Saturday, August 28, 1999

Miami's Prentice faces uphill Heisman race




BY JOHN FAY
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        The making of Travis Prentice, great running back, is complete. Prentice has put in his time in the weight room. He's gotten bigger, faster, stronger. He's studied the film. He's run for the yards. He's scored the touchdowns.

        Prentice, the Miami University senior, deserves to be mentioned with the nation's best college football players.

        “He's the real deal,” said Randy Walker, who coached Miami for Prentice's first three years.

        “We think we have him rated as the highest running back in the country,” said Jim Lippincott, the Bengals director of college and pro personnel.

        But the selling of Travis Prentice, great running back, is far from compete. It will be a tough job. It says right underneath Prentice's picture in the Miami media guide that he is a “Heisman Trophy Candidate.” The Downtown Athletic Club, which award's the Heisman, asked for and was granted permission to sell “Race for the Heisman” T-shirts with Prentice's number on them at Miami games.

        But does Prentice really have a chance?

ALL-TIME DIVISION I LEADERS
  TOUCHDOWNS
  1. Ricky Williams, Texas (1995-98) - 75
  2. Anthony Thompson, Indiana (1986-89) - 65
  3. Marshall Faulk, San Diego State (1991-93) - 62
  Travis Prentice, Miami (1996-now) - 57

  RUSHING YARDS
  1. Ricky Williams, Texas (1995-98) - 6,279
  2. Tony Dorsett, Pittsburgh (1973-76) - 6,082
  3. Charles White, USC (1976-79) - 5,598
  4. Herschel Walker, Georgia (1980-82) - 5,259
  5. Archie Griffin, Ohio State (1972-75) - 5,177
  6. Darren Lewis, Texas A&M (1987-90) - 5,012
  7. Anthony Thompson, Indiana (1986-89) - 4,965
  8. George Rogers, South Carolina (1977-80) - 4,958
  9. Trevor Cobb, Rice (1989-92) - 4,948
  10. Paul Palmer, Temple (1983-86) - 4,895
  Travis Prentice, Miami (1996-now) - 3,937

If Prentice repeats last season of 1,787 yards, he would finish with 5,724

        He has the on-field credentials to be considered. He finished second to Heisman Trophy winner Ricky Williams of Texas in rushing and scoring last year. Prentice is a two-time semifinalist (top eight) for the Doak Walker Award, which goes to the nation's top running back.

        But Heisman winners come from places like Texas, Nebraska, Notre Dame and Miami — of Florida, that is. Prentice plays for the other Miami. The school, 35 miles up Route 27 from Cincinnati in Oxford, is a place with a rich football tradition, but a place far removed from Heisman-type hype.

        “He's not going to win the Heisman by TKO,” said Terry Hoeppner, the new Miami coach. “It's going to have to be a knockout.”

        Prentice is certainly capable of a knockout. He rushed for 1,787 yards and 19 touchdowns last year. He needs 18 TDs to surpass Williams as the NCAA all-time leader in rushing touchdowns.

        But the fact is Prentice could land the statistical equivalent of Joe Frazier's left hooks all year long and still not get the KO he needs to win the Heisman.

        Miami is a Mid-American Conference school. The MAC is on the last rung of Division I-A football.

        The MAC's only Heisman candidate in recent memory was Randy Moss of Marshall. Moss finished fourth in the voting in 1997. Moss was probably the best player in college football — based on NFL success as a rookie, he certainly was. Moss also had an advantage. He had washed out at Notre Dame and Florida State, so people knew about him before he ever played a down at Marshall. His story — off-the-field trouble followed by on-the-field heroics — was told over and over again.

        But he still finished fourth.

        So it's extremely unlikely that Prentice has a legitimate shot at the Heisman, but that won't stop people at Miami from enjoying the run. Bring on the hype, mini-cams and microphones, they say.

        “We think it's cool,” Hoeppner said.

The Wally factor
        They've recently been through this.

        Last year was the Wally Szczerbiak Year in basketball. Szczerbiak was similar to Prentice: A big-time player at a small-time program (as far as national recognition at least).

