When Earl Campbell was running his way to the Hall of Fame for the Houston Oilers almost two decades ago, his coach, Bum Phillips, once said, "Earl Campbell may not be in a class by himself, but whatever class he's in, it doesn't take long to call roll."
It may be time to add another name to that roll call tomorrow when the NFL holds its annual two-day college draft.
After months of studying, testing and probing the background of all the top college players, the scouts have reached one conclusion.
The first player selected will be running back Ki-Jana Carter of Penn State.
The scouts have Carter ranked as not only the best player in this draft, but potentially one of the best runners in the game's history.
He's already being put on a plateau with the game's best runner today -- Barry Sanders of the Detroit Lions -- and ranked with such Hall of Famers as Campbell, Gale Sayers and O. J. Simpson.
"Oh, man, I think he is great," Beathard said. "I don't know how you can get better than that at any position. He's as high as you go on the charts. I don't think you can compare him to Emmitt Smith. He's a great back, but when you're talking about this guy, I think you're talking the Gale Sayerses, the O.J. Simpsons, you're talking about that kind of back. He's got great speed. He's got great running talent. He's got everything and that's not taking anything away from Emmitt Smith, believe me."
Beathard isn't the only scout to rave about Carter.
Tom Donahoe of the Pittsburgh Steelers said: "There doesn't seem to be much argument about the fact he's the No. 1 pick. He'll bring a lot to everybody's offense."
Not all the scouts, though, have Carter ranked as high as Beathard does.
Bill Kuharich of the New Orleans Saints said: "He's the real deal, but if this were last year, I'd have him rated behind Marshall Faulk. But he's very close. They're in the same neighborhood."
In any case, there's no doubt that Carter will be the first running back selected with the first pick since the Tampa Bay Buccaneers picked Bo Jackson in 1985. Jackson spurned them for baseball and eventually played with the Los Angeles Raiders.
The expansion Carolina Panthers, who have the first pick in the draft, will make Carter the first pick unless they get an offer for him that's too good to pass up.
Although Carter may have problems making an immediate impact running behind an expansion line, the Panthers feel they can't give him up unless they get a great package for him.
It's always risky to trade away a back with Hall of Fame potential. The Seattle Seahawks learned that in 1977, their second year as an expansion team, when they traded Tony Dorsett to the Dallas Cowboys for a first-round pick and three seconds. Dorsett made the Hall of Fame and the players the Seahawks got -- offensive Steve August was the first one -- became trivia questions.
The Panthers won't publicly admit they've targeted Carter.
"We're all pretty much agreed on one guy," said coach Dom Capers, who describes Carter as "Emmitt Smith with acceleration."
General manager Bill Polian also hasn't started negotiating with Carter's agent, Leigh Steinberg, even though the team with the No. 1 pick is allowed to sign a player before the draft.
"I despise people who negotiate in the newspapers," Polian said. "I'll leave it at that."
The other expansion team, the Jacksonville Panthers, is expected to name Southern Cal offensive tackle Tony Boselli as the No. 2 pick in the draft.
Carter and Boselli are virtually 1-2 on all the draft boards.
The guessing game will then start. The Houston Oilers, picking third after recording the worst record last year (2-14), are expected to take quarterback Steve McNair, but are also considering defensive end Kevin Carter.
McNair is considered a project because he played at a small school (Alcorn State), but he has virtually unlimited potential.
"I see a lot of Steve Young and Warren Moon in McNair," Kuharich said. "He's got Young's mobility and elusiveness and Moon's strong arm."
The Washington Redskins, with the fourth selection, figure to make the first controversial pick. They need help in their defensive line and could use defensive tackle Warren Sapp, but coach Norv Turner is an offensive coach and plans to go for wide receiver Michael Westbrook.
The Bengals, who have the fifth pick, would then be looking at Carter and Sapp, but since they took Wilkinson last year, they could trade down and take a running back.
Although there's likely to be a lot of wheeling and dealing during the draft, there hasn't been much trading action on the first round before the draft.
