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Heisman hopes or hype?

Zereoue must make most of television exposure

by Chris Errington

SPORTS WRITERMORGANTOWN -- To win the Heisman Trophy, West Virginia's Amos Zereoue will have to overcome an identity crisis -- from the nation.

Known throughout West Virginia and the East as one of college football's best running backs, it's Zereoue's lack of notoriety throughout the rest of the country that could doom his Heisman chances.

Some sports writers say they know just how exceptional a player Zereoue is, while others say they know as much about him as they do Middle Eastern rug weaving.

But there's still hope of reaching these naysayers -- national television.

Despite a 34-17 season-opening loss to No. 1 Ohio State on CBS Sept. 5 in which he gained a mere 77 yards and said thoughts of the Heisman are now "very far away," Zereoue will be seen again. The Mountaineers still have a host of nationally televised games to play: Against Maryland, Miami, Virginia Tech, Syracuse and Pittsburgh.

Ken Hambleton, University of Nebraska football beat writer for the Star in Lincoln, Neb., said this extra coverage should help.

"He blew his first chance, but that's just one," Hambleton said. "He's got to take advantage of the ones he has left. That's when he can win some votes."

One hindrance Zereoue has no control over is the Mountaineers' affiliation with the Big East Conference and its continued plunge down the conference ladder. Still, "most writers should overlook that," said Jim Cnockaert, University of Michigan football beat writer for the Ann Arbor News.

Cnockaert said he'd choose Syracuse quarterback Donovan McNabb for the Heisman, based on his performance against Michigan last Saturday, if the voting were held today. But "if (Zereoue) can have a big game against (Syracuse), he could steal it from McNabb," Cnockaert said. "He'll need games like that one to make himself known."

Especially in the south and far west.

Jim Gintonio, a sports writer for The Arizona Republic, said not only is Zereoue not considered college football's best player in talk around Phoenix, he's not even considered the best running back. Gintonio referred to Arizona State head coach Bruce Snyder giving that honor to the Sun Devils' J.R. Redmond.

"I'd say most people who follow college football know more about (University of Texas running back) Ricky Williams than Amos Zereoue," Gintonio said. "I know I do."

While David Wasson, a sports writer at the Gainesville (Fla.) Sun, said Zereoue can forget about getting Heisman votes from the south, Mark Scott of the Manhattan (Kan.) Mercury said the WVU back isn't alone in his plight.

Scott compared Zereoue to Kansas State quarterback Michael Bishop, saying both are "two great players playing in media-deficient areas.

"They both have outside shots at best to win it and that's a shame," Scott said.

One group in Zereoue's corner is WVU's sports communications department. Like other schools that want to get a prospective player's name out in the public, the department has set up a web site featuring Zereoue and other Mountaineer players.

But don't expect much more, and for good reason.

Hambleton, Nebraska's lone AP voter, said promotion stunts, like Washington State sending leaves to voters to enhance quarterback Ryan Leaf's chances last season, aren't worth the effort.

"I once got something from Kent that said ÔEugene Baker the touchdown maker or something,'" Hambleton said. "Those things are cute, but I don't think they influence voters. As long as we have their stats and newspaper stories, that's all we need."

WVU Sports Information Director Shelly Poe said other projects to influence voters are possible eventually, but agreed that the present belongs to Zereoue.

"Right now we're going to see how things play out and how well the players do," Poe said. "The most important thing is for the team to play well. If they don't have a good season, I don't think any WVU player will have a shot at postseason awards."