        Szczerbiak was able to grab the national spotlight. By the second week of the NCAA Tournament he was, in fact, the story in college basketball.

        “Going through that will definitely help,” said Mike Wolf, MU's sports information director/Prentice's Heisman campaign manager.

        Szczerbiak had two distinct advantages over Prentice:

        • Because of the NBA lockout, Szczerbiak played on the gold medal-winning U.S. team at the Goodwill Games last summer.

        • The NCAA Tournament is on national television.

        Szczerbiak became known to the basketball world when he led the United States in scoring at the Goodwill Games. He became known to the sports world in general with his incredible three-game run in the NCAA.

        Because of all the publicity Szczerbiak generated, Wolf has contacts at the networks. He has used them to get Prentice's story out.

        Prentice was featured in a 21/2-minute spot on the first broadcast of Slant, Fox Sports Net's college football show. He's been on Kirk Herbstreit's radio show in Columbus. Herbstreit is one of ESPN's lead college football analysts. Wolf is trying to get Prentice on Fox Sports Net's Last Word with Jim Rome, a show that featured Szczerbiak on a regular basis.

        Some schools spend thousands of dollars getting the word out on their candidates. Georgia Tech, for example, mailed CDs touting quarterback Joe Hamilton for the Heisman to media covering college football.

        Miami isn't doing anything like that. But there is money in the football budget for a campaign. Wolf is using the Internet to get the word out. Prentice has a Web site — www.tdtravis.com — that is closing in on 10,000 hits. The school will also send e-mail to Heisman voters.

        “If there's something we think will make a difference, we'll open the checkbook,” Wolf said. “But the one thing that would help most — national TV — we can't buy.”

The process
        TV is so important because the Heisman, which goes to college football's top player, is voted on by a panel of 992 sports writers, broadcasters, coaches and former Heisman winners.

        This year, in a promotion with Suzuki, fans voting at Suzuki dealerships will get the 993rd vote.

        But the only way for Prentice to get the attention of voters in, say Oregon, is to get on the highlight shows. It's easy for ESPN and Fox Sports Net to pick up highlights when players play on their networks or CBS or ABC, but most of Prentice's games will not be broadcast anywhere.

        If he runs for 240 yards against Kent on Oct. 16, for instance, it won't have a lot of impact on voters if the networks don't have video to run.

        That's life in the MAC. Players like Moss and Charlie Batch, the Detroit Lions starting quarterback, have come out of the league the last two years, but that hasn't changed the national image.

        “There's nothing wrong with the football in this league,” Hoeppner said. “The only thing wrong with this league is the perception of this league.”

The early years
        Brian Prentice, Travis's older brother, is not surprised by his brother's success. Brian is surprised it came on the football field.

        “In terms of dedication, it doesn't surprise me,” Brian said. “But when we were young he never participated in sports.”

        Brian and other kids would be playing football or basketball, and Travis would be at home drawing.

        “He would sit for hours, drawing comic book figures,” Brian said.

        Travis didn't begin playing football until eighth grade. His mother, Marilyn, didn't want him to play, so he told her he was playing soccer.

        “She didn't want me to get hurt,” he said.

        The ruse worked for a while. His mother would pick him up after practice. The soccer field was right next to the football field. Prentice would finish practice, shower and change, jump in mom's car without her being any the wiser.

        Then she showed up early one day and saw Travis on the football practice field.

        “She was mad because I lied,” Prentice said. “But she found out how much I liked it.”

        Prentice was on the varsity at Louisville's Manual High a year later.

        He went on to be a star, but nothing he did in high school predicted what he would do at Miami.

        “I told everyone who would listen that he would be a great back in college,” said Mick Motley, who coached Prentice at Manual.

        Miami was able to sign Prentice because in high school he wasn't as big or as fast as he is now.

        “He was kind of overshadowed by Shaun Alexander (of Boone County),” Motley said.