The Denver Broncos are the only team that doesn't have a first-round pick, and the Minnesota Vikings are the only team except the expansion teams with two first-round picks. They got Denver's original pick from Atlanta. The Falcons also swapped first-round picks with the Cleveland Browns. The rest of the clubs still are in their original slots going into the draft.
The draft officially will last seven rounds, although the expansion teams get two extra picks at the end of each round and there were a total of 29 compensatory picks awarded to clubs that lost free agents.
Carolina lost two of its extra picks -- a second and a sixth -- for contacting Capers, who was then a Pittsburgh assistant coach, before the end of last season.
The Philadelphia Eagles, who originally were awarded two third-round picks for losing Seth Joyner and Clyde Simmons, appealed twice. The first time they were upgraded to a second and a fifth this year and a second next year. They appealed a second time, but were turned down.
The league originally planned to have two rounds tomorrow and the final five Sunday. But if the first two rounds are completed by 8:30 p.m. tomorrow, they'll conduct a third one that night.
In this era of free agency, the draft is no longer the only way to get players, but the scouts say it's as important as ever. Since clubs can't tie them up for their careers, they need players who can make an immediate contribution.
Ron Wolf, general manager of the Green Bay Packers, said: "It's vital that every youngster you take has to be able to play. You realize that's an impossibility, but it still has to happen if you
want to survive in this thing."
This draft is generally rated average to above average, but the key is for the scouts to find the good players on the board.
"Whether a draft is described as a good one, a great one or a poor one, some teams come out of that draft and really help themselves. That's the challenge. No matter what kind of draft it is, the challenge is to come out with players who can help you," Beathard said.
Long-distance phone companies are always among the winners in the draft, because most of the general managers spend the last day or two before the draft talking proposed trades even though the majority of them never happen.
"You hear so many trade rumors prior to the draft, but sometimes the trades you end up not making are better than the ones you make," Donahoe said. "If you just sit there and don't panic, you usually end up with the opportunity to get good football players."
HOW VITO STELLINO SEES THE FIRST ROUND
No. Team, Player, P, College
1. Carolina, Ki-Jana Carter, RB, Penn State
2. Jacksonville, Tony Boselli, OL, Southern Cal
3. Houston, Steve McNair, QB, Alcorn State
4. Washington, Michael Westbrook, WR, Colorado
5. Cincinnati, Kevin Carter, DL, Florida
6. St. Louis, Warren Sapp, DL, Miami
7. Tampa Bay, Mike Mamula, DE, Boston College
Seattle, Joey Galloway, WR, Ohio State
9. N.Y. Jets, Luther Elliss, DT, Utah
10. Cleveland-a, Kyle Brady, TE, Penn State
11. Minnesota-b, Shawn King, DL, Northeast Louisiana
12. Philadelphia, Ellis Johnson, DT, Florida
13. New Orleans, Reuben Brown, OL, Pittsburgh
14. Buffalo, Korey Stringer, OL, Ohio State
15. Indianapolis, Kerry Collins, QB, Penn State
16. Arizona, J. J. Stokes, WR, UCLA
17. N.Y. Giants, Tyrone Wheatley, RB, Michigan
18. L.A. Raiders, Rashaan Salaam, RB, Colorado
19. Kansas City, Derrick Alexander, DL, Florida State
Detroit, Bobby Taylor, DB, Notre Dame
21. Chicago, Terrell Fletcher, RB, Wisconsin
22. Green Bay, James Stewart, RB, Tennessee
23. New England, Mark Fields, LB, Washington State
Minnesota, Chad May, QB, Kansas State
25. Miami, Blake Brockermeyer, OL, Texas
26. Atlanta-c, Hugh Douglas, LB, Central State (Ohio)
Pittsburgh, Mark Bruener, TE, Washington
28. Dallas, Devin Bush, DB, Florida State
29. San Diego, Tyrone Poole, DB, Fort Valley (Ga.)
30. San Fran., Greg Jefferson, DL, Central Florida
Jacksonville, Rob Johnson, QB, Southern Cal
32. Carolina, Brian DeMarco, OT, Michigan State
a-from Atlanta. b-from Denver through Atlanta. c-from Cleveland.
