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JOESAM2002 08-30-2003 09:40 AM

The Total Package.......( You need to read this)

Saints running back Deuce McAllister has the rare ability to run over and run away from defenders, and what's scary is he's only going to get better


By Jeff Duncan
Staff writer/The Times-Picayune

As Deuce McAllister's image appears on the high-definition flat screen in Dave Atkins' office, the Saints' running backs coach leans forward.

He puts it simply: "This is an all-time run here."

It's the fourth quarter of a key NFC South game against division rival Atlanta. Before the drive, Atkins recalls, McAllister demanded on the sideline that Saints' coaches put the ball in his hands.

They did.

On the screen, McAllister takes a handoff from Aaron Brooks at the Atlanta 16-yard line and explodes through the left side of the Falcons' defense. He blasts through an arm tackle by Pro Bowl linebacker Keith Brooking and temporarily loses his balance as he tumbles toward the secondary.

Flying into the picture at full speed, safety Keion Carpenter coils for the moment NFL safeties live for -- the kill shot. Every ounce of his muscular 210-pound frame is flexed to punish.

Earlier in the game, McAllister had blown past Carpenter and warped his pursuit angle during a breathtaking 61-yard touchdown run that was nullified by a penalty.

Instead of raising a gear, this time McAllister lowers his head. He buries his helmet into Carpenter's sternum, crumpling the unsuspecting defender like a piñata. Prone on the Superdome turf, Carpenter doesn't even see McAllister's spectacular ending, a stumbling, arm-extended dive into the end zone.

"He's a horse," Carpenter said later.

Atkins can only shake his head. He's watched the play dozens of times, but it still amazes the 25-year coach.

There are only a handful of NFL backs who can plow over a safety as strong as Carpenter. But McAllister can also run away from him, putting him in a group that is even more exclusive. And it's why McAllister, in just his third year in the NFL, is the biggest key to the Saints' success in 2003.

"This guy is special," Atkins said. "He can do whatever he wants to do on the football field. And I literally mean that. He's big, strong, physical, smart, tough. He's got it all going for him. I fully expect that in the next two or three years he will be the best back in the National Football League."

Saints knew something

A year ago McAllister was a question, not an answer.

Critics questioned why the Saints would trade a back of Ricky Williams' caliber. They wondered if McAllister could replace Williams as the franchise player, and whether he could withstand the physical demands of being an every-down back.

But after seeing what McAllister could do in practice and limited playing time his rookie season, the Saints were more than ready to deal the mercurial Williams to Miami.

McAllister responded with the second-best season by a Saints' running back. His 1,388 rushing yards led all NFC backs and trailed only George Rogers in the Saints' record book for a single season. His 1,740 total yards ranked second in the NFC and ninth in the NFL.

The total undoubtedly would have been higher if McAllister had not injured his ankle in Game 10. He also lost more than 200 yards rushing because of holding calls against the Saints, including on touchdown runs of 78, 61 and 50 yards.

"One thing, I love a challenge," McAllister said. "For a guy to tell me that I'll never be able to play 16 games or I'll never lead the NFL in rushing, my goal is to go out there and prove them wrong.

"I had a legitimate shot to go over 2,000 (total yards) last season. If you don't lose those penalty yards and I'm healthy down the stretch I would have been right there with the top runners, 1,700, 1,800 (rushing yards) easy, and maybe even go over 2,000 if I'm 100 percent healthy."

Rogers set the Saints' rushing record of 1,674 yards in 1981. That year he also set the club record for total yards with 1,800. If McAllister can avoid injury, Saints' coaches believe it's only a matter of time before he shatters both of Rogers' marks.

McAllister believes he can rush for more than 2,000 yards in a season, a feat accomplished only four times in NFL history (Eric Dickerson, 2,105; Barry Sanders, 2,053; Terrell Davis, 2,008, and O.J. Simpson, 2,003.)

"There are guys in the Hall of Fame that aren't as gifted as Deuce is," Saints coach Jim Haslett said. "I see these running backs like Marcus Allen, Walter Payton, guys that are in the Hall of Fame. And I look at Deuce and I see a bigger body, plus he's faster. He can be that kind of player."

