Phillips ready to run with Big 8's best

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

LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) -- Lawrence Phillips, only a year removed from a shining high-school career in West Covina, Calif., is moving to a new level as the rising star of Nebraska's vaunted rushing game.

Maybe Phillips should give a special thank you to UCLA, a home-state school that provided the stage for his coming-out party a year ago. The then-true freshman stepped in for an injured Calvin Jones and a frustrated Damon Benning to carry 28 times for 137 yards and a touchdown to help the Huskers pull out a 14-13 win in Los Angeles last September.

Coach Tom Osborne said Phillips has come a long way since then. UCLA may not want to hear that. The No. 13 Bruins (2-0) will get another close look at the young Huskers I-back Saturday when they come to Memorial Stadium.

"Lawrence is a real good player. He has all the tools. He's got excellent speed, a very tough individual, good hands, good balance," Osborne said. "We felt, particularly in spring ball, he showed us another dimension -- the ability to break tackles, balance, all the things a running back has got to have. I felt he took his level of play up a notch.

"Right now he shows the potential to rank with some of the better running backs we've had. I think Lawrence, if he can keep everything in the right direction, on the field and off, has a chance for a fine career."

Those are big words from the coach who has seen the likes of Roger Craig, Mike Rozier, Jones and a long list of other All-America or All-Big Eight backs run for Nebraska.

With Jones leaving after his junior season to pursue a professional career, Phillips stepped up in the spring to claim the No. 1 I-back spot from Benning and Clinton Childs. He ran for 126 yards in the 31-0 season-opening victory against West Virginia. He added a 175-yard, two-touchdown performance against Texas Tech in the 42-16 second-game win last Thursday.

"I think in the first game of the season he played well but in this last ball game against Texas Tech he showed what he could do. I think he's an outstanding player," Osborne said.

"I'm pretty satisfied," Phillips said. "I've gotten better from the last game. Hopefully I can get better every game. That's my goal, that's what we're supposed to do, to be better than you were the game before."

Osborne said his top back, who is 6-foot and 200 pounds, is bigger, stronger and maybe even faster than he was a year ago. That's saying something since Phillips possesses 4.48-second speed in the 40-yard dash.

Phillips said he is getting more comfortable in the system all the time as well. He ran with more confidence in the Tech game because he has seen more of how the blocking unfolds.

"I just didn't have a lot of reps in a game," he said. "Different things happen in a game than they do in practice so it took some getting used to."

Now, he is showing some maturity as well. His goal this week is to win, not necessarily have a big game himself.

"I guess you just want to get out there and do your business," he said. "I want us to have a good game. On the personal side, I want us to win. I guess I've got some friends and players I know on their team but mostly, I just want to win."