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COLLEGE FOOTBALL: BOWL WEEK : FIESTA BOWL : KEEPING UP WITH JONES, AND SMITH : It Will Be a Tall Order for Defensive Players in the Fiesta Bowl, as Nebraska and Florida State Match Talented Tailbacks

December 31, 1987|MIKE DOWNEY | Times Staff Writer

PHOENIX — Here they are: Sammie and Keith, two of the slickest, quickest, trickiest college running backs in the country, every bit as good as Lorenzo, or Gaston, or Emmitt, or Ironhead, or the rest of those Heisman Trophy also-rans who also ran with the football.

Here they are, tailbacking at the Fiesta Bowl, a couple of born-to-run guys whose teams each won 10 of 11 games this season, whose nearly carbon-copy rushing totals put them solidly among the National Collegiate Athletic Assn.'s top 10, and whose track backgrounds had them carrying the football as if it were a baton. Sammie and Keith.

Alias, Smith and Jones.

Somehow, these two crackerjack backs were overlooked through much of the 1987 football season, even though Smith's Florida State team skunked Rose Bowl entrant Michigan State by 28 points and lost to undefeated Miami by only one, and even though Jones' Nebraska squad was ranked No. 2 in the nation most of the season.

Maybe if their names had been more colorful. Maybe if the state of Florida hadn't had another runner named Smith, Emmitt. Maybe if Nebraska hadn't had a Heisman-candidate at quarterback, Steve Taylor. Maybe then, Smith and Jones would have gotten more handoffs, more yardage, more attention.

"Oh, I don't know," Jones said here after a tuneup for Friday's game. "I don't know if I wanted to be one of those guys who carried the ball 35 times a game. In my mind, that wears you out. What did Lorenzo White carry--56 times in one game? I don't know if I could have done that. I'd have probably collapsed."

What Jones did do this season--amassing 1,232 yards rushing, eighth-best in the nation--was rather amazing when you consider what he didn't do. He didn't play against Kansas, the Big Eight's favorite patsy, because of an injury.

He missed most of the Kansas State game, too. And he sat out the entire second half of the UCLA game, because Coach Tom Osborne got grumpy when Jones fumbled twice in the first half.

Like Lorenzo White, though, Jones finished with a bang. He gained 240 yards against Iowa State, and two weeks later, in the last game of the regular season, rushed for 248 more at Colorado.

Television announcer Lee Corso said that day: "Jones might not make some of the All-American teams, but today he was All-Universe."

In between came the Oklahoma game, the one that cost the Cornhuskers the national championship. For a fast minute there, though, it appeared to be their day, because Keith Jones opened the scoring with a 25-yard touchdown run. Unfortunately for the home team, that also closed Nebraska's scoring. The Sooners won, 17-7.

"One of those days," Jones said.

More than anything else, that loss bothered the 5-foot 10-inch, 180-pound tailback because it was his final Nebraska-Oklahoma game. He is a senior.

Never more will Big Red boosters hail the name of End Zone Jones, the local kid who became the school's third-leading rusher of all time, after having broken most of Gale Sayers' high school records at Omaha Central.

"Keith Jones is one of those guys whose greatness you take for granted while he's here, then miss terribly after he's gone," Osborne said. "I wish I could find a dozen more like him."

The one thing Jones would like to do before he leaves is have a decent bowl day.

This will be his fourth major postseason game, and so far he has piled up a total of 35 yards. He gained 15 yards in 3 carries at the 1985 Sugar Bowl against Louisiana State, 0 in 2 at the 1986 Fiesta against Michigan, and 20 in 6 in last year's Sugar Bowl victory over LSU, where his quarterback, Taylor, was voted most valuable player.

"A lot of teams have tried to zero in on me and shoot me down, leaving Steve free to do his thing, and vice versa," Jones said. "Me and Steve work hand in hand together. We're partners. I'm going to miss him."

Next he wants a crack at pro football, naturally, but the tailback might have a couple of drawbacks. For one thing, he is not particularly large.

"And there also might be some negative vibes about my catching ability," Jones conceded. "With Nebraska's run-oriented offense, it's hard for a running back to show he can catch passes. Even when Roger Craig was here, he didn't get much chance, and look at him now.

"Well, I can catch, too, just like him. I feel I'm a very capable receiver. But that's just something the pros are going to have to find out after they get me, if they're willing to give me the chance."

Not for a couple of years yet will the National Football League get its hands on Sammie Smith, but already, some scouts are eager. The South could have another Herschel Walker or Bo Jackson here.

Only a sophomore, Smith is a 6-2 1/2, 220-pound slab of marble with moves. The kid scares people. Already the Florida State publicity department is cranking out the Heisman flyers, and bracing for a fight over turf bragging rights with that other Smith from Gainesville, who also has some Heisman ambitions.

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