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TCU's Tomlinson offers winless Navy moving target today


Raheem Lambert smiled at the question. What do you know about LaDainian Tomlinson?

"I know he's a Heisman candidate. I know he's got his own home page [on the Web]. But I've never seen the man play," said the Naval Academy's leading runner, who will be introduced to Tomlinson today, when Texas Christian University brings its nationally acclaimed star to Annapolis.

The appearance of Tomlinson in the East will showcase one of the nation's best backs in an area in which Heisman Trophy voters abound.

But Lambert is looking forward to the opportunity to outgain his highly regarded counterpart, who was No. 1 nationally in the country in rushing with 1,850 yards last season, even beating out Heisman Trophy-winner Ron Dayne of Wisconsin.

"It can be done," said Lambert, who has struggled with his winless Navy teammates, accounting for just 185 net yards in three games and a 61.7-a-game average. His only big day of the season was at Georgia Tech, where he amassed 118 yards, the second-highest total of his career. "I like to think I'm a decent player, too."

Call the chore monstrous.

Tomlinson , a 5-foot-11, 217-pound senior, is a relative newcomer to prominence after quietly enrolling at the Fort Worth institution in 1997 out of Waco University High School. His exposure to success and fame have come in sudden bursts after he had spent previous seasons blending into the fabric of his teams.

Until 1999, he served as a backup tailback to Basil Mitchell, now of the Green Bay Packers. But when Mitchell departed, the stage opened, and Tomlinson was ready. He rushed for 269 yards against Arkansas State early last year and, two games later, piled up 300 on a mere 23 carries against San Jose State.

In the next-to-last game, he fully captivated the country when he became the first Division I-A player ever to surpass 400 yards rushing (406 to be exact) in a game against Texas-El Paso. The name was born.

Tomlinson has been down this road of recognition before. In high school, he was first a linebacker-fullback, then served as a blocking fullback as a junior. It wasn't until his senior year that he became the primary runner and caught the attention of recruiters by scoring five touchdowns in his first game and rolling up 1,000 yards midway through the season.

The final totals: 2,554 yards, 39 touchdowns.

Asked what he might have accomplished had he started being the main ball carrier earlier in high school and college, Tomlinson said, "I'm not one to dwell on the past. I'm just glad I got the opportunity to do these things. I always knew what kind of talent I had and never questioned myself. I switched in and out with Basil here. When he left, I thought it was time to take over."

Tomlinson is one of several Heisman candidates who have their own sites on the World Wide Web, including the preseason favorites, quarterbacks Michael Vick of Virginia Tech and Drew Brees of Purdue.

The cyberspace drum-beating - considered vital in this age - for Tomlinson was prepared by a TCU committee, which developed after the Horned Frogs won their second successive postseason game, 28-14, over East Carolina in the Mobile Alabama Bowl.

"I love the Web site, because it's unique," Tomlinson said via telephone yesterday. "There are little things on there that aren't on some others. I never thought I'd have one. It's fun to show people you have a Web site. People can keep up with me, even though they don't come to the games."

On the computer screen, up pops his love for his mother, the Big Uglies (offensive linemen) and a shot of him running while a broadcaster describes one of his long touchdown dashes. Highlights of his career and interviews are featured, his statistics are updated regularly, and the site serves as the centerpiece of his Heisman campaign.

And, of course, there are the usual devices designed to boost a player's candidacy - posters, billboards, bumper stickers, mailings and personal appearances.

In most accounts by writers who cover the team, Tomlinson is portrayed as a humble individual who is team oriented and not at all effected by the hoopla surrounding him.

Coach Dennis Franchione is not concerned by the fanfare. "If L.T. was a different type of person, this would be hard," he said. "But I have never seen one bit of selfishness from that young man. I haven't worried because of his attitude and the care he has for his teammates."

The best illustration of his attitude came when his national rushing award arrived from the National Collegiate Athletic Association. Presented with the plaque at a team meeting, Tomlinson promptly surrendered it to his blockers. It hangs in the offensive line's meeting room at TCU.

"That says it all," said senior strongside tackle David Bobo.

"My linemen don't get a lot of credit," said Tomlinson. "I figured it was a way I could show appreciation for what they do."

Tomlinson has no unusual end-zone dances or other methods for celebration. He usually hands the ball to an official, kneels briefly to pray, stands, raises his index fingers, and then jumps into the arms of his linemen. Not flamboyant, but it conveys his joy.

He is accommodating to the media, which constantly seeks interviews, and enjoys his bountiful contact with fans, almost always wearing a big smile. Friendly to all."It's my first trip east, but I'm just looking at this as another game," said Tomlinson. "I'm not even thinking about the campaign."

There is plenty of time for that.

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