Vaught's Views: Little wants to play

August 11, 2004|LARRY VAUGHT

LEXINGTON - Rafael Little's physical skills have always been obvious. He has over a 40-inch vertical jump, can run the 40-yard dash as fast as 4.2 seconds and can squat 515 pounds.

What we also know now is that he has an obvious high pain threshold. How else could he have rushed for 1,501 yards and 33 touchdowns, had over 500 receiving yards and three touchdowns, and accounted for 44 total scores in 2003 at T.L. Hanna High School in Anderson, S.C., despite having torn cartilage in his knee that he didn't know about?

"The injury happened at the beginning of my senior year, but I was able to play all season," said Little. "I never knew I had the injury."

That revelation came when he came here this summer to start preparations for his first season as a Kentucky running back. During his routine physical, swelling in his knee was discovered. Tests in early June determined he had torn cartilage and would need surgery.


"I had tears in my eyes when they told me. I had never had surgery. I was scared. I didn't know what would happen, but it wasn't that bad," Little said during UK's Media Day Tuesday. "It's almost back to 100 percent now."

That would be good news for the Wildcats because they were counting on Little to bolster last year's anemic running attack. Kentucky coach Rich Brooks can praise returning backs Arliss Beach and Draak Davis all he wants, but Little was recruited to play this year. ranked him as the one of the nation's top 10 high school all-purpose backs last year. PrepStar magazine named him an All-American.

He had 90 career touchdowns, including an interception return in 2003. He had one stretch of seven straight games last year where he scored at least one touchdown on a punt return or kickoff return. He started at linebacker as a junior, too, before being used on defense only in special situations last year.

Little, who won't turn 18 until Sept. 23, has the uncanny ability to maintain his speed even when he cuts. "I've just always been able to keep my speed," Little said.

He's athletic enough to have scored 1,028 points during his high school basketball player, thanks in part to his extraordinary vertical jump.

Brooks is trying to contain his enthusiasm until Little is healed and able to compete. "When he's ready to go, I'm anxious to see if he'll add something to the mix (at running back)," Brooks said.

He hopes to be on practice field next week

The coach hopes Little will be ready in a couple of weeks. Little hopes to be back on the practice field next week.

"I want to play this year. I can't wait to get out there," Little said.

That opportunity is one reason he picked Kentucky over South Carolina, Clemson and others. He wanted a chance to play early and the Cats offered him that possibility.

"I'm a quick, fast runner. I don't mind contact," Little said. "I try to put numbers on the board like everybody else, but I also know I've got teammates here who can help me a lot.

"I felt good when the coaches told me I would get to play a little bit as a freshman. That's what I wanted to hear. Back home, some people were mad, some happy about my decision to come here. My family and coaches were happy. A lot of other people wanted me to go to Clemson or South Carolina. But I wanted to play early and Kentucky offered me that chance."

He's not likely to discourage easily. Remember the movie Radio about a mentally retarded youngster who was given the chance to join a high school football team as a manager and eventually became a folk hero? That movie was based on a true story at Little's high school.

"I knew all those people in the movie. It was a cool movie, and was all the truth," Little said. "We all know him. He stays on the same street I live on. He's still there. We all like him. He shows what you can do if you don't give up."

Perhaps Little can draw on that inspiration when he sees Commonwealth Stadium, or any other Southeastern Conference stadium, full of fans. Or when he's trying to master UK's playbook. "There are a lot more people, and a lot more plays, than high school," Little said. "I've got to get past that."

But there's no doubt he intends to do just that. He won't discuss a redshirt year. In his mind, he's going to be ready to play soon.

"I would rather play than waste a season redshirting," Little said. "I came here to play and help this team win this year. If I don't play, I can't help. I'll be ready. If I played all last year with the injury, there's no way I won't be able to play in a few more weeks. I can take the pain if that's what it takes to help us win."

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