Florida's Rhett is best unknown back around


NEW ORLEANS -- In the long and glorious history of the Southeastern Conference, only Herschel Walker and Bo Jackson ran for more yards than Errict Rhett.

Emmitt Smith could become only the fourth man to lead the NFL in rushing in three straight seasons, but he lost another distinction last month, when Rhett supplanted him as Florida's all-time leading rusher.

Rhett is the only player in NCAA Division I-A history to run for more than 4,100 yards and catch 140 passes in a career, and he is a prominent reason why Florida is a 6 1/2 -point favorite over West Virginia in the USF&G; Sugar Bowl, New Year's Day at the Superdome.

So why hasn't Rhett received more national acclaim? Why isn't his name as familiar as Marshall Faulk's or LeShon Johnson's, All-Americans who hail from the Big West and Mid-American Conferences -- not exactly publicity mills? Why was Rhett only honorable mention on the UPI All-American team, the squad selected by coaches, guys who should know the value of an all-purpose back?

There are two parts to the answer. Unlike three-year collegiate stars Walker and Smith, Rhett's numbers have come in 47 games over four-plus seasons. They've been piled up methodically if not quietly, without the benefit of a single killer season. Second, there is the matter of being a running back in one of the nation's premier passing programs.

"I came to Florida, I saw what Emmitt Smith was doing, and I expected to average 25-30 carries a game for four years," Rhett said. "Then Coach Spurrier came in after my freshman year, and the philosophy changed. That's OK, because in his system, I can gain even more yardage, in other ways."

Steve Spurrier's brand of Airball has put his Duke and Florida teams in the national top 10 in passing in six of his seven years as a head coach. Spurrier, and his quarterbacks, are the centers of attention in Gainesville. But while Rhett hasn't received his due, he thinks he's gotten better professional training than other, better-known running backs.

"Playing at Florida has prepared me for the next level," said Rhett, who, interestingly, included West Virginia among his official recruiting stops when he was a high school senior. "A lot of backs who get the ball 25-30 times a game can't catch the ball like I can. Playing in a one-back set, with as many receivers as we send out, I've also had to learn how to block."

When he doesn't have the ball, Rhett needs those other outlets to satisfy his cravings for contact. He packs 214 pounds on a 5-foot-11 frame, some 60 pounds more than when he was a national-class wrestler for his high school in a rough neighborhood outside Miami.

"He's as high-strung as they come," offensive guard Jim Watson said. "That's what makes him such a good player. He's always doing something, going somewhere, and he carries that energy on to the field. I've never seen anyone in perpetual motion like he is. He talks to everyone -- us, the other team, himself."

In late November, Rhett's verbiage included complaints about a lack of carries. Through seven games, he was averaging 23.2 carries and 138.1 yards, but in the last four regular-season games he averaged 15 carries and 58.5 yards. The low point came in the regular-season finale, when the Gators fell behind Florida State 13-0 and 27-7, and Rhett had only seven carries for 7 yards in a catch-up effort that fell short.

Rhett got back on track with 22 carries for 88 yards against Alabama in the SEC title game, which got Florida here. After the Sugar Bowl, he'll play in the East-West Shrine game, then wait to see which NFL team drafts one of the nation's most unappreciated talents.

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