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September 7, 2006

Confident Rice has Rutgers rolling

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Ray Rice juked and jived his way to a 201-yard rushing performance last weekend that sparked Rutgers to a 21-16 victory at North Carolina.

But this sophomore sensation was showing off his dance moves long before then.

New Rochelle (N.Y.) High School coach Lou DiRienzo remembers holding a talent show during his team's summer camp before Rice began ninth grade. These types of exhibitions often feature kids awkwardly shuffling their feet or mumbling some song lyrics.

Rice was an exception.

"He comes out with a diaper on and goofy hat and does this dance called, 'The Wally,' '' DiRienzo said. "That's the type of confidence that kid exuded, doing this homemade dance in front of everybody."

That confidence continues to pay dividends.

Rice began his college career last year by putting together Rutgers' first 1,000-yard rushing season since 1994. He finished the year with 1,120 yards, the most ever by a Rutgers true freshman.

And his performance last week certainly didn't offer any hints of a sophomore jinx.

"Ray doesn't lack for confidence," Rutgers coach Greg Schiano said. "I don't say that in any kind of boastful way. He believes in his abilities. He's a confident young man, a mature young man. He came into this season feeling good about himself."

Rice has enough maturity and confidence that he never felt insecure about entering a backfield that already included star fullback Brian Leonard, an All-America candidate being promoted as a Heisman contender.

Instead of worrying how he would split carries with his older and more established teammate, Rice adopted Leonard as a mentor. He credits Leonard for helping him make a rapid adjustment to the college game.

"He's my role model out there," Rice said. "To actually be playing with him is just the best. You've got a role model sitting right in front of you literally before you run a play. He just keeps motivating me. If I get tired, he'll say, 'Ray, let's go. I need you by my side.' ''

Rice almost didn't have Leonard as a teammate. Rice originally committed to Syracuse before reopening the recruiting process when former Orange coach Paul Pasqualoni got fired at the end of the 2004 season.

That decision helped change the complexion of the Big East Conference.

Ray Rice's 201-yard performance in Rutgers' season-opening victory over North Carolina continued a surge that began late in his freshman year. Here's a look at how Rice has fared in each of his last seven games:
Connecticut 27 217 8.0
Navy 21 80 3.8
South Florida 26 158 6.1
Louisville 11 37 3.4
Cincinnati 24 195 8.1
Arizona State 20 108 5.4
North Carolina 31 201 6.5
996 6.2
Rice's productive freshman season ended with Rutgers' first bowl appearance since 1978, while Syracuse finished 1-10 with one of the nation's worst offenses. Rutgers has stockpiled enough young talent that it could emerge as the most likely challenger to the West Virginia-Louisville stranglehold atop the conference standings.

If Rice continues his rapid rate of improvement, that day could come sooner than expected.

His three-touchdown effort last weekend definitely has caught the attention of Illinois coach Ron Zook, who must figure out a way to stop Rice this week.

"It's hard to get 200 yards on air," Zook said as he discussed Rice's performance against North Carolina. "The thing that probably stood out the most when I turned the tape on is you expect to see some long runs, breakaways and things like that. He'd get eight (yards) there, 10 there, four there. He'll cut back. He's very elusive. He's strong and has great balance.

"He's a guy I don't mean this in a bad way but he quietly got 200 yards. We'll have our hands full."

North Carolina coach John Bunting described Rice's strengths by checking off virtually all the essential traits of an outstanding running back.

He's quick.

He's explosive.

He's instinctive.

As he tried to come up with his own best quality as a running back, Rice mentioned one more adjective.

He's patient.

"I don't force the issue," Rice said. "When I see it, I hit the gap."

Rice admits he had to learn that lesson last season while adapting to the speed of big-time college football. Once the message got through, he started seeing more gaps than you'd find in all the malls of America.

While the late-season surge of West Virginia freshman Steve Slaton garnered more attention, Rice delivered his own impressive finishing kick. Rice gained 795 yards on 129 carries in his final six games of the season.

"My confidence started growing midseason last year after Connecticut (a 217-yard effort that opened the six-game stretch)," Rice said. "Ever since then, I've just been playing with confidence and going out there knowing what I need to do to help the team."

He's even willing to work to the point of exhaustion.

Rice proved he's more durable than the typical 5-foot-9 back by running the ball 31 times last weekend. That represented a career high, though Rice also exceeded the 25-carry mark against Connecticut and South Florida last season.

"It reminded me of training camp," Rice aid. "It was hot. You know how you feel after a day of training camp, so hot and exhausted? I just wanted to hit a bed afterward."

That's one big difference between college and high school. After his high school games, Rice and his teammates wanted to hit a dance floor.

Actually, they would turn the football field into their own little nightclub. Rice possessed such confidence and magnetism that his dance steps from that freshman talent show developed into a popular postgame ritual.

"I'd just swing my arms all over the place," Rice said. "That's my whole high school dance the Wally bobble. My whole high school, that's how we'd celebrate."

Rice hasn't introduced the dance to his college teammates yet, though he wouldn't mind performing it again if he returns to high school during the Scarlet Knights' bye week.

Who knows?

By the time Rice ends his college career, he may have turned Rutgers Stadium into Wally World.

For more coverage of the Rutgers Scarlett Knights, check out ScarlettNation.com.com

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