Last season McAllister became the sixth Saints' running back to earn an invitation to the Pro Bowl and the first since Dalton Hilliard went in 1989.

That wasn't the only by-product of his success.

McAllister's schedule was packed with postseason appointments -- autograph shows, commercial spots, TV appearances. ESPN asked him to be a player analyst during NFL draft weekend. The Best Damn Sports Show Period flew him to Los Angeles for a sit-down.

"If he just keeps on that level he is playing at, Deuce is about to be a national star," said Saints veteran Fred McAfee, who, as a fellow back and Mississippi native, is one of McAllister's closest friends on the team. "He was the man at Ole Miss and in high school, so he's handled stuff like this his whole life."

The laid-back McAllister, who was raised by blue-collar parents in the tiny hamlet of Ludlow, Miss., takes it all in stride. Coaches and teammates say his off-field maturity will prevent him from succumbing to the trappings of fame.

"Deuce can write his own ticket if he keeps it between his ears," Saints wide receiver Joe Horn said. "And I think he will. He's very mature. He knows what comes with stardom, and he's handling it."

To that end, McAllister made sure to clear plenty of what he calls "you time" during the offseason for his favorite hobby: travel. He visited Alaska and Las Vegas, as well as several other major U.S. cities, where he worked the shops for jewelry and clothes and added to his collection of African art.

"When I travel, that's when I really get away from everything," McAllister said. "I can spend the day shopping, looking at the sights, just relaxing and letting the day pass.

"I just happen to play football, and a lot of people just happen to see me at work. Other than that I like to think I'm a pretty normal guy."

Forgotten talent

There's nothing normal about McAllister on the football field.

When the Saints drafted McAllister in the first round of the 2001 draft they thought he eventually would be a great player. While he was somewhat forgotten after a senior season at Ole Miss filled with nagging injuries, McAllister was not an unknown quantity -- after his junior season, he was the No. 1-rated prospect among all rising college seniors, according to the National Scouting Combine.

So when he was still available with the 23rd pick, the Saints could not pass him up.

Yet even his new coaches didn't know McAllister would be this good this fast.

The draft class of 2001 eventually might be one of the great running back groups in NFL history. Six members already have rushed for more than 1,000 yards in a season. The class includes last year's NFC rushing champ (McAllister) and the AFC rushing runner-up (LaDainian Tomlinson of San Diego). It includes the 2001 NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year (Anthony Thomas) and two other players who played in the 2002 Pro Bowl (Michael Bennett of Minnesota and Travis Henry of Buffalo.) Standout reserves Lamont Jordan, Dominic Rhodes, Kevan Barlow, Correll Buckhalter and Marcel Shipp are also in the group.

McAllister might be the class of the class. In some ways, he owns a little bit of each back in his repertoire.

Like Tomlinson, he has natural running ability. McAllister is a master at finding seams in the defense. He is adept at setting up the cutback run against defenders who overplay his first option. He also owns a variety of moves to make defenders miss.

"He's very disciplined," Atkins said. "He has great awareness and vision. He will find the seam where Ricky Williams would not find the seam."

Like Thomas, a Winnfield native affectionately known as the "A-Train," McAllister has the size and power of a linebacker. He stands a solid 6 feet 2 and carries 230 pounds comfortably.

"He's probably the biggest running back that I've ever played with, as far as height, size and speed ratio," said McAfee, who has played on teams with Jerome Bettis, Barry Foster, Craig Heyward, Hilliard and Bam Morris in his 12-year career.

Though not a fanatic of the weight room, McAllister has natural strength. His tremendous lower-body strength makes him one of the strongest players on the team in the squat.

"When we are in the weight room, it seems like whatever (strength and conditioning coach) Rock (Gullickson) puts on the bar, he does it," McAfee said. "It could be 320 pounds, and he does it -- with ease. He probably doesn't know how fast or strong he is."

McAllister's strength makes him particularly effective on power and stretch runs, the bread-and-butter of the Saints' offense. It's why he was able to embarrass some of the top defenders in the league, including Brooking and Tampa Bay Pro Bowl linebacker Derrick Brooks, by running through their arm-tackle attempts.

