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All of a Sudden, Warren Is Sure Thing at Colorado : Blockbuster Bowl: Former Dorsey back began his freshman season No. 8 on the depth chart, ended it No. 1.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Lamont Warren left Los Angeles last summer certain of his ability as a running back but unsure of his decision to attend the University of Colorado.

The Dorsey High graduate signed a letter of intent with the co-defending national champions last February after having been won over by Colorado assistant coach Oliver Lucas. But when Lucas was unexpectedly fired two months later, Warren considered selecting a different school.

Having been heavily recruited by USC, Notre Dame and Washington, among others, Warren figured he had options.

“The reason I selected Colorado was because of Oliver Lucas,” said Warren, a two-time All-City player at Dorsey. “His firing was never explained to me, and I wasn’t as excited about going there without him. I was really thinking about changing my mind and going to USC.”

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But Warren scrapped those plans at the urging of Lucas, who called his prized recruit in late April and told him that Colorado was still the right choice. Lucas also told Warren that switching schools would cost him two years of eligibility because of the NCAA transfer rule.

Begrudgingly, Warren packed his bags for Boulder and began preseason camp as Colorado’s only freshman tailback.

Although he languished near the bottom of the depth chart for his first month in Boulder, Warren played against Minnesota in the third week of the regular season. Elevated to the team’s No. 2 tailback, he rushed for 61 yards in 10 carries and scored two touchdowns in a 58-0 victory. On his first play of the game, he caught a 26-yard pass from Darian Hagan.

Three weeks later, Warren replaced Kent Kahl as the starting tailback. In his debut as a starter at Oklahoma, Warren rushed for 81 yards in 25 carries and scored a touchdown in a 34-17 victory.

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He finished the regular season with 830 yards in 157 carries and seven touchdowns in nine games. He also had 11 receptions for 117 yards.

Warren rushed for more than 100 yards three times, including 168 against Iowa State. He set a school record for yards rushing by a freshman, earning second-team All-Big Eight honors. His average of 92 yards a game was tops in the conference and third best in the country among freshmen.

Reaching 1,000 yards might have been only a dream a few months ago, but it is a possibility Saturday night when Warren starts for 15th-ranked Colorado (8-2-1) against No. 8 Alabama (10-1) in the Blockbuster Bowl at Miami’s Joe Robbie Stadium. “Lamont is a bona fide candidate to do some significant things here,” Colorado Coach Bill McCartney said. “But I don’t like to brag too much about freshmen. I would say Lamont has been just as impressive as a freshman as any before him.”

That would include recent graduate Eric Bieniemy. Bieniemy, a 1987 graduate of La Puente Bishop Amat High also recruited by Lucas, finished as the Buffaloes’ rushing leader with 3,940 yards and 41 touchdowns. He was drafted in the second round by the San Diego Chargers.

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It is too early to tell whether Warren will maintain his fast start, but he appears to have the necessary skills.

At Dorsey, he was a two-year letterman in football and track.

In football, he led the Dons to the City 4-A Division championship in 1989 with a 26-15 victory over Carson. Warren finished his junior season with 1,271 yards and 21 touchdowns, earning All-City and player-of-the-year accolades.

He became the leader that season after teammate Kevin Copeland, a wide receiver, died of a heart attack during a game against San Pedro. Coach Paul Knox redirected the focus of the offense to emphasize the running game.

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That spring, Warren finished second at the state track meet in the 400-meter dash, in 47.5 seconds, and was a member of the school’s winning 1,600-meter relay team.

His senior season was less impressive statistically, but by then the recruiters were well aware of his ability. In football, he missed four games because of a sprained ankle. When he returned, he was moved to quarterback when the team’s starter was sidelined by an injury. Warren finished the season with only 593 rushing yards, but he led Dorsey to the 4-A semifinals. He was named to several All-American teams.

Warren suffered a hamstring injury during track season and had to miss the state meet.

He used the healing time to begin lifting weights with more regularity. Although his speed--he runs the 40-yard dash in 4.4 seconds--was never in doubt, some questioned his size and strength.

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At 6 feet 1 and 185 pounds, Warren is not small, but some consider him a bit light.

Warren had plenty of confidence when he got to Colorado, and would listen to no talk of redshirting.

“Coming out of high school, you think of redshirting as a bad and negative thing,” Warren said. “You think it’s for the guys who are not good enough to make the team.”

His initiation was no picnic. As the only freshman running back, he had to go through drills with more experienced players.

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And Lucas’ replacement as coach of the running backs, Ben Gregory, also was in his first year at Colorado. Gregory’s most recent coaching job had been at a high school in Denver. Warren said they both had a lot to learn.

As member of the scout team, Warren said he was eighth on the depth chart when the team opened at home against Wyoming. He remained low on the chart for the next week’s game against Baylor.

But after a 16-14 defeat against Baylor, McCartney indicated he was not happy with the running game. Kahl had 107 yards in 23 carries in two games. Backup Chuck Snowden had eight yards in six carries.

Two days after the Baylor game, Warren was told he would run with the varsity during practice.

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“I wasn’t nervous at all,” he said. “I had been hoping and wishing for this, and I was going to make the most of my opportunity. It was not easy learning all the new formations, but I was familiar with the personnel.”

He played as a reserve in victories over Minnesota and Missouri and in a loss to Stanford. He started against Oklahoma in the second conference game.

Warren showed his toughness in a 19-19 tie with Nebraska on Nov. 2 in Boulder. Before a national television audience, he dislocated his left shoulder but returned later and led Colorado rushers with 55 yards in 17 carries.

He dislocated the same shoulder again the next week against Oklahoma State and left the game having gained 48 yards in 13 carries.

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Despite pain, he started the final two games, against Kansas and Iowa State. Warren had a 74-yard touchdown run in the Iowa State game.

Although he will play Saturday night in a special shoulder harness, Warren is expected to carry the ball at least 20 times. He will have surgery after the game.

Warren now gets along with the new running back coach, and Colorado won a share of the conference championship for the third consecutive year. And Kahl, the former starter at running back, recently transferred to Iowa, saying his future at Colorado was not what he wanted it to be.

“It’s a blessing what happened to me here this season,” Warren said. “It was a matter of hanging in there and getting my shot. I thank the coaches for being fair and sticking with me.”

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