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The Compact Models : High-Performance Backs Who Are Short on Size but Long on Mileage Have Made an Impact

November 19, 1987|STEVE ELLING | Times Staff Writer

Give some coaches the chance to belittle the little and many just can't resist. Ask a question about a running back who is 5-feet, 9-inches tall, and comparisons are made to compact cars and the tiny toys of Tonka, not big boys like Csonka.

Even the occasional coach who offers a compliment normally uses some kind of qualifier: "That kid's quite a player--for a munchkin."

For several Valley teams this season, however, the yellow brick road to the playoffs is being paved by Toto-sized ballcarriers with huge statistics.

Small has not necessarily translated to small time. Among Valley-area running backs, six of the top 16 rushers in the Southern Section and four of the top 12 in the City are 5-9 or under.

Canoga Park Coach Rudy Lugo, himself only 5-9, has been able to look down on several running backs who were gobbling up yardage against his team this year. Four of the best backs in the Sunset League, of which Canoga Park is a member, are 5-9 or shorter.

"Small backs are like a mongoose going up against a cobra," Lugo said. "If you're smaller, you have to rely on speed or agility or whatever else you've got. You have to recognize your talent and improve on that."

Zigzagging Muhammad Zaid (5-9, 168) of Van Nuys had Lugo's defense nervously running in circles last month. Although Canoga Park beat Van Nuys, 38-20, Zaid will never be likened to a Yugo by Lugo.

"The guy has great lateral movement, and he changes direction without losing speed," Lugo said. "He's short, but he has great power and he's very durable. It seemed like he gained 200 yards."

Actually Zaid only had 99 yards in 20 carries, but he probably took 200 yards' worth of steps. Zaid, a senior, is fourth among Valley City ballcarriers with 868 yards and is a central reason for Van Nuys' improvement from 0-9 in 1986 to a respectable 3-4-1 this season.

After Friday's game with Taft, which will decide the league title, Lugo might feel like he earned a doctorate in dealing with the diminutive. And if Canoga Park (6-2 overall, 3-1 in league play) downplays the threat of the downsized, it might be a big night for two tiny Taft backs.

For the Toreadors (6-2, 3-1), the running game accounts for 90% of the offense. Bookend running backs Kelvin Byrd (5-9, 167), a junior, and Marc Harris (5-8, 170), a senior, have 1,402 rushing yards between them.

To prepare for the pair, Lugo has had a trio of running backs skittering around in practice, imitating the Taft twosome. In other words, all week long, three small guys have been getting gang-tackled--by their own teammates--in an effort to ensure they'll be able to flip Byrd and Harris on Friday.

Like Lugo learned with Zaid--who left some small shoes for Byrd and Harris to fill--little backs present large logistical problems.

"We have to work on open-field tackling and on working against their quickness and change of direction," Lugo said. "If they get in the open field, well, we can't allow that to happen."

To underscore the threat of the undersized, Lugo offered a comparison. A Tyco-sized tyke, he says, can be much harder to gauge than a full-sized locomotive.

"I call them train-track runners," Lugo said, "because big players are a lot easier to tackle because they're so predictable." Taft Coach Tom (Thumb) Stevenson isn't exactly surprised by the success of Byrd and Harris, either. Big numbers, little guys. No big deal, he says.

"Hey, I like 'em small," said Stevenson, who is 6-5. "It's hard to see them when they're behind the line. They can get lost back there."

Harris, a transfer from Texas, and Byrd, a transfer from El Camino Real, bounced around before ending up at Taft. They do likewise when they play.

"Because of their physical stature, they have better balance," Lugo said. "They get bombed and they don't go down--they use a hit to bounce off and move around."

And give them an inch--you can bet they'd take it--and boom, they disappear.

"I think it can be an advantage to be small," said Harris, who has rushed for 634 yards. "It's not that we're necessarily faster, like in the 100 or something, but we're quicker. We get to the hole quicker. And then we're gone."

Lingering in the memories of North Hollywood opponents is Chip Grant, who is all of 5-6, 150 after adding 10 pounds over the summer. Grant didn't grow vertically, but the added weight has allowed him to plant a few more defenders horizontally.

A mainframe is needed to calculate micro-Chip's numbers: He leads the City with 1,736 yards and 25 touchdowns, and he missed most of one game with an ankle injury.

Grant bench presses 335 pounds, the most on the team. In a way, it's appropriate, because his back has supported much of the load. Grant accounts for 67% of the Huskies' total offense, which ranks first among Valley City schools.

"Without him, we'd be just another team," Coach Fred Grimes said. "When a lot of guys gain muscle it really slows them down. But Chip hasn't slowed down a bit. He achieved what he wanted--it made him that much harder to tackle."

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