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Saturday, November 13, 1999
Updated: November 14, 9:50 PM ET
A linebacker in defensive back's clothing

Associated Press

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. -- New Mexico senior Brian Urlacher is an intimidating and intriguing throwback to a fossilized era of football. A cross between Chuck Bednarik and Deion Sanders.

Like Bednarik, the Philadelphia Eagles' Hall of Fame center and linebacker in the '50s, and Sanders, the Dallas Cowboys' defensive back and wide receiver, Urlacher is proving there is still a pulse in two-platoon football.

Most of the time, the 6-foot-4, 245-pound Urlacher is a roving, roughneck free safety who a year ago led the nation in tackles with 178. But on a team with minimal talent and struggling for a break-even season, Urlacher is much more.

He's the Lobos' go-to wide receiver in goal line situations, with his four catches this season all touchdowns. He's the team's leading punt returner, averaging nearly 11 yards per return and is second in scoring (30 points), behind only field goal kicker David McKinney.

And if it were up to Urlacher and New Mexico's assistant coaches, he'd never leave the field.

"He wants to return kickoffs," head coach Rocky Long said. "And some of the coaches want him to play tailback. They come up with plays for him every week. `Rocky, do you think we could use him in this situation?"'

Urlacher has become so valuable to the Lobos and so visible to pro scouts, that his draft day stock is soaring. Pro football analyst Mel Kiper Jr. this week listed Urlacher as the seventh best prospect overall and the second best linebacker behind Penn State's LaVar Arrington.

The only first round draft pick New Mexico has ever had was linebacker Robin Cole in 1976, who went to the Pittsburgh Steelers as the 21st pick.

Urlacher, who leads the Mountain West Conference with 107 tackles this season, also is a semifinalist for the Jim Thorpe Award, which goes to the nation's top defensive back and a nominee for the Bronko Nagurski Award, which recognizes the best defensive player.

NFL scouts have spent a lot of time in Albuquerque this fall.

"Usually during a season, you'll get 25 or 30 scouts come by," Long said. "We're on our second wave."

Don Deisch, director of college scouting for the Seattle Seahawks, said he had no doubt Urlacher would be playing in the NFL next year.

Tampa Bay scout Tim Ruskell said Urlacher has lived up to his reputation as a player with the speed of a defensive back and hitting power of a linebacker.

"I was expecting to see a guy who makes a lot of plays and he does," Ruskell said. "He's on the field almost the whole time. He's unique with a great effort level and great instincts."

While Urlacher looks like an NFL linebacker, Ruskell said he could end up in the secondary. "It will depend on the team that takes him," he said. "He's got abilities to play safety. It all depends on your schemes."

Urlacher was a backup linebacker his first two years at New Mexico under former coach Dennis Franchione. When Long came in, he moved Urlacher to safety, with the freedom to line up at virtually any position on defense.

That defensive scheme has contributed greatly to the number of tackles Urlacher has made the last two years. He had 20 tackles at Utah last season and 20 _ 14 unassisted _ at San Diego State this year. Against San Diego State, Urlacher also returned a fumble 71 yards that was the difference in the Lobos' 24-21 win.

In a season-opening loss to Texas-El Paso, Urlacher recovered a fumble, forced another and caught a 20-yard for a touchdown. Against New Mexico State, he had 11 tackles and two pass catches for TDs.

"I just love being on the field," Urlacher said. "On offense, I'm always in a good situation. I score pretty much every time."

Urlacher's size and strength make it difficult for opponents to cover or tackle him. As a pass receiver, Urlacher is taller and stronger than most defensive backs. And whether returning punts or as a member of the Lobos' punt coverage team, Urlacher wins most one-on-one collisions.

Opponents "get down there and see how big he is and how fast he is and they're all diving down at his ankles," Long said of Urlacher's punt returns. "If they hit him anywhere else, most of the time, it doesn't knock him down and most of the time it hurts them more than it does Brian."

As much as he enjoys offense, Urlacher admits his passion is defense.

"I try not to gloat, but when you get a good hit, it just feels so good," he said. "You hear the crowd go OOH."

That wasn't the case during Urlacher's freshman and sophomore years at Lovington High School in southeastern New Mexico. Back then, he was a 5-foot-9, 130-pound wide receiver with speed and nothing else.

"He was just an average freshman," Lovington assistant coach Jaime Quinones said. "Nothing to indicate what the future would be like."

Through football, Urlacher and Quinones developed a friendship that remains strong. It was Quinones who got Urlacher started on a weight-lifting program in junior high and made sure he was in the weight room every morning his junior and senior years.

Urlacher's growth spurt started the summer after his junior year. By his senior year, he had grown to 6-4 and weighed 210. Lovington went undefeated that year and in the state Class AAA championship game, Urlacher caught two touchdown passes, had two interceptions, and forced two fumbles.

Still, New Mexico was the only Division I school to offer him a scholarship.

"If I hadn't gotten an offer, I'd probably gone to a junior college or started working somewhere," Urlacher said. "I didn't think I was going to need college unless I was going to play football again."

After last season, he considered leaving UNM early to enter the NFL draft. Long and Quinones advised him to return for his senior year and work on becoming a first or second round pick. If projections hold, that decision could translate into a multimillion dollar contract.

For Urlacher, it's a little overwhelming. "Right now, I think a hundred dollars is a lot of money," he said.