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GROUND CHUCK : From La Habra High to Houston, Weatherspoon Still Cuts Like a Knife

Times Staff Writer

Three years ago, Chuck Weatherspoon was a standout senior running back at La Habra High School, gracing the top of the charts of Orange County rushing leaders.

Although Weatherspoon finished third in rushing yards (1,478) that season, no player came close to his average of 9.9 yards per carry.

Today, the story is much the same, though the setting is on a much grander scale.

Weatherspoon, a sophomore running back at the University of Houston, now leads the country in yards per carry.

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His 8.5-yard average tops all collegiate backs, including Heisman trophy winner Barry Sanders of Oklahoma State, who is second nationally with a 7.6 average.

Although Weatherspoon--called Spooooooon by Houston fans--gained 1,004 yards this season, he did so in only 118 carries. Midway through the season, he was averaging a whopping 10.4 yards a carry.

Because of this, Weatherspoon, who played only on special teams last season after being redshirted his freshman year, has been the surprise of surprising Houston.

His talents have helped the Cougars (9-2) to their best season since 1979, when Houston was 10-1 and defeated Nebraska in the Cotton Bowl.

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Sunday at 12:30 p.m., Houston, ranked 14th by the Associated Press, takes on No. 18 Washington State (8-3) in the Aloha Bowl. It will be the only bowl game Houston will be able to play for the next 3 years, though. Last Friday, the National Collegiate Athletic Assn. put the school on 3 years probation, because extra benefits and improper financial assistance was given to athletes.

Thus, this bowl game would seem to be the biggest of Weatherspoon’s career.

Or would it?

“Hey, I’m in Hawaii, so this right here would have to be the biggest game,” Weatherspoon, 20, said. “But wait, now that I think of it, our CIF championship game against Sunny Hills when I was a sophomore--now, that was big.

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OK, so Weatherspoon holds high school memories dear. But why shouldn’t he? As a senior, Weatherspoon tattered defenses with his relentless running style, rushing for 15 touchdowns.

Bob Rau, then coach at La Habra, said of Weatherspoon: “Nobody compares to him. He has great power, great moves and good speed. He can run inside or outside equally well, with tremendous desire.”

Weatherspoon was recruited heavily his senior year, especially by Colorado, where his brother Anthony had earned three letters.

He chose to make a name for himself at Houston.

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Weatherspoon was redshirted in 1986 and then in 1987, under first-year Coach Jack Pardee, he was switched to wide receiver. Other than special teams, Weatherspoon got no playing time. Because of that, he seriously considered transferring.

“We were almost about to move him, 2 seconds from moving him, actually,” said Johnny Weatherspoon, Chuck’s father. “I told (Pardee) if Chuckie didn’t fit into his program we’d find another home for him.”

Weatherspoon stayed and returned to running back this season, at first backing up starter Kimble Anders in Houston’s run-and-shoot offense. But after four games--in which he averaged more than 90 yards--Weatherspoon took over as a starter.

That meant trouble for Houston opponents.

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“He’s a great football player, I’ll tell ya,” said Texas Tech Coach Spike Dykes, whose defense held Weatherspoon to a season-low 80 yards over a snow-covered field.

“He’s really given them another dimension. . . . He’ll keep adding to their success, but he won’t be a surprise next year, I’ll tell ya that.”

Weatherspoon’s best performance came in a 66-15 victory over Texas. He rushed for 218 yards and a touchdown in 11 carries--a 19.8-yard average--and recovered a fumble for a touchdown. The next week, his 83 yards and one touchdown led Houston to a 34-10 victory over Wyoming. It was Wyoming’s only loss this season.

Rushing isn’t Weatherspoon’s only talent. He has caught 10 passes for 80 yards this season, and, on special teams, he made 11 unassisted tackles and leads Houston with five fumble recoveries.

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But while Weatherspoon’s statistics are impressive, it is his style that really charges Cougar fans, many of whom applaud his performances with synchronized spoon-clacking that echoes around the Astrodome.

At 5 feet 7 1/4 inches and 205 pounds, Weatherspoon uses his low center of gravity and tremendous strength to plow not only around but through defenses. Pardee calls him “a bowling ball with razor blades.”

He is often compared to former Houston star Robert Newhouse, who set the school record of 2,961 yards rushing from 1969-71 before beginning a 12-year career with the Dallas Cowboys. Newhouse, who was 5-9, 205 while at Houston, said he also sees similarities.

“He’s got good speed but not great speed, like I did,” Newhouse told the Houston Chronicle. “And he’s got the quick acceleration and ability to change direction. He’s always churning those legs. Usually the first guy to hit him is just a contact guy because he shakes him off.”

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Weatherspoon appreciates the comparison, as well as the prediction that he could break the school career rushing record before he graduates. But he said he doesn’t really pay attention to individual accolades.

“I’m just out there to help the team as much as I can,” he said. “My heart’s on the field with them. If a record is to be broken, that’s fine. But the team’s the most important thing to me.”

Weatherspoon, who was named second team All-American by The Sporting News last week, already contributed to a school record this season.

With Houston receiver Jason Phillips having led the nation with 108 receptions for 1,444 yards, and teammate James Dixon ranked second nationally with 102 for 1,103, the trio makes Houston the first major college with a pair of 1,000-yard receivers and a 1,000-yard running back.

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Is Weatherspoon surprised by his success?

“It surprised me a lot, actually,” he said. “And it’s a good feeling being somebody after not being anybody.

“But I knew I had just one chance. I knew if I got that one chance, I wasn’t going to let it go.”


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