Who is the best high school running back in Southern California?
Jim Brownfield, Muir High football coach, has heard names such as Eric Henley of Damien, Eric Bieniemy of Bishop Amat and Leonard Russell of Long Beach Poly tossed around by prep experts.
But Brownfield has reason for believing his backfield star, Ric Ervins, is the best.
"Every coach thinks he has the best back in Southern California," Brownfield said. "But I think he's the best all-around back, physically and fundamentally. A lot of good backs get a lot of yards, but he also blocks and catches passes."
The coach forgot to add one item: The 5-9, 185-pound Ervins, timed at 4.4 seconds in the 40-yard dash, may be the fastest running back in Southern California.
14 Touchdowns So Far
That helps explain why Ervins is one of the leading all-purpose backs in the CIF Southern Section. In seven games he has rushed for 992 yards and 14 touchdowns in 134 carries and caught 25 passes for 329 yards and two touchdowns. He is also one of the best punt and kick returners in the Southland.
That also explains why the 17-year-old senior has accumulated two boxes full of cards and letters from college recruiters and is considered one of the top prospects in the nation.
Ervins was listed on many preseason All-American squads, including Max Emfinger's National High School Recruiting Service and Street & Smith magazine. Cal-Hi Sports News of San Jose rated him top back in the state.
What makes Ervins' college prospects even brighter is that he carries a 3.8 grade-point average, best on the team.
Compared to Past Stars
Muir has had outstanding backs such as Ron Brown, who starred at Colorado and was drafted by the New York Giants last year, former Cincinnati Bengal Dave Buchanan and Mike Jenkins, who played pro ball in Canada, and Brownfield says "Ricky's got the best qualities of all of them. He has the power of Jenkins, the shiftiness of Brown and the speed of Buchanan."
But it is the versatility of Ervins that Brownfield likes most.
Ervins developed his assortment of skills by playing fullback as a sophomore, halfback as a junior and wide receiver in passing league games last summer.
"He's a complete player now," Brownfield said. "As a fullback he learned how to block well and run to (a team's) strength. Last year we used him in the open field a lot more. This year, over the summer, he learned how to catch passes."
Not that Ervins was a poor receiver. In addition to rushing for 1,345 yards and 15 touchdowns in 192 carries as a junior, he caught 12 passes for 100 yards.
Learned How to Catch
But his pass-catching ability came of age in the summer when he caught a team-high 145.
"I learned how to catch better during the summer. I couldn't catch that well last year. That's the area where I've improved most," he said.
You could not judge by statistics, but Ervins was disappointed with his performance as a junior for the Mustangs. He suffered an ankle injury in Muir's next-to-last regular season game, which left him at less than full strength for the CIF playoffs.
Muir won the CIF Coastal Conference championship, but Ervins was disappointed that he could not help more in the playoffs or reach his season rushing goals.
"I had a goal to reach 1,500 yards rushing excluding the playoffs, and I was very disappointed," he said.
Determined to Shine
Perhaps that is why Ervins has started off well this season.
"It's my last year and I want to make the best of it. It's my last chance to play for this team and you need to have a good senior year to get a college scholarship."
Whether Ervins is motivated by last year's disappointment or his drive to make a big impression on recruiters, Brownfield noticed a change after he was named to the Cal-Hi all-star team after last season.
"That seemed to fire him up and he was dedicated all summer," Brownfield said. "He worked very hard on his skills and lifted a lot of weights."
Ervins' strength and speed have become integral ingredients in his development because of his size, considered small by most recruiters.
Exclusive Strength Club
There is no question about the strength of Ervins, a member of Muir's 1,200-Pound Club. To qualify, players have to bench press, squat lift and dead lift a combined 1,200 pounds.
Ervins has lifted 550 in the squat and 300 in the bench. "He's the only back who has ever made it in the 10 years I've been here," Brownfield said.
Then there is his speed, which has made him one of the premier sprinters in the valley for two years. His specialty is the 100-yard dash, in which he posted a 9.7 last season.
Ervins, who will stick to football in college, said his track background has helped develop his running ability as a football player. "Each year I've been improving my running technique. I think this year I'm faster, and I am using better techniques."
Added Brownfield: "He might be the fastest running back in Southern California. I know I've got my money on him for the Sunkist meet (in January at the Sports Arena)."
'Heart and Courage'
As for his size, Ervins said the negative comments don't bother him.
"I feel like if you have the heart and courage you can play just as well as a 6-2 person," Ervins said. "Size doesn't have anything to do with it."
Considering his ability and physical attributes, it should come as no surprise that Ervins' favorite professional player is Walter Payton of the Chicago Bears.
"We've been setting him on the idea of punishing people, kind of like Walter Payton does," Brownfield said. "He's like an idol to him. He even wears the same number (34)."
Brownfield says Ervins is one of the few players he has coached who has professional potential.
"He can be an outstanding college player and he has the ability to develop into a pro player," Brownfield said.
Ervins would like to excel in college and play pro football, but for now he will settle for being the best prep running back in Southern California.
At least, that's what Brownfield thinks.