Rick Calhoun may not be the smallest fullback playing major-college football, but at 5-feet 8-inches and 188 pounds, he doesn’t look like he could even run over a Pop Warner linebacker. And he’s so bow-legged, he seems more suited to making chewing tobacco commercials or punching doggies than running into defenders who weigh almost twice as much as he does.
“I tell you, he ain’t that small,” Gene Murphy, Cal State Fullerton coach, said. “Straighten out the son of buck’s legs and he’s 6-3. And he can bench press the weight room.”
Granted, Calhoun is a solid 188 pounds who does bench press 360 pounds. But he learned a long time ago that a lack of size can be an advantage, even in a game dominated by guys who would make Charles Atlas look like just another body in the locker room.
“For one thing, I can slip through some pretty small cracks in the defensive line,” Calhoun said. “And, when I’m blocking, I can hide behind my linemen and then pop out and hit a linebacker who didn’t even know I was there.”
Calhoun’s taken the littler-can-be-better theory to the limit on occasion. Consider, for instance, this play last year against Hawaii:
Calhoun gets the ball on a dive play up the middle, but when he gets to the line of scrimmage, he sees that a tackle has the hole plugged. So, seeing a bit of room out of the corner of his eye, Calhoun makes a sharp cut and hits the opening--which turns out to be the space between Titan center Dave Martinez and the Hawaii nose guard he’s blocking.
“I was just coming out the other side of them when I realized I’d run under them,” Calhoun said, still sounding amazed. “The guy reached down and grabbed my jersey, though. It tore off, but he slowed me up and somebody tripped me or I’d have been gone.”
Murphy is not overly concerned with how the junior fullback gets the job done. He only knows that this little man is definitely a big weapon for the Titans.
After two games, Calhoun leads the team in carries (27) and is second to tailback Burness Scott in yards rushing. (Scott has 144, Calhoun 111). He’s the Titans’ top pass catcher with nine receptions for 78 yards, their No. 1 kickoff returner with 156 yards and a touchdown on four returns and leads the team in all-purpose yards, averaging 172 a game.
And just to make sure he doesn’t spend too much time resting, he also is a member of Fullerton’s punt coverage team.
Calhoun, normally a tailback, became the Titans’ fullback by default when projected starter Bo White had academic difficulties and missed much of fall practice trying to get eligible. White is back, but he’s going to have to be mighty impressive in limited action to push Calhoun over into the No. 2 tailback spot.
“Ricky Calhoun has been our best player for two weeks in a row,” Murphy said. “He’s got as much heart as any football player I’ve ever been around and he leaves it on the field every week.
“He’s not big, but you sure better hit him square because he doesn’t get tackled by one guy very often. He seems to come up with second and third efforts on almost every carry.”
Great backs have great vision, Murphy says, but Calhoun looked like he had eyes in the back of his head--or at least a rear-view mirror on his helmet--when he returned a kickoff 100 yards for a touchdown in the Titans’ season-opening loss at Montana.
He had broken through the wedge at midfield and was in the clear and ahead of the pack when a Montana defender started to close in from behind. Just as the Montana player dove for his feet, Calhoun veered to his right and the defender crashed to the ground, empty-handed.
“The whole thing was a weird play,” Calhoun said. “First, the kick return team decided together that we were gonna bust that one. But the kick was a knuckleball and I didn’t even think I was gonna catch it. Then, I saw an opening to the left of the wedge and I broke free.
“I thought I was all alone and then all of a sudden, a voice inside me said, ‘MOVE,’ so I cut and then looked back and saw the guy miss. I really don’t know how I knew he was there.”
Calhoun needed only two kickoff returns in the Titans’ final game last season to qualify as the nation’s top kick returner. He finished with a school-record 30.5 average, two yards better than any other returner in the country.
As he stood near his own goal line with New Mexico State preparing to kick off, he felt pretty good about his chances of having something special to tell his grandchildren. When the Aggies tried an onside kick to open the game, though, he began to wonder.
Fullerton shut out New Mexico State, 20-0, and Calhoun never got another chance.
“Near the end of the game, I kept thinking, ‘Just a field goal, get just a field goal,”’ Calhoun admitted. “But then I figured, ‘What the heck.’ When you go 11-1, it’s pretty hard to feel sorry for yourself.”
The Titans may not be feeling sorry this year, but they’ve looked pretty sorry in their first two games, the 31-30 loss at Montana and a 30-3 drubbing at the hands of Nevada Reno in their home opener last Saturday.
Calhoun thinks it’s only a matter of attitude and overcoming a series of minor mistakes before Fullerton return’s to winning form.
“The little things are killing us this year,” he said. “I think it’s mental. When I first got here, we had been 3-9 the year before (1982) and everyone was family. Then we worked really hard together and started winning.
“I think the younger guys thought that winning would come easy, but that isn’t the way it is. I thought the first loss would’ve woke us up, but it sure didn’t. We were playing in slow motion last Saturday, it seemed like the first half took a week.”
Calhoun is hoping to start speeding up the season a little this Saturday when the Titans travel to Wyoming.
“We’ll get it into gear,” he said, nodding. “We’ll be solid by then.”
There’s little doubt that at least one Titan--the solid little Rick Calhoun--will be going strong in the only gear he knows: Overdrive.