He Might Be on Fast Track, but It Took Time : Football: Fresno State's Craver didn't play football at Compton High. Now he is rated among the best running backs in college.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Fresno State tailback Aaron Craver had no idea what to do when he graduated from Compton High in 1985.

Two years later, Craver still had no plans, but he had a better idea of where he was going: Nowhere. And fast.

Craver served as a volunteer youth coach at a local park but didn't have a paying job and didn't go to college. When he wasn't coaching, he was usually in Compton pool halls, hustling $5 games of billiards. "I made enough to get through the day every day," Craver said.

But by the spring of 1987, Craver realized he wasn't the next Minnesota Fats and knew he had better get on with his life.

At the urging of fellow coaches, Craver, who ran on the track team but didn't play football in high school, enrolled at El Camino College and tried out for the football team. Little did he suspect that the decision might put him on the fast track to the National Football League.

The 6-foot, 215-pound Craver rushed for 1,355 yards and 14 touchdowns in two seasons at El Camino and earned a scholarship to Fresno State, where he rushed for a school-record 1,313 yards in 1989 and was an All-Big West Conference selection.

The Sporting News rated Craver as the No. 1 college running back in the nation going into the 1990 season, and Craver is off to a solid start, having rushed for 443 yards and seven touchdowns to help the Bulldogs get off to a 4-0 start.

Cal State Fullerton Coach Gene Murphy, whose Titans play at Fresno State Saturday night, projects Craver as "a high-round NFL draft pick" next spring.

"I never thought this would happen," Craver said. "Every time I go to bed at night I say, 'Dang, I can't believe this is happening.' It's weird, but it shows you what a lot of hard work can do."

Of course, it helped that Craver also had an abundance of ability.

Tryouts at El Camino lasted five days, but after Craver ran the 40-yard dash and caught a few passes on the first day, Coach John Featherstone told him he had made the team.

Craver is speedy by tailback standards but has displayed the power of a fullback, often punishing those who tackle him. Although he's quick enough to run outside, he prefers to burst through holes in the line.

He also can catch the ball, as evidenced by his 25 receptions for 168 yards and a touchdown in 1989 and his nine catches for 78 yards this season.

"I tell pro scouts that, although they might not see it in our offense, he has the best hands of anyone I've had here since Henry Ellard," Fresno State Coach Jim Sweeney said. "He has amazing manual dexterity.

"He catches footballs in practice behind his back, between his legs; he can go long and catch. In fact, after I hang up (the phone), I'm going to go talk to my offensive coordinator to find out why we don't throw to him more."

The Fresno State coaches also see room for improvement, areas where Craver's inexperience shows up. For instance, a play might be designed for the tailback to run to a specific gap, but Craver will go for another opening.

"He tries to ad-lib sometimes instead of being disciplined to stay with the play," Sweeney said. "But he also has great instincts and tremendous quickness for his size. Sometimes I think we over-coach him and limit his natural ability."

Craver's athletic potential was a resource that went virtually untapped at Compton High.

He was an accomplished Pop Warner League football player, but when he tried out for the team in his first year at Compton, Craver said the coaches wanted him to play receiver. He wanted to play running back or option quarterback.

"They said I wasn't fast enough, that I was too small, stuff like that," Craver said. "But what happened was they had another running back coming in who was in my grade; they didn't want to run the option, and they needed receivers.

"It wasn't that the coaches disliked me. They just didn't give me an opportunity to play the position I wanted to play. I had another sport I could do, so I said forget it and just ran track."

Craver was a league champion in the 300-meter intermediate hurdles as a senior but did not receive any track scholarship offers.

Because he skipped the sixth grade as part of a community project to advance brighter students through the system, Craver was only 16 when he graduated. But he was a C student through high school, and college was not his top priority.

So after high school, he lived at home, which meant he didn't need a full-time job to survive. And he didn't have much desire to continue school.

Then some of his friends from junior high school started getting athletic scholarships, and that depressed Craver.

"I was down in the dumps then because I wished I had played high school football," Craver said. "Coaching took my mind off my problems. I had thought about going to school, but I didn't think I'd be that good of a player. Then I got the guts to try it."

Craver went to El Camino hoping to have a little fun, capture some of the glory he missed out on in high school.

Then all this happened.

"I'm definitely surprised at how things turned out," Craver said. "I never thought I'd get a scholarship or anything like that."

Craver has a scholarship and a lot more this season--the expectations that accompany the label of "nation's best running back." Craver said it was an honor, but with it came a burden.

"When they say you're the best, it makes you think you have to be better than you are," Craver said. "If I run for eight yards, I think, I'm supposed to be the best, I should have got 20 on that run. It bothers you sometimes. I may put too much pressure on myself."

Sweeney said Craver shouldn't be so hard on himself because he's still learning the position.

"Every time he touches the football, it's a learning experience," Sweeney said.

It's an experience that changed his life.

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