SANTA CLARA — Chris Hite grabbed the handoff from quarterback Greg Calcagno, swerved due east, stopped, pivoted westward, stopped again and finally spun in place a la Peggy Fleming, nearly screwing himself into the 47-yard line before Cal Lutheran's Rueben Solorio slapped him to the turf in a bemused, is-this-some-kind-of-joke? fashion.
Defenders looked like they were doing a Yugoslavian folk dance, wildly jerking to-and-fro across the field trying to get a firm grip on the ubiquitous little tailback-turned-receiver-turned-tailback. Hite, a year removed from Hart High, covered about 40 hither-and-thither yards on the play, Santa Clara's first in Saturday's game, but he netted minus-1 yard.
The exhaustive exercise was a preview of things to come. Five times he was cornered behind the line, then swatted to the ground.
By game's end, the 5-9, 160-pound freshman might have roamed enough to cross two continents, but he gained a total of two yards on 11 carries, prompting SCU Coach Terry Malley to say: "It wasn't Chris at his best. He knows some of the kids at Cal Lutheran and he wanted to make the big play every time he touched the ball. In the process, he forgot the things he normally does."
Every now and again, though, he remembered. He returned one kickoff 42 yards and another 20. Early in the fourth quarter, Hite caught a third-down screen pass from Calcagno and bobbed his way 27 yards to the seven, setting up Santa Clara's final touchdown. He also had an 18-yard reception. Maybe this game wasn't so tough after all.
The fact that Hite played at all against CLU, the school that lost the recruiting battle for his services, is testament to his abilities. The Broncos brought in 27 freshmen to fall practice, 26 of whom are redshirting. Hite has gained 215 yards on 54 carries and has 13 receptions for 95 yards.
Santa Clara recruited Hite intending to use him as a receiver. But when starting tailback Matt Shaw underwent surgery after suffering a severe ankle sprain, Hite was shifted to the position he played in high school.
"He's a good open-field runner," Malley said. "And he's extremely intelligent. We asked him to learn a lot of things when he came in as a receiver, now he's had to learn another 60 plays at a different position. You've got to be good, and he's good. He's a Division I player, no question."
That might come as a surprise to a lot of Division I schools.
It's not that they didn't recruit Hite during his senior season at Hart, in which he rushed for 781 yards, scored 134 points and caught 88 passes for 1,179 yards. Arizona, Cal, Nevada-Reno and Oregon showed interest.
But, in that same order, the following occurred: Larry Smith left Arizona and went to USC. At USC, Smith didn't need him. Neither did new Arizona Coach Dick Tomey. Cal Coach Joe Kapp became a pen pal of Hite's, then was fired. Nevada-Reno Coach Chris Ault thought he wanted him both as a running back and receiver, then suddenly changed his mind and didn't want him at all. Hite said he took a recruiting trip to Oregon--"they liked me,"--and that coaches stayed in touch until March 31. The letter-of-intent signing deadline was April 1. "They chickened out because of my size. They thought I was too small," he said.
Why that didn't dawn on the Ducks until the late date remains somewhat of a mystery to Hite.
He turned to Division II Santa Clara, which offered a decent football program and an even better business curriculum. Cal Lutheran chirped up when Oregon bailed out, but Hite chose SCU because "the education here is good. That was the main factor over Cal Lutheran--the education. And I thought the football program was better."
Then, to top off a helter-skelter recruiting experience, UC Davis, one of the best Division II football programs in the nation, wanted Hite, but by the time Davis coaches called, he already had signed at Santa Clara.
"It was frustrating," he said. "Especially just being dropped from consideration because of my size. That really hurt."
Even more, he said, than getting smacked upside the helmet by a 240-pound linebacker. Hite has tried to gain weight by lifting weights, but this is the first time he has lifted during the football season. His speed is his main asset--and even that has been hampered by a pulled quadricep muscle. He says he tries to avoid contact during games, a rare bit of candor for a running back of any size, by "ducking my head and diving forward. I relax my body just before I get hit. I have to do it that way or I'd get killed."
And death is exactly what he appeared to be avoiding during that first play against Cal Lutheran.
"Like I said," Malley told a visitor, "this guy's extremely intelligent."
Then he added: "He's a heckuva player and, if he develops physically, he could eventually be a great one."
Providing he survives that long.