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COMPREHENSIVE PLAN : Former Kennedy Star Pringle Strives to Lead Nation in All-Purpose Yards

<i> Times Staff Writer </i>

Mike Pringle has goals, but he keeps them to himself. They are the sort he can think about on Sundays while soaking in a tub, coaxing away the aches left over from Cal State Fullerton’s football games on Saturdays.

Sometimes he thinks about what he heard from a teammate at practice the previous week, and then read in the newspapers and heard on TV. Pringle, a former Kennedy High player, was leading the nation in all-purpose running, the statistical category led last season by Barry Sanders.

Pringle almost wishes he had never heard.

“Now I want to stay there,” he said. “Now it’s in the back of my mind: Am I still there? Am I still there?”

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This week, he is not. He is second, behind Houston’s Chuck Weatherspoon. It still is not a bad place to be for a 5-foot-9, 190-pound running back who once figured he must be jinxed.

During the past two years, Pringle has suffered a season-ending broken jaw at Washington State, transferred to Glendale College, transferred to Cal State Fullerton, missed one game and parts of two others because of an ankle injury, and been suspended for two games by the National Collegiate Athletic Assn. because of a transfer-eligibility ruling resulting from a Fullerton error.

But Pringle, dogged and resilient when running with the ball, is the same way off the field.

It looked as if that persistence might have been for naught in the Titans’ first game this season. Pringle was handed the ball 10 times, and he was stuffed by Northern Illinois on almost every occasion, finishing with 14 yards.

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“The 14 yards didn’t discourage me,” Pringle said. “I know if I get the ball more than 15 times, I’m gonna get some yards. I’m the type of back that needs to get the ball a few times just to see the hole and know how to hit it, so I know next time how to hit it and when to hit it.”

What was easy to overlook in that game was that Pringle finished the game with 169 all-purpose yards, 149 on five kickoff returns and an additional six on three catches.

“What I set out to do each week is if I were to get shut down running, to be able to catch the ball and get yards receiving. Or if not receiving, on returns,” Pringle said. “I look at it like that. If one doesn’t work, I want to make the other work.”

Against Cal State Northridge the next week, he was given the ball 28 times in a concerted attempt to establish the Fullerton running game. Pringle responded with 164 yards, a career high and the first of three consecutive 100-yard games. He caught a pass for four yards and returned four kickoffs for 95 yards.

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Against Colorado State, he had 137 yards rushing and 90 yards on returns. Against San Diego State, he had 158 yards rushing, 34 receiving and 110 on returns.

These are the numbers that have given him a 240.3-yard all-purpose average, and a 118.3-yard rushing average, ninth in the country.

There is one nagging statistic: If he could throw out that first game, he would be leading the nation in rushing with a 153-yard average.

Pringle returned kickoffs last season when he was available--and with success. Against West Virginia, he set a Mountaineer Field record with 202 yards in kickoff returns. But he has never returned one for a touchdown. That is one goal Pringle is willing to discuss.

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“I want to break one before I’m through here,” he said.

By the end of last season, wary opponents shied from kicking to Pringle. That hasn’t happened yet this year.

“This year, I’m not gonna say they’ve been gutsy, but they have confidence in their kickoff coverage,” Pringle said.

That’s fine with him.

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The receiving has been an addition. The word on Pringle last year was that he couldn’t catch the ball, and Fullerton rarely threw to him.

Pringle claims that was just a misconception on the coaches’ part.

“I told them I could always catch in games. I just had trouble catching in practice,” he said.

In any case, he is proving he can catch. Against San Diego State, he had six receptions, one fewer than he had all last season.

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The Titans, much in need of a consistent offensive performer, couldn’t be much more pleased with Pringle.

“The only thing I do as a coach is point Mike Pringle in the right direction,” said Preston Dennard, who coaches the running backs.

Said Coach Gene Murphy: “He’s short and runs close to the ground. You gotta get up under his pads to stop him. That’s tough.”

Pringle is neither particularly big nor fancy of foot, but he is fast--he has run the 40 in 4.37 seconds--and durable. Fullerton has rushed 115 times, and Pringle has carried 88. He seems likely to average about 25 a game, a fairly high number for a college player.

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“Sometimes it looks like I’m getting banged up out there, but it’s nothing serious,” Pringle said. “It looks worse than it is.”

It looks pretty good to the Titans.


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