heisman Trophy and will end about a week before he is sentenced for misdemeanor assault and trespassing charges?

"To be honest, I don't think we look at it quite that way," running backs coach Frank Solich said. "It's hard to say what can come from playing these last three or four games.

"There's no question that he's got a lot of ability and that could benefit the team," he said. "It will also benefit Lawrence."

Phillips hasn't played at all since Sept. 9 and hasn't played at home since the Nov. 5, 1994, game against Kansas. He still has the highest average per carry (10.6 yards) of any of the running backs after his 359 yards and seven touchdowns in Nebraska's first two games.

But does Nebraska need Phillips to win? The statistics, his teammates and his coaches say no. Freshman Ahman Green, who will start against Iowa State this week, has rushed for 821 yards and 10 touchdowns.

And then there is quarterback Tommie Frazier, who has vaulted into the Heisman race after scoring 23 touchdowns in Nebraska's eight wins. Frazier has lost once in 29 regular-season starts.

"I think everybody needs to understand that we won for a long time without Tommie Frazier last year (when he was out with blood clots)," Solich said. "This year, we've done it without Lawrence Phillips. I don't think there is any one player we can't do without."

Still, you can't find a player who's not ready to welcome Phillips back. Green, the only tailback in front of Phillips on the depth chart, said he couldn't wait for his return. Senior tailback Clinton Childs told reporters the day Phillips went back to practice that part of the family had returned.

"We all need football," Childs said. "Lawrence needs it, Tommie needs it, I need it. It's been part of our lives since we were little kids."

Coach Tom Osborne said he was afraid of what Phillips might do to himself if football no longer was an option. He repeatedly has said that the structure provided by football is something Phillips needs.

Phillips, a junior from West Covina, Calif., receives anger-control counseling and meets with a psychiatrist each week. Miss McEwen had received protection paid for by the university, despite assurances from university officials that Phillips is not a threat.

"Lawrence has done everything we have asked him to do to rectify the problem," Osborne said. "He has satisfied the courts, the medical professionals and the student judicial system. Our goal throughout this situation has been to do whatever we can to help Lawrence become a better person."

Phillips, who pleaded no contest to the charges, has declined interview requests but has issued a written statement through the university and called a talk show Oct. 18 on Omaha radio station KFAB, which has the broadcasting rights for Nebraska games.

Phillips said what he did was wrong.

"I've been to counseling to try and take care of the problem because I know there is a problem," he said in the unsolicited call to the station. "I've never tried to deny nothing that I did. I owned up, I went to court."

The decision to reinstate Phillips has infuriated critics who wanted him kicked off the team. There was a protest outside Memorial Stadium following Osborne's decision to allow Phillips to return and university faculty will consider a proposal to end extracurricular activities for students with offenses similar to Phillips'.

As late as Thursday, more than a dozen female Nebraska students said in a letter to the Omaha World-Herald that reinstatement "sends a clear message to women: 'You are not as important as the football players we admire.' "