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Kalani Simpson

Sidelines

By Kalani Simpson

Sunday, August 19, 2001


Bass has a special
burst of intuition

HE doesn't know what happens when he gets the ball. He has no idea how he got from there to here, he doesn't know where all those touchdowns (41 last year as a high school senior) came from or how he can stop when others go or how he can go when others stop, or any of that.

He doesn't know why there are days when it seems like his every move is just an inch or two ahead of everyone else.

It's a mystery. A magical, wonderful miracle of a mystery.

"Every time I watch film, I think to myself, 'How the hell did that happen?' " Mike Bass says.

Every great runner has a story like this. It's a tale of blind instinct and all-seeing vision and inspiration on the fly. They all have the same unanswered questions. How did he know when to cut? When did he see that hole developing? How can he zig when others zag? Where does that sense of timing come from?

A great runner answers opportunity before it knocks, makes moves that come straight from heaven. He has no idea how. He just does. That's what makes him a great runner.

It's been a long, long time since the University of Hawaii had one of those.

THE RUN-AND-SHOOT needs a breakaway threat. It's built for it. The offense, spreading the defense razor thin, is perfect for someone who can sneak through the line, make a move on the last man standing, and open up the jets.

Who's left to stop him? Who? They're all out on the flanks, staring at Ashley Lelie and Craig Stutzmann and Channon Harris and the nine other receivers June Jones has in the pattern. All that's left are a middle linebacker, or maybe a safety, both in the open field and helpless. With the line that UH has, a runner with some shake could become a serious threat. This is the missing piece, and the man who completes the package will be a star.


KEN SAKAMOTO / KSAKAMOTO@STARBULLETIN.COM
Mike Bass, right, could be the open-field threat the
Warriors need. Coach June Jones, left, calls him the "real deal."



The early hype says Bass could be that man.

Jones calls him "the real deal," calls him "one of the best players on the West Coast." The whispers are that Bass reminds some of Barry Sanders. And Jones isn't whispering. Jones wants to see Bass on the field, and so the true freshman is a good bet to emerge from the pack auditioning to fill the open UH running back spot. The guy who turned 18 just a day before practice opened could play himself into a big role very quickly.

It could happen. It really could. In a complicated offense, running back is the least complicated spot. Quarterbacks, receivers and linemen have reads, schemes, adjustments. It takes time, experience, repetition to break them in. But young Bass? A running back? You just give him the ball. He has things to learn, true, more than we realize, but he doesn't need any lessons in what to do with that pigskin. After all, he already knows how to run. Or rather, he doesn't know.

"I don't think that can be taught," he says. "It's more of an instinct thing, more of a vision thing."

PERHAPS THE GREATEST indicator of Bass' talent is the fact that he's 5-foot-6, 160, and shrinking with every sweat-soaked preseason workout. Yet he's perhaps UH's most prized recruit. He could see immediate action, Jones says. There's no talk of switching him to receiver. No talk of waiting for him to grow. They want Bass to carry the ball.

Watch him. Go to practice. Pick him out. It's not that hard at all. You'll say, "That's him." He's got that burst, he's got those moves, he's got "it," he's got something.

"I'm just trying not to get hit," he says. "I'm the smallest person on the field, and I'm just trying not to get hit."

But here's the thing. He has to hit. He has to hit hard and has to hit often. Blocking. With no tight ends and no fullbacks, the running back is crucial in the run-and-shoot pass protection scheme.

"Very important," UH offensive line coach Mike Cavanaugh says. "Very, very important."

As good as Cav's guys are, as many as he sends on to the NFL, as many Outland awards that Vince Manuwai is supposed to win, there are only five of them, and they're always outnumbered on the blitz. The running back has to be there, as the last line of defense, to step up, hard, and take one for the team. He doesn't just need to meet the defender, but stop him, and take a bullet for Timmy Chang.

This is not Bass' thing. He tries. He's working on it. But he needs to keep his feet, he needs to work on his balance, to stick with the man, not get tossed aside. There are some big guys out there, he says.

"In the game, I'll be able to cut them," he says. "One thing I can do is cut," and take bigger defenders out at the knees.

"We're not going to ask him to go and block a 260-pound defensive end kind of deal," UH running backs coach Wes Suan says.

"And if he has to, he's more than willing, he's proven himself of that."

BUT THOSE ARE mere details. They'll work it out, find him a role, keep the 260-pound defensive ends to a minimum. "We just gotta make sure we put him in situations where he succeeds," Suan says.

You keep waiting for someone to plead for patience, to play down Bass' abilities, to say that he's only a freshman. But no one does.

This is the guy who has the tools to make it all come together.

"He's pretty good in the open field," Suan says. "He's got good change of direction. He can feel."

He can feel. That's just it. It just comes to him, in these touchdown-making trances. "I'm just lucky," he says. "I was blessed with it."

They want to keep it simple at first, it might start slowly at first. But Hawaii will give Bass the ball, it will give him a chance. After all, he knows how to run. And guys who know how to run are rare and special.

But ask him, and just like all the greats, he doesn't know at all. It's the same old story, all the same unanswered questions.

"When I get the ball, for some reason I see holes," says Bass. "I'm not really sure how."

If Mike Bass is a great runner, we'll find out in time -- perhaps in a hurry. Until then, he's giving all the right answers.



Kalani Simpson's column runs Sundays, Tuesdays and Fridays.
He can be reached at ksimpson@starbulletin.com



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