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Miss Rocket? Here’s Pickens : Football: Tennessee wide receiver’s breakaway ability and versatility have resulted in comparisons to the former Notre Dame star.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

There is another Rocket launching under way in college football, only this time it’s in the South, not South Bend.

Raghib (Rocket) Ismail of Notre Dame, the runner-up for the Heisman Trophy last year, was arguably the most exciting player in the country, whether he was returning kicks, catching passes or carrying the ball.

He has a counterpart at Tennessee. Carl Pickens excels as a wide receiver and as a kick returner. He even was a two-way player in 1989 when he was used as a free safety.

Pickens made an auspicious season debut last Thursday in a 28-11 victory over Louisville. On Tennessee’s first series, he teamed with quarterback Andy Kelly on a 75-yard touchdown pass play and later returned a punt 67 yards for a touchdown.

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And he was only filling in as a punt return specialist because Dale Carter, who led the nation in that specialty last season, was suffering from leg cramps.

“He’s an Ismail-type athlete,” said David Gentry, Pickens’ high school coach at Murphy, N.C. “You just have to play him all over the field, and he wants the football.”

UCLA will play Tennessee Saturday at Knoxville, Tenn., and the Bruins will be looking warily at Pickens, wherever he may be.

A 6-foot-3, 200-pound junior, Pickens is aware that he will probably attract double coverage as a receiver. “I saw some of that against Louisville last week,” he said. "(Double coverage) just gives someone else a chance to get the ball, or the running game may pick up.”

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Pickens was the leading receiver in the Southeastern Conference last year with 53 catches for 917 yards and six touchdowns. He caught a school-record 13 passes in a 34-29 loss to Notre Dame. He also averaged 23.5 yards on six kickoff returns. As a redshirt freshman in 1989, he returned a kickoff 93 yards for a touchdown against Louisiana State.

“Pickens is an exceptional athlete, probably as fine an all-around athlete as I’ve ever had the pleasure to coach,” Tennessee Coach Johnny Majors said. “He’s versatile, having played both ways for us.

“Now there’s a heavy responsibility on him in the receiving corps to come through for us, since four of our receivers were drafted by the NFL, one in the first round--Alvin Harper (by the Dallas Cowboys).

“Carl has height, very good speed and good jumping ability. He can catch low, high, inside, outside, and blocks very well.”

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Anything else?

Well, in high school, he cleared 7 feet 1 inch in the high jump, averaged 25 points a game on the basketball team and was the key player on two state 2-A championship football teams.

“In football, he had all the state records for all classes,” said Gentry, referring to Pickens’ 41 touchdown catches and 3,616 receiving yards.

With such credentials, college recruiters descended on Murphy, a small city in the eastern portion of North Carolina.

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“Penn State came down, Florida and Florida State were interested, and Alabama recruited him heavily,” Gentry said. “We just had to cut a lot of schools off.” Pickens mentioned a few more schools that were more than mildly interested in him, including USC.

But Pickens chose Tennessee because Knoxville was close to home, less than 100 miles. There was also another reason. “Tennessee has a reputation for very good receivers, and I wanted to challenge myself to see if I could play here,” he said.

Pickens doesn’t have Ismail’s speed, but Gentry recalled that Pickens was once timed in under 4.5 seconds at 40 yards while running in high-top basketball shoes.

Pickens had a conflict with the Tennessee coaching staff in 1988. The Volunteers lost their first six games, and Pickens, a freshman, was urged to play rather than wait out the rest of the season.

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He declined.

“I couldn’t see my coming out making any difference in our record,” Pickens said. “There was a lot of pressure to make my decision fast.”

So he saved his eligibility, and Tennessee won its last five games without him.

It is doubtful, though, considering his considerable talent, that he will return to Tennessee for his senior season. Asked if plans to make himself available for the NFL draft next spring, Pickens said he would make that decision at the end of the season.

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He said he would rather be a wide receiver in the NFL but added: “If a team needed me as a defensive back, I would have no problem with that.”

In his five games at free safety in 1989, he had four interceptions and was named the most valuable defensive player in the Cotton Bowl, where Tennessee beat Arkansas, 31-27.

Pickens is not hopeful of winning the Heisman Trophy this year because the award usually goes to a quarterback or running back.

However, if there were an award for the country’s most versatile player, Pickens would be the leading candidate.

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