        Northwestern and Purdue recruited Prentice early, but backed off after signing junior college backs. Prentice went to visit Miami. He verbally committed when the RedHawks gave him a firm scholarship offer.

        A writer for Courier-Journal in Louisville called Hoeppner the other day to ask how Prentice got out of Louisville.

        “He wanted me to say bad things about the University of Louisville for not recruiting Travis,” Hoeppner said. “I couldn't do that. I'm sure there are kids in our area we missed. We didn't have a crystal ball.”

Making of a player
        Prentice showed up at Miami in August 1995 as a 197-pound freshman. He bench pressed 240 pounds, squatted 315 and ran the 40-yard dash in 4.79.

        Prentice is now 228 pounds. He bench presses 415, squats 600 and runs the 40 in 4.39.

        “He gained 30 pounds and he got faster,” Hoeppner said. “He's a big, strong, fast man. Some guys are big. Some guys are strong. Some guys are fast. He's all three.”

        When he arrived, Prentice was a football neophyte who had not lifted weights in structured program.

        “He was raw lump of clay,” said Dan Dalrymple, Miami's strength coach.

        The other players nicknamed Prentice the Boy Wonder.

        “He had no idea how strong he was,” Hoeppner said. “They just kept putting on more weight and he kept lifting it.”

        Prentice was content to spend the year developing his body and learning the game.

        “I didn't want to play my freshman year,” he said. “I wasn't ready.”

        Prentice followed the example of Deland McCullough, then the star Miami running back.

        “Deland was a tremendous worker,” Dalrymple said. “He set the example for Travis. Whatever you tell Travis to do in the weight room, it's going to get done.”

        It's McCullough's career rushing mark of 3,937 yards that Prentice will break sometime this year.

        Prentice already holds every running back record in the weight room. “He's one of our strongest players, period,” Dalrymple said.

        The strength test that best indicates explosive strength is the clean, the first step in the Olympic lift the clean-and-jerk. Prentice did 405 pounds, most on the team by 25 pounds.

        The only MU running back to run a faster 40 was Ty King, but King weighed 25 pounds less than Prentice.

        “Travis is a poster child to show what you want in a player,” Dalrymple said. “He doesn't drink alcohol or use drugs. A wild night for him is playing PlayStation. That's as rowdy as he gets.”

Rising star
        Prentice's chance to play came as a red-shirt freshman. He was King's backup. But Prentice rushed for 102 yards in his first game at Miami.

        He finished that year with 601 yards. But he showed a skill that would become his calling card. He led the team with 12 touchdowns.

        King graduated after the 1996 season, opening the spot for Prentice as the featured back. Prentice responded by running for 1,549 yards and 25 TDs (tying him for first in the nation).

        Prentice followed his sophomore year by rushing for 1,787 yards and 19 more TDs last season.

        Pro scouts began taking notice.

        “You're there to look at seniors,” Lippincott said. “But you couldn't help but notice him. He kind of jumps out at you.”

        Prentice is an upright runner, with a tremendous burst to the hole. He also has the speed to run away from people.

        “He likes to run over people,” Dalrymple said. “But he can cut around them.”

        Prentice has 112 career trucks — the number of times he flattens an opponent.

        Hoeppner said Prentice is even better this year.

        “We run what we call a stretch play,” Hoeppner said. “He cuts at 90 degrees and then just accelerates. At 230 pounds, it's amazing. He has great balance. He's fast. He's strong.

        “He doesn't have the greatest hands, but we're working on that.”

His big chance
        Two games this year will probably determine if Prentice is to get Heisman and All-America recognition. Miami opens at Northwestern on Sept. 4 — against former coach Walker — and then goes to West Virginia the next week.

        “The Northwestern game is big for him,” said ESPN draft guru Mel Kiper. “If he can put big numbers there, it will get people's attention.”

        “Those first two games are big because of the notoriety he'll get,” Hoeppner said. “Perception is reality. If you play a big schedule and you're on TV all the time, you must be for real.”

        At Miami, of course, they know Prentice is for real. Now, they're going to try to sell that to everyone else.

       



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