"Once he gets that 235-pound body going downhill he is a force to be reckoned with," Atkins said. "You don't see Deuce get knocked back."

What separates McAllister from power backs, including Tomlinson and Thomas, though, is his ability to separate from defenders with his breakaway speed.

Like Bennett, he's one of the fastest backs in the NFL. Only Bennett, who clocked a time of 4.35 seconds in the 40-yard dash, ran faster than McAllister's 4.42 seconds before the 2001 draft.

"You don't see guys big and fast anymore," Atkins said. "This guy has home-run speed. He kind of runs like Eric Dickerson, a strider. He has a great stride, finds a seam and can take it the distance, really, on any play."

'Scary how good he can be'

Two days before the start of training camp, Haslett was asked what his biggest concern was entering the season. The options were many -- a defense with six new starters, a quarterback with a surgically repaired shoulder, a team that had suffered two consecutive December nose-dives?

Haslett didn't hesitate: "If Deuce gets hurt, we're screwed."

McAllister's 1,740 total yards accounted for more than a third of the Saints' offense last season. When he rushed for 99 or more yards in a game, the Saints were 7-2. And while fans focused on whether Brooks' shoulder injury kept the team from making the playoffs, McAllister's tender ankle was more devastating. Even though McAllister kept playing, he wore a protective boot that limited his mobility, and the Saints lost four of their final six games.

That's why Haslett challenged McAllister before the season to play healthy for 16 games, to strengthen his body and improve his conditioning.

"It's important for him and our football team that he takes care of his body," Haslett said. "It's important, one, for us to win a lot of games because we feed off him, and two, for his longevity.

"Running backs probably take more hits than anybody in the NFL. You've got to take care of yourself and stay in shape, keep your weight down, lift (weights) and eat right. He's a gifted athlete. He can play a long time."

Coaches have also challenged McAllister to improve his "off-the-ball" skills, like blocking and pass-route running.

McAllister was rarely asked to block at Ole Miss. In the West Coast offense employed by the Saints, the running back plays a critical role in pass protection. Opponents exploited McAllister's inexperience often last season.

In fact, it was McAllister's missed assignment that led to a drive-killing sack on a critical fourth-and-seven play in the Saints' 10-6 loss to Carolina in the frustrating season finale.

McAllister plans to avoid similar breakdowns this season. He strengthened his lower body in the weight room and diligently worked on his fundamentals and technique in practice. Coaches saw a dramatic improvement during pass-protection drills in training camp.

"This year, the knock on me is that I can't block or pick up the blitz," McAllister said. "Teams are going to blitz against me a lot during the first six or seven games to see if I'll pick it up. Once I show them that I can do it, they're going to have to find something else to try to attack."

Coaches also want to see McAllister improve as a receiver, because they rank his hands as one of his strongest assets. McAfee said he and Saints' director of player programs Ricky Porter have seen McAllister pluck so many passes off his shoestrings in practice that they now call them "Deuce catches."

McAllister caught 47 passes last season, but his routes were not as crisp as coaches would like. Atkins has challenged McAllister to catch more than 60 passes this season.

"I definitely know I can catch 60," McAllister said. "We just have too much talent for me to catch 100 balls in a season, but I think I can catch 75."

Such a season, combined with a healthy 16-game rushing total, would put McAllister in rare company. The Saints have never had a player gain more than 2,000 total yards in a season.

"He's not even halfway to the tip of the iceberg," Horn said. "Deuce will be the best back in the league for years to come. It's scary how good he can be."

McAllister knows the only thing that can stop him is himself. He has an appreciation for history and his potential place in it. It's important for him to rank among the best ever at his position. Team success is equally important.

"I've always said I'll dominate this game one day," McAllister said. "Obviously, I want to win a Super Bowl. I want to win MVP of a Super Bowl, MVP of the league. I want to win the NFL rushing title.

"L.T. (Tomlinson) was the first back drafted (in the Class of 2001). Hopefully in 10, 11 years, I'll be at the top of that list. They always say it's not where you start but where you finish."

With McAllister's talent, no one knows where that might be.

"This guy," Atkins said, pointing to yet another McAllister run on the video screen. "He doesn't know how good he can be. We don't know what his limitations are."

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