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Ex-Sunny Hills Star Pizula Playing Big Again Along Rio Grande : Football: New Mexico State has improved, thanks to the efforts of this running back.

HOW THEY'RE DOING: One in a series

October 06, 1994|LON EUBANKS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Brian Pizula had an outstanding high school football career at Sunny Hills in Fullerton, but his chances for success as a college running back were open to debate.

"There probably are 2,000 backs coming out of high school every year with Brian's physical attributes," said his high school coach, Tim Devaney. "He was 5-11 and around 190 pounds, and could run 4.7 in the 40. But you know how college recruiters are. They're always looking for running backs who are bigger, stronger and can run a 4.6 instead of a 4.7."

Even though he ran for more than 1,000 yards two consecutive years at Sunny Hills, Pizula was an "everyman" as a college running back prospect. But that didn't dim his hopes for the future, even if recruiters weren't beating down the doors to sign him.

"There was some interest in him," said Devaney. "Nevada recruited him along with New Mexico State, but I think one of our former players who played at New Mexico State, David Chisum, had something to do with New Mexico State getting involved too. And I told them that there was a lot more to Brian than just being 5-11 and 190."

That support has turned out to be justified, based on Pizula's performance for New Mexico State his senior season. He has had two consecutive strong performances, rushing for 300 yards in the last two games.

Two weeks ago, Pizula was honored as Big West Conference back of the week for his play in a 24-17 victory over Arkansas State. He rushed for 183 yards, caught two passes for 14 and had a 16-yard kickoff return for a total of 213 yards. In a program known more for passing than the running game, it was the best one-game rushing effort at the school in more than a decade.

Last weekend, Pizula had another good game, even though the Aggies were beaten by Nevada Las Vegas, 31-27. Pizula ran for 117 yards in 23 carries and caught six passes for 70 yards.

He now ranks fourth in the conference in rushing with an average of 71.4 yards per game.

"I feel as though I've been improving every game and I feel good about that," Pizula said. "I was just disappointed that we didn't win last weekend. That was a tough loss for us. But I feel good about the way I've played, especially lately."

Earlier this season, Pizula also had a game-winning touchdown catch with slightly more than a minute left in a 23-22 victory over Texas El Paso. "We had a third and six on the 10-yard line, and they were looking for a run, so it really worked," Pizula said.

New Mexico State Coach Jim Hess calls Pizula "a throwback to another era" because of his ability to run, catch and block well.

"We've been going to him a lot more lately, too, because he's been the one with the hot hand," Hess said. "He's had a tremendous number of big plays in the last three games. And we've probably been running the ball a little more because of him, too. Even though he's not real fast, he has a good eye for finding the opening."

The Aggies are 2-3 for the season, but two of those losses came against top 10 teams, Florida and Arizona. Those were "money games" for the New Mexico State program, although they resulted in one-sided losses. Florida won, 70-21, and Arizona, 44-0.

"I liked playing that kind of competition, even if it turned out the way it did," Pizula said. "I think I had some good moments, especially blocking, in both those games."

The Aggies have six Big West games left, and Pizula is optimistic about his team's chances despite the loss to UNLV. "We should be in good shape in the Big West," he said.

This is Pizula's second season as a starter. He was the team's second-leading ball carrier as a junior with 334 yards in 70 carries, an average of 4.8 yards. He also accounted for 200 more yards as a receiver for a team that finished 6-5.

"We were 1-10 my first year and 2-9 the second, so the program is improving each year, and I feel good about being a part of that," he said.

Devaney also is pleased about Pizula's success this season.

"Brian's strength always has been his versatility," Devaney said. In high school, Pizula was part of a backfield that also included two other strong runners, Kenny Overby and Mike Sullivan.

"Ken was a tough power runner, and Mike a slasher, but Brian had the assets of both and could run equally as well inside and outside," Devaney said.

"Brian has seemed to get better every year. And I think he's really showed what he's capable of this season. When I talked to their coaches when they were recruiting him, I told them then that he was the kind of player every school needs in its program. He's really unselfish, and what he cares about is winning."

Pizula's recent success has given him a flicker of hope that he might even be able to play the game on a higher level again as a pro, even though his physical stature still is not what pro scouts look for when they rate prospects.

"I'm just taking it one step at a time right now," he said.

As Devaney says, don't count him out.

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