This USC Project Cannot Be Rushed : Trojans Slowly Mold Shawn Walters Into Their Fullback for the Future

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The John Robinson-Charles White make-over of Shawn Walters seemed complete this week, 13 months after the project began.

Walters carried 31 times--more than in any game in his life--and gained 207 yards Saturday in USC's 37-27 victory over Baylor.

"My back was really sore--I got hit in the back a couple of times," he said Sunday morning, "but my legs felt fine.

"I didn't feel banged up or anything. It was fun. I never got tired. It was a challenge, and I had to step up to it or fall by the wayside. I owed it to my teammates."

When Robinson reported to the first training camp of his second term as USC's coach in August of 1993, he inspected the tailback candidates and immediately saw that no one had taught Walters, then a 225-pound freshman, that the shortest distance between two points is a straight line.

In a run drill--tailbacks running against two linebackers--Walters tried to run around them, toward the sideline.

"Hey, listen!" Robinson shouted. "If you want to run like that, then you diet down to about 175 pounds and get real fast. But if you want to play tailback here, you run over these guys, not around them!"

It took maybe half a season for Walters to fully grasp the concept, but he eventually did, and he has been Robinson's starting tailback ever since.

Against Baylor on Saturday, he looked exactly like the power back that Robinson and White, his position coach, had hoped to develop.

Baylor's strong safety, 210-pound Adrian Robinson, can attest to that.

On Walters' second of three touchdown runs, a 39-yard burst through left tackle, Robinson--described in the Baylor press book as "an incredible athlete"--drew a bead on Walters.

Walters saw him coming and, instead of trying to elude Robinson, lowered his right shoulder. Robinson did the same.

Walters kept his feet under him, did a 360-degree spin and kept on running. When he reached the end zone, Robinson was still down, and needed assistance to leave the field.

Robinson took on Walters again later in the game.

In the third quarter, from the Trojan nine, Walters ran 16 yards up the middle. Robinson presented himself again, this time wrapping Walters in a charging, waist-high tackle.

Walters not only broke the tackle without breaking stride, he knocked Robinson into the air.

The transformation of Walters is Robinson's most visible coaching success since his return.

When the '93 season began, Walters was one of six tailbacks and was third on the depth chart. Dwight McFadden started the season, promptly suffered a broken ankle, and was sidelined for the season.

Scott Fields took over, had some early season fumble problems and today is playing strong safety. David Dotson and LaVale Woods were in the mix too.

Only the new, remodeled Walters remains.

Robinson compares him to pros Barry Foster and Jerome Bettis at a similar point in their development. Some, after Saturday, liken him to Earl Campbell.

Where does Walters go from here?

To fullback, maybe.

No one in Robinson's offense has a firm grip on the fullback slot yet, and with talented freshmen Delon Washington and Rodney Sermons and currently injured junior Leonard Green eagerly awaiting chances to play at tailback, Robinson concedes that Walters eventually will play fullback, although probably not this year.

Washington is at least temporarily sidelined while USC investigates his eligibility. USC pulled him from the Baylor game last Friday, citing "questions regarding his eligibility." Tuesday, Robinson called it "an admissions matter."

But for now, Robinson and Walters will enjoy Walters' 207-yard game. Consider:

--Only one Trojan, Walters, had a 100-yard running game last season.

--USC's running game averaged 114.6 rushing yards in 1992 and 108.6 last season. The Trojans this season are averaging 148 yards.

--Walters had surpassed his previous one-game rushing high by halftime Saturday, when he had 127 yards.

He learned the game in Lawton, Okla., before moving to the Dallas-Ft. Worth area for his junior year, at Lamar High, in Arlington.

"Shawn was a physical runner when he needed to be for us," recalled his Lamar coach, Eddie Peach.

"But he was faster than most high school kids, and he'd outrun them when he could. I told him he'd have to be a more physical runner in college, because he'd find he wasn't as fast as he thought he was.

"He came to us as a linebacker and we had a very good senior tailback when he got here. But when our tailback dislocated his elbow, Shawn got his chance."

He averaged 6.7 yards per carry for a 12-1 team in 1991, and set school records with 4,285 yards and 59 touchdowns. He gained 293 yards in one game and had a stretch of five 200-yard games.

He spent 1992 as a freshman redshirt at USC, then joined the tailback sweepstakes last season, starting the last seven games and finishing with a 4.6-yard average. He gained 711 yards.

He says he's stronger and more fit than he was a year ago.

"I've gotten rid of a lot of the baby fat I had last year, but I have a long way to go," he said.

"My wind is much better than it was. Last year, two straight run plays and I'd get winded. Now, I just don't get tired."

Robinson wants Walters to add 15 pounds of muscle and play at about 240 pounds.

"A year ago, Shawn looked like a kid," Robinson said. "He still had an adolescent's body.

"Now, he's starting to mature. If he becomes an avid weight trainer, he can get to 240 and become a really good power back."

And what of playing fullback?

"It doesn't matter," Walters said. "Wherever Coach Robinson wants me to play, that's where I'll play."

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