TOP 50 PLAYERS
Player, College, Ht., Wt.
Steve McNair, Alcorn, 6-1, 224
Kerry Collins, Penn St., 6-4, 240
Chad May, Kan. St., 6-1, 226
K. Stewart, Colorado, 6-1, 209
Rob Johnson, USC, 6-3, 233
John Walsh, BYU, 6-3, 214
Analysis: There's not a Troy Aikman in this group, although McNair may turn out to be in that class if he develops. But there's some depth at the position, and teams will gamble on them because they're desperate for quarterbacks.
K. Carter, Penn St., 5-10, 227
T. Wheatley, Michigan, 6-0, 232
R. Salaam, Colorado, 6-1, 228
J. Stewart, Tennessee, 6-1, 222
N. Kaufman, Wash., 5-8, 181
J. Stewart, Miami, 6-2, 245
Z. Crockett, Fla. St., 6-1, 244
R. Thomas, Tex. A&M;, 5-10, 213
Ray Zellers, N. Dame, 5-11, 236
T. Fletcher, Wisconsin, 5-7, 200
Analysis: Carter is in a class by himself and may have Hall of Fame potential. There are several other productive runners in this group, including two players named James Stewart from two schools.
M. Westbrook, Colorado, 6-3, 215
J. Galloway, Ohio St., 5-10, 215
J.J. Stokes, UCLA, 6-4, 217
Jack Jackson, Florida, 5-8, 171
F. Sanders, Auburn, 6-1, 202
Analysis: Westbrook, Galloway and Stokes are expected to go on the first round, even though Stokes was downgraded for running a slow 40.
Kyle Brady, Penn St., 6-6, 258
M. Bruener, Wash., 6-4, 249
C. Fauria, Colorado, 6-4, 238
L. Pinkney, Texas, 6-4, 248
Analysis: This is one of the better crops of tight ends to come along in recent years, with both Brady and Bruener likely to go on the first round.
Tony Boselli, USC, 6-6, 323
R. Brown, Pittsburgh, 6-3, 305
K. Stringer, Ohio St., 6-4, 345
B. Brockerm'r, Texas, 6-4, 305
B. DeMarco, Mich. St., 6-5, 314
Brendan Stai, Nebraska, 6-4, 305
Matt O'Dwyer, N'western, 6-4, 298
Cory Raymer, Wisconsin, 6-2, 293
B. Brooks, Kansas St., 6-4, 305
Billy Milner, Houston, 6-5, 293
Analysis: Boselli is easily the best of this group and will be the likely No. 2 pick. He may be the only one picked in the top 10, but there's good depth at the position.
Warren Sapp, Miami, 6-1, 281
Kevin Carter, Florida, 6-5, 274
Mike Mamula, BC, 6-4, 248
Luther Elliss, Utah, 6-5, 291
Ellis Johnson, Florida, 6-2, 290
Shawn King, NE La., 6-3, 279
D. Alexander, Fla. St., 6-4, 276
Analysis: There's some debate among the scouts about whether Sapp or Carter is the best prospect. Carter has better size and plays on the outside, and Sapp plays with more intensity on the inside. Because teams are so desperate for defensive linemen, most of these players will go in the top 15.
LINEBACKERS Mark Fields, Wash. St., 6-2, 244
H. Douglass, Central St., 6-1, 265
L. Styles, Ohio St., 6-1, 243
Analysis: This is not a good draft for teams looking for linebackers. There are no LTs in this group, and none figures to be a top 10 pick.
Bobby Taylor, N. Dame, 6-4, 208
Tyrone Poole, Fort Valley, 5-8, 185
C. Newsome, Ariz. St., 5-11, 185
Devin Bush, Fla. St., 5-11, 208
J. Hitchock, N.C., 5-10, 190
Analysis: It's not a vintage group and none figures to go in the top 10.
Analysis: None ranks in the top 50, and teams are reluctant to pick kickers in the first two rounds. The best prospect appears to be punter Todd Sauerbrun of West Virginia, who also can kick off.