BEFORE PENN STATE'S season opener against Akron, someone asked coach Joe Paterno if the success of LSU's tiny speedball, Trindon Holliday, had provided incentive for the Nittany Lions to sign a similarly downsized burner, Devon Smith.
"Who?" Paterno said when pressed about Holliday. "Never heard of him."
Just a guess, but it's likely Paterno now is keenly aware of Holliday, what with his 10-2, 11th-ranked team getting closer to its Jan. 1 Capital One Bowl date Friday with Holliday's 9-3, 13th-ranked Tigers in Orlando. And if JoePa still isn't quite up to speed, if you'll pardon the expression, Penn State defensive coordinator Tom Bradley certainly knows who the 5-5, 161-pound Holliday is. Every time Holliday trots onto the field - which could be quite a bit, given LSU's raft of injuries at tailback - Bradley will make sure the Lions' defenders are aware of it, too.
"Of course we're going to be keeping tabs on where he is," Bradley said of Holliday, an eight-time All-America in track who is the reigning NCAA champion in the 100 meters after a clocking of 10.0 seconds at the 2009 NCAA outdoor meet. "He's only the fastest guy to ever play college football."
Holliday, of course, isn't the only short, light guy to make an imprint on the college game. Eddie "The Littlest General" LeBaron was a star quarterback at Pacific in the 1940s at 5-7 before going on to have a successful NFL career. Boston College's 5-10 Doug Flutie surprised all the big-time schools that didn't attempt to recruit him by winning the 1984 Heisman Trophy. Baylor's 5-7 Gerald "Ice Cube" McNeil was an exciting punt and kickoff returner in the 1980s who went on to the pros, and 5-6, 181-pound Kansas State alum Darren Sproles is an important part of the San Diego Chargers' big-play offense.
"I liken myself to Sproles," said Holliday, a senior whose special-teams statistics this season (18 punt returns for 319 yards, one touchdown, 20 kickoff returns for 474 yards) would be more impressive if opponents weren't so hesitant to kick to him. "There was some skepticism about him when he went to the NFL because of his size, but he can play. He just needed a team to show a little faith in him. I'm pretty sure somebody will give me a chance, too. That's all I ask."
Whether we'll see Holliday in the NFL is a question for another day. But it's a good bet his explosive kick returns and danger quotient as a part-time running back and pass receiver have caused recruiters to rethink the importance of more widely accepted size parameters for skill-position players.
Take Devon Smith, for instance. He was 5-7 and 140 pounds soaking wet when Penn State, the only Football Bowl Subdivision team to actively recruit him, offered a grant-in-aid in February.
"He is so small," Rivals.com recruiting analyst Mike Farrell said of Smith, who has since "bulked up" to 153 pounds while seeing sporadic duty as a true freshman at wide receiver and as a ballcarrier on gimmick plays. "But there is nobody faster. He's a 10.1 100-meter kid. In the 40-yard dash, he runs a legitimate 4.25."
Well, there is somebody faster than Smith, who is the swiftest player ever at Penn State. That would be Holliday, whom LSU bills as the fastest player to play college football since Rutgers and Princeton squared off in the first game in 1869.
Like Smith, Holliday wasn't on many schools' recruiting radar in high school. But that changed once LSU's coaches put a stopwatch on him.
"I went to one of [former LSU coach Nick] Saban's camps with a teammate they were interested in," Holliday recalled. "I was asked to run a 40-yard dash. Got asked again. When I got back home, I had an offer from LSU to play football."
That's what happens when you turn in back-to-back times of 4.28 and 4.27 from a standing start while wearing sneakers.
Holliday's achievements on the track were such that he earned the right to represent the United States in the 100 meters and as a member of the 400-meter relay pool at the IAAF World Championships in 2007, but he gave up his spot on Team USA to prepare for football season.
"People ask me if I'm a sprinter who happens to play football, or a football player who sometimes runs track," Holliday said. "I've always thought of myself as a football player first."
Injuries to LSU's more conventionally sized running backs could mean more opportunities for Holliday and true freshman Russell Shepard, a 6-1, 188-pounder who is the team's second-fastest player. Charles Scott, a 235-pound battering ram, won't play in the Capital One Bowl because of a shoulder injury, and second- and third-teamers Keiland Williams (ankle) and Richard Murphy (knee) are also out. The likely starter at tailback is 6-foot, 226-pound freshman Stevan Ridley, who has rushed for 167 yards on 33 carries (5.1-yard average) and two touchdowns.
But Holliday (23 carries, 116 yards, one TD) and Shepard (45, 277, two TDs) will get their touches, and there may be times both are on the field together.
"He's already a part of LSU's offense," Bradley said of Holliday. "We're not sure if he'll be a bigger part of it now, but the thing with a bowl game is that teams have more time to add wrinkles. We're not sure what we're going to see from them, but we have to prepare for a lot of different looks.
"Whenever a team can line up with a 6-5 wide receiver [Terrence Tolliver], a 6-3 wide receiver [Brandon LaFell] and a guy that runs a 10-flat 100 meters, that's pretty doggone good." *